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Polish liqueurs offer taste of season’s ‘fleeting magic’

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Polish liqueurs offer taste of season’s ‘fleeting magic’

Saratoga Springs resident is a self-taught crafter of “nawleki”
Polish liqueurs offer taste of season’s ‘fleeting magic’
Anntonette Zembrzuski Alberti makes a fresh jezynowka in her Saratoga Springs home, November 8, 2019.
Photographer: Erica Miller/Gazette Photographer

Something magical is happening in the basement of Anntonette Zembrzuski Alberti’s home.

On a shelf at the bottom of the stairs, more than a dozen large glass jars of fruit-infused vodka and brandy glisten in jewel-colored splendor: Strawberry, sour cherry, wild black raspberry and blueberry spiked with vanilla bean and lavender. This is Alberti’s stash of homemade Polish liqueur that’s been in metamorphosis since June.

“They are really pretty. And a lot of that will be for Christmas,” the Saratoga Springs resident says.

And the best is yet to come. On a cold November night, she has plucked a jar of the cherry liqueur from her basement for a special Gazette how-to and tasting session.

Alberti is a self-taught crafter of “nawleki” (nah-lef-key), Polish liqueurs made by blending fruit, spices, flowers or herbs with spirits and aging them in a cool, dark place. The typical spirit is vodka, but brandy and other types of hard liquor can also be used, and nawleki is usually served straight up in small cordial glasses.

ERICA MILLER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER  
Anntonette Zembrzuski Alberti at her home kitchen with her homemade nalewki, a family polish tradition, made with sugar, vodka, spices, and fruit, in Saratoga Springs on Friday, November 8, 2019.ERICA MILLER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Anntonette Zembrzuski Alberti at her home kitchen with her homemade nalewki, a family polish tradition, made with sugar, vodka, spices, and fruit, in Saratoga Springs on Friday, November 8, 2019.

Last June, when Alberti did her first DIY demonstration at the annual PolishFest at Blessed Virgin Mary of Czestochowa Polish National Church in Latham, where she is a parishioner, folks couldn’t wait to try their tiny sample and take home the recipe.

“It was fun and really popular. We went through all four quarts,” she says.

In June 2020, at the next PolishFest, which will celebrate the church’s 100th anniversary, she plans to make krupnik, a honey liqueur.

For the Gazette demo, Alberti mixed up red raspberry and blackberry varieties, a quart of each, in about 15 minutes at her kitchen table.

More from Celebrate 2019: Food

“It’s really simple to make these things. And it’s nothing like what you can buy in the store,” she says.

For our demo, she packed a quart-size mason jar three-quarters full with raspberries, added about a half-cup of sugar and filled the jar with 80-proof Sobieski vodka.

“You don’t have to use the super-nice stuff, but you can if you want,” she says.

For the final step, Alberti mashed the mixture with the end of a wooden spoon, then screwed on the top. The next stop is a cool, dark basement or pantry.

“You can’t open it for three months,” she says. Some nawleki are ready after three weeks, but usually the longer the better.

Alberti repeated the process with the blackberries, but this time she added slivers of lemon and orange rind, a few black peppercorns, a few whole cloves and a stick of cinnamon.

“You can put in all kinds of things to spice it,” she says.

Experimenting is part of the fun, she says. “People should be encouraged to make it their own.”

The big moment of the night was opening the cherry brandy or wisniak, one of several kinds of nawleki, which she has aged for five months.

She poured it through a sieve into a bowl and set the cherries aside. Then the liquid was filtered again with cheesecloth (you can also use a coffee filter) into a serving bottle.

Alberti filled a pair of cobalt blue cordial glasses that once were her mother’s, and as we sipped, the cherry goodness warmed our hearts and bellies.

“Na zdrowie,” we say, tapping our glasses together and exchanging the Polish “to health” toast.

After experimenting for almost two years, Alberti is happy to share what she has learned.

In the summer, she makes nawleki with locally grown fruit, like sour cherries and black raspberries from Bowman Orchards in Rexford.

At Christmas or any time of year, nawleki are a wonderful gift, she says, packaged with some fancy cordial glasses from the thrift store.

“People make them for special occasions,” she says. You can make it when a baby is born and open it when the child turns 21. You can make it as a wedding gift, to be opened on an anniversary.

For Alberti, who grew up in Albany, drinking nawleki is both a cultural and family tradition.

“You’d typically have it after dinner, while you’re talking. My grandmother, who was from Poland, always had a taste for fruit brandies,” she says.

After researching recipes online, Alberti made her first batch with Italian plums from her brother’s central New York farm. “I didn’t expect much, but it was delicious,” she says. “We opened our first batch last Christmas.”

Alberti, who has relatives in Poland, is always learning about Polish customs and history, and has traveled to Poland three times since she was a teen. Her older daughter, Kat, lived in Warsaw for a while; her younger daughter, Grace, has also traveled there and co-wrote a play, “Uprising,” about the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis in World War II, that was performed at Saratoga Springs High School and in Buffalo. 

As for the nawleki, Alberti has made it her own personal Polish-American tradition. At Christmas and other times of year she serves it as a symbol of her love to dear friends and family members.

“Every time you serve it, it’s special. It has a fleeting magic,” she says.

Here are three of Anntonette Zembrzuski Gilberti’s recipes for different kinds of nawleki.

Wisniówka (cherry cordial)

Ingredients

2 pounds pitted cherries (tart cherries from the farm stand work best, but supermarket cherries are fine)
1 cup sugar*
2 quarts of rectified white spirits, such as Spirytus or Everclear**
2 quart-sized mason jars
funnel            
cheesecloth
2 quart-sized bottles for the final product
 
Steps

Combine all the ingredients into two quart-sized mason jars. Shake or swirl daily until sugar has dissolved.

Store the containers (in pantry or basement) for three months while the fruit infuses.

Pour through a sieve, reserving cherries. Save fruit for fruit cake or serve over ice cream.

Strain liquid again with a cheesecloth-lined funnel and rebottle into a quart-sized container. It’s ready to serve.

* I prefer to use a half-cup sugar
** I prefer to use regular proof Luksusowa vodka

Jezynowka (blackberry brandy)

Ingredients

2 six-ounce containers of blackberries (handpicked or farm stand are best)
1 cup of sugar
2 quarts of brandy
2 quart-sized mason jars
funnel
cheesecloth
2 quart-sized bottles for the final product

Steps

Add the blackberries and sugar to the mason jars.

Crush the berries into the sugar until they turn into a thick paste.

Pour the brandy over the mixture and stir the ingredients together.

Store in a cool, dark place for at least two weeks or for as long as three months. The longer you infuse it, the more flavorful it will be.

Pour through a sieve, reserving berries. Save fruit for fruit cake or serve over ice cream.

Strain with a cheesecloth-lined funnel into two quart-sized containers. Chill. It’s is ready to serve.

Likier z Mietowej Truskawki (strawberry mint cordial)

Ingredients

2 six-ounce containers of strawberries (handpicked or farm stand are best)
1 cup of sugar
2 quarts of vodka
2 mint sprigs
4 quart-sized mason jars
funnel                
cheesecloth
2 quart-sized bottles for the final product

Steps

Combine strawberries and vodka in two quart-sized mason jars.

Store in a dark, cool place for one week.

After one week, pour through a sieve, reserving strawberries, and transfer strawberry-infused vodka into a clean, sterilized glass container. Add a mint sprig to each vodka container and seal.

Add sugar to strawberries, mix well and transfer to a separate clean, sterilized glass container and seal.

Place both sets of containers in a dark, cool place for one month.

After one month, thoroughly combine strawberry mixture with vodka, discarding the mint sprigs.

Pour through a sieve, reserving berries. Save fruit for fruit cake or serve over ice cream

Strain through a cheesecloth-lined funnel and pour into clean, sterilized glass containers.

Seal and allow to age in a cool, dark place for several months.

Serve chilled or over ice with a mint sprig.

More from Celebrate 2019: Food

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