If you were a bird that followed cherries from state to state you could spend May and early June in California, June into July in the Pacific Northwest and July into August in the Midwest. You’d never be hungry. If you were a French bird you’d head to the Luberon region of Provence late in the second half of May and stay through June, then head up to Paris. I have spent many a late spring gathering cherries in this part of the world. One cherry orchard next to a house I rented provided me with enough quart bottles of preserved sweet and sour cherries and cherries in eau de vie to last through the year, with plenty left over for eating au nature as well as baking into clafoutis, strudels, cobblers and financiers (though popping one fresh, plump cherry after another into my mouth is hard to beat).
Picking cherries from a tree is gratifying. When they’re red enough to pick, they’re sweet enough to eat, and even if you eat while you pick, one tree will provide you with an abundant haul. The only thing you have to be careful about is making sure to pick the stem with the cherry (as opposed to plucking the fruit from the stem), as the fruit will lose juice and flavor if the stem is left behind. The price tag at the farmers market is a reflection of the labor that goes into picking them, as they must be hand picked with the stem on, and only when ripe.
The best cherries for baking into pies and strudels are sour cherries, also known as pie cherries. Most of the commercial production in the United States is in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. When I was 19, I worked for a summer with migrant farm workers in Central Michigan. One day towards the middle of August, many of the people I’d gotten to know disappeared for a week “to go work in the cherries.” One family, with whom I’d been learning to cook Mexican food, brought me a few heavy bags full of small bright red Montmorency cherries when they came back. I can’t remember what I did with them then, but if they’d brought me those cherries today I’d have made this cherry strudel.
When I was working on my cookbook “Mediterranean Harvest,” I spent a day learning to make some incredible vegetable pies in the kitchen of the Aroma Cafe, a Bosnian cafe in Los Angeles owned by Amra and Adem Slipac, a couple who had fled their country with their family during the Bosnian war in 1992. While Amra taught me to make a particularly delicious coiled pie filled with potatoes and onions, her mother quietly made four huge cherry strudels. She used drained, jarred morello cherries from Trader Joe’s to fill them. If you can’t get sour cherries, you can still make this with regular cherries. Or use a mixture of the two.
Serves 8 to 10
- Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line a sheet pan with parchment and brush the parchment with melted butter. In a large bowl, toss together the cherries, almonds, and almond extract. Set aside.
- Place a sheet of parchment on your work surface with the long edge facing you. Lay a sheet of phyllo dough on the parchment. Brush with butter and top with the next sheet. Continue to layer all eight sheets, brushing each one with butter before topping with the next one.
- Brush the top sheet of phyllo dough with butter. Sprinkle on half the breadcrumbs. Sprinkle half the remaining breadcrumbs down the length of the dough, 3 inches in from the bottom edge. Top this line with the cherries. Mix together the remaining breadcrumbs and sugar and sprinkle over the cherries.
- Tuck the ends of the phyllo in over the cherries, then fold the bottom edge over the cherries and roll up. Using the parchment paper to help you lift the strudel, place it on the parchment-lined baking sheet, seam side down. Brush with butter and make 3 or 4 diagonal slits along the length of the strudel.
- Place the strudel in the oven and bake 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, brush again with butter, rotate the pan and return to the oven. Continue to bake for another 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for at least 20 minutes before serving. Serve warm or room temperature. You can reheat in a 300 F oven before serving to re-crisp the phyllo.
Sweet and Sour Cherry
I used to make these every spring when I lived in France and could pick cherries from nearby trees. I’d process the jars in a water bath and keep them in a cupboard until I opened them. Now I opt for these quicker refrigerator pickles — they get used up quickly.
Makes 1 quart
- Clean and sterilize a wide-mouth 1-quart jar or two 1-pint jars. Pick through the cherries, discarding any with blemishes or soft spots. Rinse them and drain on a kitchen towel. Cut the stems with scissors to about ½ inch. Place the tarragon sprigs in the clean, dry jar and fill with the cherries.
- In a small saucepan, combine the rice vinegar and sugar and bring to a simmer. When the sugar has dissolved, remove from the heat and pour into a measuring cup. Allow to cool completely. Pour over the cherries. Seal the jars and refrigerate for at least a few days and up to a few weeks before serving. Drain and serve as an hors d’oeuvre. You could also use these as a garnish for a salad or for a rich meat like duck.
Cherry Cobbler with Cornmeal
and Buttermilk Topping
A cherry cobbler is comforting in the way a cherry pie is comforting, but it’s easier to throw it together because you don’t have to make a pie crust. The topping is a buttermilk biscuit batter made with a mixture of flours; cornmeal contributes texture and whole wheat flour adds a nutty dimension to the flavor.
For the topping:
- Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter a 2-quart baking dish. Place the cherries in the dish and add the kirsch, sugar, lemon juice, and flour. Carefully mix together with a rubber spatula or a large spoon until the sugar and flour have dissolved into the liquids.
- Sift together the flours, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, and salt. Place in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade and pulse a few times. Add the butter and pulse to cut in the butter, until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Turn on the food processor and pour in the buttermilk with the machine running. As soon as the dough comes together, stop the machine.
- Spoon the topping over the cherries by the heaped tablespoon, or use a ¼ cup measure. The cherries should be covered but may peek out here and there. Place the baking dish on a baking sheet. Place in the oven and bake 35 to 40 minutes, until the top is nicely browned and the cherries are bubbling. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to warm before serving. Serve warm (heat in a low oven for 15 minutes if necessary before serving), with whipped cream, crème fraiche, or vanilla ice cream on the side.