Beyond Pie Filling

Looking forward to the season for fresh sour cherries—a rare, can’t-miss summer treat.
sour cherries with panna cotta

Sometimes I get free samples in the mail: chocolate chips to try, the occasional bottle of wine. The sort of thing that fits in a box.

Last summer I wrote an article about fresh sour cherries for my local newspaper that resulted in the best free sample ever. “I planted a Montmorency tree years ago, in my front yard,” a reader wrote. “The cherries are usually ready around the Fourth of July. I’m ready to invite you to pick this tree; I’m serious.”

The United States grows thousands of tons of sour cherries every year, and nearly all of them meet the same sad end: entombed in a can of sweet, sludgy pie filling. The sour cherry industry is concentrated in the Midwest, but here in the Pacific Northwest, as in other temperate parts of the country, a few farmers sell them fresh. They’re lovely, fleeting, and very expensive, like a pony. I’ve routinely spent $50 on them (cherries, not ponies) during their short season (mid-June to early July).

So around the Fourth of July, my family rolled up to the generous reader’s front yard, armed with buckets. I was worried this would be some kind of scrawny, homegrown cherry tree with inferior fruit, and we’d have to politely pick cherries and then toss them in a Dumpster on the way home (the fresh-fruit version of “your home-brewed beer is delicious!”). Instead, I found a towering, mature tree, bearing bushels of the same bright-red Montmorency cherries I was paying $7.50 a pound for at the farmers market.

We took them home and made a cherry sheet cake and cherry tarts, and then I realized something staggering: The cherry tree was only a few blocks away from the home of my friend Dana Cree, pastry chef at Veil restaurant. Unfortunately Dana was out of town, working for two weeks in the kitchen at wd-50 in New York. “When you get back,” I asked, “would you mind spending a few hours making cherry desserts on your day off?”

Sure, said Dana, who is nothing if not generous. While waiting for her to return to Seattle, I made additional trips to the cherry tree, which I was starting to think of as “our tree.” My daughter Iris, who was then 3, encouraged me to climb as high as possible, and at one point I looked down and realized I was at least 12 feet from the ground. Had I ever taught Iris how to dial 911?

Finally Dana returned, and we brought our haul of Montmorencies to her house, along with some supplemental Morello cherries from the farmers market for comparison. Montmorencies and Morellos are the two types of sour cherries you’re most likely to find for sale. Montmorencies are bright red, slightly translucent, with clear juice; Morellos are purple with shirt-staining juice. I like the complex, flavorful Montmorencies better, but I wouldn’t turn down the chance to plunder a tree of sourer Morellos, should the occasion arise.

When we arrived, Dana put me to work pitting cherries and began devising a menu. I did my best not to eat too many of the pitted cherries, which are really no sourer than a dry white wine, and just as satisfying. I’ve heard people scoff at mechanical cherry pitters and accuse them of mangling the cherries. I assume they’ve never pitted six pounds of cherries. Besides, the cherry pitter is so much fun. The metallic “snick” of the mechanism and the ejection of the pit reminds me of chambering a round. Probably I should spend more time eating cherries and less time watching action movies.

The best dessert of the day was a simple cherry clafoutis topped with vanilla ice cream. A clafoutis is a French fruit dessert about halfway between a cake and a custard, and Dana’s is about halfway between ethereal and scrumptious. We were planning to make cherry-pit ice cream, which has the bitter almond flavor of Amaretto cookies, but after we had smashed the pits of a hundred cherries and infused them into cream, we discovered that we did not, technically, have an ice cream maker on the premises. I will definitely try making cherry-pit ice cream again, as soon as I have a bevy of assistants at my disposal.

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