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Summer's sweetheart fruit: Cherries are in season

| Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Birds love cherries. Humans lust after them, too.

So huge is our passion for this colorful fruit that it's used to flavor everything from Coca-Cola and yogurt to chewing gum, cough syrup and vodka.

Cherry production dates to at least prehistoric Asia. The Greeks cultivated cherries, as did the Romans. The loquacious Pliny the Elder raves about their popularity in Roman times: How appropriate that Russian River Brewing named a cherry-flavor beer after him.

Early English settlers introduced this stone fruit into Virginia. Somehow, the coveted orbs came to symbolize love, happiness and other virtues, such as honesty. Although undoubtedly fable, for generations, every American school child learned the lesson of truthfulness through the story of George Washington owning-up to chopping down his father's cherry tree.

Serious modern North American cherry production began in the mid-1880s in the Pacific Northwest and Michigan. While more than 1,200 varieties grow in temperate climates around the world, and numerous species appear abundantly throughout the United States, two types dominate:

• Sweet (California, Washington, Oregon)

• And sour (Michigan)

Of the sweet, aficionados favor either the plump, juicy Bing, with its deep-ruby skin and flesh, or the highly prized and pricy Ranier -- larger, a seductive yellow blushed with red. Cooks and bakers savor sour, or tart, cherries, especially Montmorency and Morello. All cherries are fragile and coaxed from a short growing season -- six to eight weeks, ranging from late May through early July, depending on geographical locale and specific type.

Most markets offer cherries in season. Off season, some purveyors ( www.mellissas.com ) import the fruit from warmer climes such as Chile.

Fresh cherries are edible sunshine -- over ice cream, in pies and tarts, garnishing cocktails or just out of hand. Ways to extend enjoyment include freezing, drying, pickling, conserving, juicing and distilling.

Gorgonzola Blue Cheese Souffle with Stone Fruit Arugula Salad

This recipe is from Brian Pekarcik, chef proprietor of Spoon, East Side.

For the souffle:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for preparing ramekins

3 ounces flour, plus more for preparing ramekins

2 cups whole milk

7 1/2 ounces gorgonzola

6 large eggs, separated whites and yolks

For the salad:

2 ripe peaches, pitted

2 ripe nectarines, pitted

1 cup sweet cherries, pitted

1/4 cup gorgonzola, crumbled

1 small bunch baby arugula

1/4 cup candied walnuts

2 tablespoons vinaigrette

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

To prepare the souffle: Melt the butter in a heavy-bottom saute pan over medium-low heat. Add the flour, stirring to form a roux. Continue to cook for 3 to 5 minutes, being careful not to brown. Add the milk, continuing to stir as bechamel forms. After the bechamel is made, melt the cheese. Set aside to cool. When it is cool, add the yolks and stir well to incorporate. Whip the whites to soft peaks, and fold in half until incorporated, then fold in the remaining whipped whites.

Butter and flour 6 to 8 4-ounce ramekins, dividing the souffle mixture equally among the molds. Bake at 300 degrees in a water bath for approximately 20 minutes.

To prepare the salad: While the souffles are cooking, evenly slice the fruit. Add the gorgonzola, arugula and walnuts. Gently toss with the vinaigrette and season to taste with salt and pepper. Evenly distribute the salad on plates alongside the souffle, or serve family-style in a large bowl.

Makes 6-8 servings.

Cherry-Chocolate Linzer Tarts

This recipe is from Shelby Gibson, pastry chef of Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, Downtown.

For the dough:

1/2 pound, plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened

1 cup, plus 3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup, plus 2 tablespoons hazelnut flour

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped out

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 large egg yolk

Dried beans or rice

For the ganache:

3 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

3/4 cup, plus 2 tablespoons, heavy cream

For the cherry jam:

1 3/4 pounds sour cherries

1/2 cup water

1/3 cup, plus 2 tablespoons, sugar

4 teaspoons powdered apple pectin

2 tablespoons, plus 2 teaspoons, raspberry vinegar

For the basil ice cream:

2 cups heavy cream

1 cup whole milk

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (packed) fresh basil leaves, chopped

2 large eggs

Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

To prepare the dough: Put the butter, confectioners' sugar, and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle. Beat until just combined. Whisk the hazelnut flour, all-purpose flour, cocoa powder and vanilla seeds together. Add to the butter and beat just until combined. Add the egg and egg yolk and beat until you have a smooth dough.

Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and divide in half. Shape each half into a brick and wrap in plastic. Chill for at least 30 minutes.

Roll one-half of the dough 1/8-inch thick on a lightly floured work surface. (Freeze the rest for another use.) Transfer the dough to a baking sheet, chill for 30 minutes, then cut into 3 1/2 -inch circles. Line 8 or 9 2 1/4-inch tart rings with the dough. Place the tarts on a baking sheet and chill for 30 minutes.

Trim the excess dough from the tart shells. Line the shells with pieces of parchment and fill with dried beans or rice. Bake the tart shells until crisp, for 5 to 6 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking. Let cool in the molds.

To prepare the ganache: Put the chocolate in a small bowl. Bring the cream to a boil in a small saucepan. Pour about 1/3 of the hot cream into the center of the chocolate and whisk, starting from the center and working out, until combined. Add another third of the cream and whisk again from the center out. Add the remaining cream and whisk until perfectly smooth. It will have the consistency of lightly whipped cream. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing into the surface of the ganache so a skin doesn't form, and keep at room temperature until needed.

To prepare the cherry jam: Pit the cherries and put them in a saucepan with the water. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat and continue to simmer until the cherries start to soften, for about 4 minutes. Mix the sugar and pectin together and add to the cherries along with the vinegar. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Turn up the heat and bring to a boil. Boil until the jam reaches 220 degrees. Pour into a clean jar and let cool. This will keep for 2 to 3 weeks in the refrigerator.

To prepare the ice cream: Put the cream, milk, half of the sugar and the salt in a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add the basil, turn off the heat, and infuse for 30 minutes. Mix thoroughly with an immersion blender to puree the basil: the milk should turn pale green. Strain through a fine strainer, pushing down on the solids.

Set up an ice bath.

Return the infused milk to the saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Whisk the eggs with the remaining sugar in a bowl. When the milk is simmering, slowly whisk about 1 cup into the eggs for about 1 minute to temper them (Keep the pan off the heat while you do this). Then, scrape the eggs into the saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixtures reaches 180 degrees. Strain into a container, and set into the ice bath. Chill completely, stirring often. Then, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Freeze in an ice cream maker. Pack into a plastic container and freeze for at least 2 hours before serving.

Makes 1 quart.

To Serve: Unmold tart shells. Spread some ganache in the bottom of each shell and fill with the jam. Spoon some of the ganache on the plate and set a tart on top. Serve a scoop of homemade basil ice cream alongside.

Makes 8-9 tarts.

Cherry Dacquoise

This recipe is from Bella Christies & Lil' Z's Sweet Boutique, Aspinwall

For the cake:

3/4 cup confectioners' sugar

1 cup almonds, finely ground into flour

4 large egg whites

1/2 cup granulated sugar

Confectioners' sugar for dusting as needed

For the ganache:

4 ounces chocolate chips

2 ounces heavy cream

For the whipped cream:

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 cup confectioners' sugar

For the fruit:

1 1/2 pounds fresh sweet cherries

To prepare the cake: Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Trace 36 2 1/2-inch circles (or 3 8-inch circles) on the paper and then turn over the paper to avoid pen marks on the cake. Your circles can be close together, because the cake does not spread.

Mix together the confectioners' sugar and almond flour. Set aside

Using an electric mixer, whip the egg whites until frothy. Gradually add the granulated sugar and continue to whip until medium peaks form. Gently fold the dry ingredients into egg-white mixture.

Spoon 1 rounded tablespoon of batter onto the circles and spread the mixture evenly. (If making the 8-inch cake, divide the batter evenly among all three circles and spread.) Bake at 275 degrees for about 30 to 40 minutes until cakes are dry and slightly golden. The 8-inch will take 40 to 50 minutes, because it is larger than the individual size.

To prepare the ganache: Put chips into a bowl and set aside. Bring the cream to a rolling boil and pour over the chocolate. Stir until combined and the chocolate is completely melted. Pour into a microwavable container and refrigerate until needed.

To prepare the whipped cream: Combine the cream, vanilla and confectioners' sugar in an electric mixer. Mix on medium speed until the cream comes to medium-stiff peeks. Test for sweetness and adjust to taste.

To prepare the fruit: Wash, stem and pit the cherries. Halve each. You may use more or fewer cherries to taste.

To assemble: Arrange 12 cake disks on parchment paper. Warm the ganache and spread 1/2 teaspoon of it onto each disk. Place 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons of whipped cream on top of the ganache and spread evenly. Place approximately six cherry halves, cut side down, in a circle, onto the whipped cream. Place another layer of cake on top of the cherries and repeat the process, then end with a third cake layer. Dust the top layer with confectioners' sugar.

(If assembling the 8-inch cake, simply divide the ganache, whipped cream and cherries evenly between the layers.)

Makes 12 individual desserts or one 8-inch whole dessert.

Cherry Pie With Lattice Crust

This recipe is from Linda Mason of Crate in Green Tree.

For the crust:

2 1/2 cups flour

1 tablespoon plus 3/4 teaspoon sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) chilled, unsalted butter, cut into cubes

5 tablespoons ice water

For the filling:

1 cup sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon salt

5 cups whole sour cherries, pitted

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Flour for rolling dough

1 egg white

1 tablespoon raw sugar

To prepare the crust: Whisk the flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl to blend. Add the butter. Using your fingers or pastry blender, work the dough until pea-size clumps form. Do not overwork the dough.

Add the ice water, and mix lightly with a fork until the dough holds together. Gather the dough together, and divide into 2 pieces. Form each piece into a ball, then flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Can be made two days ahead. Keep chilled. Let the dough soften slightly before rolling out.

To prepare the filling: Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat to 425 degrees. Whisk the sugar, cornstarch and salt in medium-size bowl to blend. Stir in the cherries and almond extract and set aside. Or, cook the cherry filling on stove top.

Roll out 1 dough disk on a floured surface to 12-inch round. Transfer to a 9-inch pie dish. Trim the dough overhang to 1 inch. Roll out the second dough disk on a floured surface to a 12-inch round. Using a large knife or pastry wheel with a fluted edge, cut 10 3/4-inch-wide strips from the dough round. Transfer the filling to the dough-lined pie dish. Arrange the dough strips atop the filling, forming a lattice, and trim the dough strip overhang to 1 inch. Fold the bottom curst up over the ends of the strips and crimp the edges to seal. Brush the lattice with egg white and sprinkle with raw sugar.

Place pie on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees. Bake the pie until the filling is bubbling and the crust is golden brown.

Makes 1 9-inch pie.

Sweet and Spicy Pickled Cherries

This recipe is form Kathy Gori of www.thecolorsofindiancooking .com.

1 pound cherries

3/4 cup water

3/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup white vinegar

2 thin slices fresh ginger, peeled

6 peppercorns

2 cloves

1 small cinnamon stick

Wash and dry about 1 pound of cherries. Do not pit them. Trim the stems to about 1/2 inch. Prick each cherry a few times with a sterilized needle and set aside.

In a large pot or pan, heat the water, sugar and vinegar. Keep this brine hot while sterilizing jars for 10 minutes in boiling water. When the jars are ready, remove from the boiling-water bath to a large heatproof container. Drop in the ginger, peppercorns, cloves and cinnamon. Add the cherries, then pour over the hot brine. Distribute the cherries and liquid into the jars, and fit with lids. Let cool, refrigerate and mellow for one month before using.

Tart and Savory Cherries

This recipe is from Kathy Gori of www.thecolorsofindiancooking.com -- is for 1/2 pint jars, double everything including processing time for pint jars. There is no waiting period for enjoying this sort of cherry.

1 pound cherries

2 cups water

1 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar

2 tablespoons kosher (pickling) salt

Wash and dry the cherries. Do not pit. Trim the stems to 1/2 inch.

In a large pot or pan, mix together the water, vinegar, sugar and salt.

Bring to a boil and heat. When it's nice and hot, take the jars out of their sterilizing bath and pack the cherries into the jars. Pour the hot liquid over them, seal the jars and process for 10 minutes.

Additional Information:

It's the pits

Like all stone fruits, that succulent flesh has an annoying hard pit at its center. Fortunately, kitchen equipment companies zealously tackle this challenge.

Google 'cherry pitter' or 'olive pitter' to discover diverse solutions to the problem from a single cherry poised atop an empty wine bottle, relinquishing its stone when poked through by a chopstick, to Rube Goldberg contraptions processing fleets of fruit.

Check out cookery shops and online sites to explore devices ranging in price from less than $10, for a single fruit, to the more professional $60 Rosle plunger model, for multiple fruits.

A commercial automatic TSM goes for $291.68. But most casual grazers find contentment with a modest single unit (OXO Good Grips, Leifheit Pro Line Cherry/Olive Pitter).

Most importantly, though, accept that none is foolproof. Pits will be missed, teeth put at risk. So, always double-check by poking the fruit's inside or by counting and reconciling the number of pits with the number of cherries.

Additional Information:

Mind the maraschinos

The ubiquitous maraschino cherry has a long, illustrious history. Unfortunately, the garish red (or green) cellulose horrors you buy jarred in the United States today have little connection to the real thing.

Originally, Italians made liqueur from marasca sour cherries, growing wild on the Dalmatian coast. Fresh cherries soaked and preserved in the cordial were cherished pleasures for royalty. Their allure spread throughout Europe and across the Atlantic to America. Here, however -- as the result of texture issues, economy and, ultimately, Prohibition, the product changed.

Here, starting with lesser-quality cherries, they're first brined in a chemical cocktail of sodium metabisulfate, calcium chloride and citric acid to bleach and firm up. Then they're soaked in a solution of corn syrup and fructose to sweeten, and, finally, steeped in red (or green) food dye and spiked with oil of almond, to achieve that surreally artificial color.

Fortunately, some European companies, such as Luxardo Gourmet ( www.luxardo.it ) still make real, although pricy, maraschinos. If making a perfect Manhattan is not worth $16 per jar, the Internet holds many recipes for making your own.

Additional Information:

Cherry bits

• Cherries are powerful bombs of healthful fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

• Each contains about four calories, 90 calories per cup. About 80 cherries equal 1 pound or 3 cups.

• Refrigerate fresh berries, unwashed, in a covered plastic container. Wash just before using.

• Freezing gets good results. Remove the stems. Either stem and pit first, wash, dry, spread in a single layer on a cookie sheet, freeze, then transfer to plastic freezer bags. Or, handling as little as possible, stem but don't pit, freeze on cookie sheets, transfer to bags and, when ready to use, let soften slightly before removing the stone.

• To use frozen, pitted cherries in baking and cooking, preserve the juices by not thawing first.

• Don't eat the leaves. They're toxic.

• Cherries grow one per stem, in bunches of two to eight. Occasionally, a co-joined cherry -- two fused together -- appears. That's very good luck.

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