While most people prefer sweet red Bing cherries or blush Rainiers in summer, it is my firm opinion that the real treasure is the sour cherry. Like much in life that is desirable, sour cherries are hard to come by, hard to keep and worth seeking out.
Unlike their more common sweet cousins, sour cherries, also known as tart cherries or pie cherries, are a little too pucker-inducing for most people to enjoy eating raw (though I personally adore them). Their season is brief — a few short weeks at the end of June and beginning of July — and the fruit itself is highly perishable. But if you can get your hands on them, they make excellent pies and preserves and pair well with anything from vanilla ice cream to roast duck.
My first encounter with sour cherries was many years ago in Italy and involved lots of liquor. (I know what you're thinking, but it wasn't like that.) My Abruzzese grandmother, Maria Tomassoni, used to set sour cherries out to dry in the sun and then preserve them in large glass jars in alcohol-laden syrup. Over the months, the syrup would thicken and the cherries and syrup both would darken to a deep, chocolaty red. We stirred the syrup into soda and ate the cherries by the spoonful. They were considered a remedy for "girl trouble," and my sister and I milked that for all we could. After my grandmother died in the 1970s, my mother and aunts began restricting our access to the remaining jars of cherries, and we didn't mind. We all knew how precious they were, and together we made the final jar last as long as we could.
Domenica Marchetti for NPR
Domenica Marchetti for NPR
It wasn't until the late 1980s that sour cherries entered my orbit again, when I headed to Detroit to take my first newspaper reporting job. By day I chased local news, but on my own time I chased local foods. I soon discovered that the northwestern part of the state along the shores of Lake Michigan (fondly known to Michiganders as Up North) is the sour cherry capital of the U.S.
The climate and soil conditions, combined with the lake effect, create ideal growing conditions for the fruit, which is what Catholic and Protestant missionaries discovered when they planted the first trees along Traverse Bay in the 1800s. If you drive up the coast in midsummer, around Traverse City or out on Old Mission Peninsula, you will see acres and acres of trees dripping with the luminous red fruit.
About The Author
Domenica Marchetti is the author of Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends Italian-Style and The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy (both published by Chronicle Books). Her articles about contemporary Italian home cooking have appeared in The Washington Post, Cooking Light, Fine Cooking and other publications. She is at work on a third cookbook, about pasta. Visit her Web site at domenicacooks.com.
Places like The Cherry Republic have turned the sour cherry into a superingredient. At the company's store in the bucolic lake town of Glen Arbor, you can buy cherry barbecue sauce, cherry salsa, cherry burgers, cherry dogs, cherry iced tea and cherry lemonade. A few miles away in Beulah, The Cherry Hut has been turning out its famous cherry pies since 1922. I too began using cherries with abandon in my kitchen, in pies, cobblers and tarts, on their own or mixed with apricots, blueberries or plums. When I tossed them into my pound cake batter, I knew I had done a good thing. The tart fruit proved to be the perfect foil for the buttery rich cake.
Because sour cherries are so perishable, you never see them in supermarkets, except as jars of preserves or canned pie filling. When my husband and I moved to Virginia in 1995, I thought I had enjoyed my last fresh sour cherry. I was ecstatic when they turned up at my local farmers market toward the end of June. I pounced, purchasing three or four quarts at once. By then I had learned the trick to making these perishable gems last: Sour cherries happen to freeze beautifully. I pitted them, arranged them on baking sheets and set them in the freezer for a couple of hours, until they were hard. Then I transferred them to zipper-lock freezer bags and returned them to the freezer. Stored this way, the cherries will keep for an entire year.
Pitting them sounds like drudgery, but it's simple. Because sour cherries are so soft you can easily push out the pit with your fingers. Even better, use the paper clip trick: Unbend a clean paper clip to a long S-shaped wire with two curved ends. Gently push the smaller curved end into the cherry through the stem end until you reach the pit; then scoop it out. It's that easy. And when you sink your teeth into a sweet-tart slice of cherry pie or a piece of rich cherry pound cake, you will know that your small effort was well worth it.
This is a true pound cake in that it uses no leavening such as baking soda or baking powder to make it rise, but instead relies solely on the airiness of the fluffy egg-rich batter. The crumb is creamy and dense and dotted with bright red cherry halves, and the exterior of the cake bakes to a beautiful, slightly crisp golden-brown. To a person, everyone for whom I have made this cake (and that's a lot of people) has loved it. The recipe is from my book Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends Italian Style (Chronicle Books 2008).
Makes 10 to 12 servings
2 cups fresh sour cherries, pitted and halved
3 cups sugar, plus 1/2 cup for marinating cherries
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for pan
6 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
8 ounces mascarpone cheese or sour cream, at room temperature
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting
Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly butter and flour a 10-inch Bundt or tube pan and set it aside.
In a small bowl, mix the cherries with 1/2 cup of the sugar. Let the mixture steep while you prepare the batter for the cake.
In a medium bowl, mix together the flour and salt. Set aside.
Put the butter in the bowl of a standing mixer and beat on medium speed to combine. Add the remaining 3 cups of sugar, a half-cup at a time, and beat at high speed until light and airy, 5 full minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Beat in the vanilla. Change the speed to medium and alternately add the flour and salt mixture and the mascarpone or sour cream, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Mix until incorporated.
Drain the cherries, reserving the syrup that collects in the bowl. With a rubber or silicon spatula, fold the cherries into the batter.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and shake lightly to even out the top. Bake until cake is golden brown and a cake tester inserted in the cake comes out clean, 1 hour 15 minutes.
While the cake is baking, put the reserved cherry syrup in a small saucepan and boil for about 5 minutes, or until slightly thickened. Strain and reserve the liquid.
When the cake is done, place the pan on a cooling rack and cool for 20 minutes. Remove the cake from the pan. While it is still warm, brush the top and sides with the warm cherry syrup. The cake will absorb the syrup. Let the cake cool to room temperature.
To serve, transfer the cake to a decorative platter or cake stand. Dust with confectioners' sugar.
Sour Cherry Gelato With Bittersweet Chocolate-Cherry Sauce
This ice cream churns to a creamy blush and is studded with garnet cherries. It is delicious on its own or with a spoonful of rich, bittersweet chocolate sauce drizzled over it. The recipe is from my book Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends Italian Style (Chronicle Books 2008).
Makes about 1 quart gelato, to serve 6
For The Gelato
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 whole vanilla bean, split
6 large egg yolks
3/4 cup superfine sugar
Pinch of salt
4 1/2 packed cups pitted sour cherries, also known as pie cherries, cut in half
Place the milk and heavy cream into a large saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the pan and add the pod to the pan as well. Bring the milk and cream just to a boil but take care not to let the mixture boil over. Remove the pan from the heat.
In a medium-sized bowl, beat the egg yolks with the superfine sugar and salt until light and thick. Whisk a small ladleful of the hot milk and cream into the eggs, whisking quickly to prevent the eggs from curdling. Add 4 or 5 more ladlefuls of the milk mixture, one at a time, whisking all the while. Pour the egg-milk mixture into the saucepan with the remaining milk and cream, and whisk to combine thoroughly. Cook the custard on medium-low to medium heat, stirring constantly, for about 20 minutes or until it is thick enough to lightly coat the back of a wooden spoon. Do not let the custard boil. Remove from heat, and pour the custard into a heatproof bowl. Remove and discard the vanilla bean pod. Cover the custard with plastic wrap, making sure to press the wrap right onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled.
Place 3 cups of the cherries and the granulated sugar in a medium-sized saucepan. Bring the cherries to a simmer over medium heat and cook until the sugar has melted and the cherries are soft, 10 to 15 minutes. Pass the cooked cherries through a food mill fitted with the disk with the smallest holes. If you don't have a food mill, puree the cherries in a food processor or blender, then strain the puree through a fine-mesh sieve and discard the solids. You should have about 1 1/4 cups of liquid. Put the liquid in a small saucepan and bring it to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes, until it is slightly thickened and reduced to about 1 cup. Remove the cherry syrup from the heat and let it cool to room temperature.
Stir the cherry syrup into the cold custard and refrigerate until the mixture is thoroughly chilled.
Freeze the cherry custard in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer's instructions. When the ice cream is just about done, mix in the remaining 1 1/2 cups cherries. Transfer the ice cream to a tightly lidded container and freeze until hard.
To Make The Sauce
In a medium-sized saucepan, whisk together the cocoa and heavy cream until smooth. Place the pan over medium heat and stir in the corn syrup, chocolate and butter. Gently stir or whisk frequently until the chocolate has melted. Bring the sauce to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and let boil gently for 5 minutes, or until thickened to a sauce consistency. Remove the sauce from the heat and let cool 5 minutes. Stir in the Kirsch.
To serve, scoop the ice cream into glass bowls and top with a drizzle of warm chocolate-cherry sauce.
* Kirsch is a clear, potent cherry brandy manufactured primarily in Germany. Use cognac as a substitute.
I am a cherry pie purist. I like an all-butter lattice-top crust, and I use no almond extract in the filling. I also use as little flour as possible to thicken the filling because I want it to be juicy, not starchy. Sometimes, if the pie is still very juicy once it has cooled, I will pour out a bit of the liquid. I prefer this solution to making a thicker filling that will remind me of canned pie filling.
Makes one 9-inch pie
For A 9-inch Lattice Crust
2 1/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
6 to 7 tablespoons ice-cold water
Combine the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse briefly until combined. Add the butter cubes and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the water in a slow, steady stream through the feed tube while the machine is running. Process just until a ball of dough begins to form.
Divide the dough in two and shape into disks, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for one hour.
Heat the oven to 425 degrees.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll out one disk of dough and arrange it in a 9-inch pie plate, trimming the edges so that there is a slight overhang. Prick the bottom and sides of the crust with a fork and refrigerate for 30 minutes while you make the pie filling.
Gently toss the cherries with the sugar and lemon juice. Sprinkle over the flour and toss gently but thoroughly to combine. Pour the filling into the chilled pastry shell. Roll out the remaining disk of pastry and cut into 3/4-inch-wide strips. Arrange the strips over the filling in a lattice pattern and trim the ends. Fold over the overhang of the bottom crust, and crimp the edges.
Place the pie on a rimmed baking sheet to catch any drippings, and slide it into the oven. Bake for 15 minutes; reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for 50 to 60 minutes longer, or until the filling is bubbling and thickened and the crust is golden.