Each spring, as the first strawberries ripened in the garden, my German godmother would dust off one of her earthenware gallon-sized pots and start a new "rumtopf."
She would fill the spot about a quarter full with strawberries and cover them with sugar and rum. When the cherries turned from red to black, she would add several black cherry layers, then sour cherries, raspberries, peaches, apricots and blackberries, finally plums, white grapes and pears.
Often, when I stopped by to visit, she was busy adding to or stirring her concoction. But she would not allow even the slightest taste. The rumtopf had to ripen for its full aroma, she maintained. Besides, she still had plenty of fresh fruit for snacks.
But early in winter, before she gave any thought to Christmas baking, she pronounced her rumtopf to be ready. It was always a special occasion, when she served the first fruit.Whenever I dropped by thereafter, all through the winter, she placed a cut crystal bowl before me, heaped with rum fruit and a lavish topping of whipped cream. The fruit would also show up as an accompaniment for her New Year's goose and during pheasant season as stuffing for the birds.
As with many childhood memories, those rummy desserts were larger than the actual role they could have played, most families being rather stern about what was proper for a child. Generous doses of alcohol were not among those tenets.
Years later, when experimenting with rumtopf, I realized that the fond remembrances were part of the preparation.
This old-fashioned form of preserving fruit and keeping summer's bounty is so easy that anyone who likes a daiquiri should give rumtopf a try.
Besides serving the fruit plain or with whipped cream, it makes fancy toppings for vanilla pudding, ice cream and yogurt. It also provides an elegant filling for crepes and goes well with game birds.
Any gallon-sized or larger earthware or china container with a tight lid will do well. But make sure the glazing is intact. Porous spots will cause the alcohol to seep through, interrupting the preservation process and ruining the fruit. A glass vessel is not suitable, because the fruit should not be exposed to light.
Choose firm, ripe fruit for your rumtopf, cover them with half the amount of sugar, i.e. for 1 pound of strawberries use 1/2 pound of sugar. Let stand for about 1/2 hour to draw out the juices. Then place them in the pot, covering generously with 80 proof white rum. Close the lid tightly. To keep the container airtight, tie the lid down with plastic wrap and string, like an old-fashioned jelly glass. Set the pot aside in a cool, dark place until ready for the next fruit.
From time to time gently stir the fruit to make sure the sugar does not all settle to the bottom and all fruit are covered with rum.
When the pot is filled to the top, let it mature until about December for its fullest flavor. The fruit will keep for one year. Special hints:
Strawberries and raspberries have a tendency to bleach out and don't look as appetizing as the other fruit which retain their color better.
Cherries don't have to be pitted.
Peaches and apricots should be dipped into boiling water for 1 to 2 minutes, then peeled, and cut into slices.
Plums could be peeled and sliced like peaches.
Grapes should be pierced with a fine needle.
Melon and pineapple are not suitable. Here are some recipes to go along:
RUM FRUIT CREPES
(Makes 12 crepes)
Crepes: 2/3 cup flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 3 eggs 1 1/2 tablespoons butter, melted 1 1/2 cups milk
Sift flour and salt into bowl. Beat in the eggs with a wire whisk or fork until smooth. Add the melted butter and gradually stir in the milk. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Cook over low heat in a well buttered skillet, tipping pan to coat bottom with batter, until lightly browned. Turn and cook other side.
Filling 1 stick of butter 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar 12 tablespoons rum fruit 12 tablespoons rumtopf liquid 4 tablespoons rum
For each crepe place a tablespoon of rum fruit in center and roll. In heavy skillet or flambe pan heat the butter and stir in the powdered sugar. Place crepes in skillet, turning gently, to heat through.
In separate pan heat rumtopf liquid and rum and light up. Pour over crepes and serve hot.
ROAST PHEASANT WITH RUM FRUIT STUFFING
2 pheasants 8 slices of salt pork, thinly sliced Salt and pepper
Stuffing 3 cups stale brown bread cubes 1/2 pint of light cream 4 slices of bacon, chopped 1 medium onion, minced 3 tablespoons rum fruit, chopped 3 tablespoons rumtopf liquid
Wash pheasants and pat dry. Salt and pepper birds inside and out. Stir bread cubes into cream. Cook chopped bacon in saucepan. Add onion and saute slowly until onion is yellow. Stir into bread mixture. Add rum fruit and liquid. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place stuffing in cavity of pheasants. Tie drumsticks close to body. Wrap salt pork slices around birds. Roast for 40 to 50 minutes.
Use additional rum fruit to garnish serving platter.