One of my favorite Christmas traditions, imported from Germany, starts when homegrown strawberries ripen.
Strawberries are the first ingredient of rumtopf, a rum punch made by adding layers of fruits and berries as they come ripe in spring, summer and fall. Sugar and good rum preserve and ferment the fruits until the festive days around Christmas and New Year’s, when the punch is a ready-made theme for a party.
If you make it once, your friends and family will be hooked and will ask for it each year.
I make my rumtopf in a handpainted lidded stoneware jar from Germany. Because the pots were popular with American service families stationed in Germany, they are fairly easy to find at garage sales, flea markets and on eBay. You can also use a large heavy crock (1.5 to 2 gallons is ideal) with plastic wrap and a plate over the top.
The appearance of the crock doesn’t matter, but the quality of the fruit is paramount. The whole point is to capture the essence of the taste and fragrance at peak ripeness. So when it comes to the ingredients, it pays to borrow Mercedes-Benz’s slogan: the best or nothing.
If you can’t find a particular fruit in perfect condition, don’t settle for mediocre, just skip it. A rumtopf can be delicious with as few as four ingredients or as many as 10. You can double the amount of any fruit, just be sure you double the amount of sugar as well.
The same principle applies to the rum. You are going to drink it and serve it to your guests as a once-a-year treat, so choose something dark and delicious. I use Barcardi Gold because it is easy to find, and the same rum should be used from start to finish. Last year I bought three bottles and had one left over. The amount of rum needed depends on the size of the crock and how much fruit you use.
The recipe is simple:
Prepare the fruits. Put one pound of fruit in a bowl, cover with one cup sugar and let rest one hour.
Put the sugared fruit in the crock and pour in enough rum so the liquid is a finger-width deep above the fruit. Put plastic wrap over the crock to prevent evaporation, then set the lid or a plate on top. Store the crock in a cool, dark place where it can sit until Christmas.
Here are the fruits that do well in a rumtopf, in approximate order of ripening:
: Grow your own, find a you-pick patch or a market farmer who has small fruits that are blood-red all the way through; lemon-sized supermarket strawberries with white insides do not absorb the rum well. Wash, cut off leaves and stems and slice in half.
: Hard to find but easy to grow; bushes provide fruit the year after they are planted. Wash, then scrape the tiny berries off the stems with a fork. Black currants are not used because they discolor the punch.
: Sort carefully and discard any that are bruised, but do not wash. Black raspberries, like blackberries and blueberries, are not used because they discolor the punch.
: Sweet cherries don’t grow in Missouri or Kansas, so I use local sour cherries — the sugar sweetens them just fine. Wash, de-stem and pit the cherries.
: I prefer damson (prune) plums, but any variety will do. Wash, peel, de-stone and cut into large chunks.
: Hard to find perfectly ripe ones, but if you do, wash, remove the stone and cut in halves or quarters.
: Because this is Missouri’s most glorious fruit crop, in my opinion, I always use two pounds of peaches that I get from one of several orchards within easy driving distance of Kansas City. Don’t even think about using hard supermarket peaches ripened in a brown paper bag. Wash well, pit, remove the skin only if you want to (I don’t) and cut into quarters or large chunks.
: I only use grapes if I can find good local ones. Wash, destem, cut the grapes in half and remove the seeds. Red, purple and green will work.
: Choose a soft European variety such as Bartlett, bosc or seckel rather than crunchy Asian varieties. Wash, peel and cut into large chunks.
: The crowning fruit, added a couple of weeks after the pears, is an imported pineapple, peeled, cored and cut into large chunks. The sniff test is the best way to tell if a pineapple is really ripe. It should smell fruity but not musty. Another way to test ripeness: see if one of the leaves pulls out easily.
After you add the pineapple, leave the pot alone — no peeking, no sniffing. Then, at Christmastime, break out a ladle, fancy punch cups (found cheaply by the dozen at antique stores) and small spoons, and invite friends and family over for a welcome taste of summer during the darkest days.