THE BREVITY OF CHERRY BLOSSOMS
By Gil Marks
I like to take a walk in Central Park on Saturday afternoons. Central Park is an incredible space, from Cleopatra’s Needle to Bethesda Fountain to Sheep’s Meadow. It is an incredible natural refuge in the urban jungle of Manhattan. There are plenty of flowers, including daffodils and tulips, if you know where to look or wander about enough. But I have a particular fondness for the cherry blossoms. Not so long ago, in my jogging days, it was something special to run around the reservoir in the spring with pink blossoms lining the pathway and every step releasing a burst of fragrance. In the afternoons, I would pass Jackie Kennedy Onassis trailed by her security detail on her daily stroll. It seemed that everyone was smiling a bit more in the shade of the blossoming trees.
For the past number of years, I was out of town in the spring and missed the annual display of the park’s cherry trees. This year I returned earlier, and last week, as I enjoyed my first walk of the season, the cherry blossoms were in bloom around the reservoir. So I was quite thrilled to revel in their natural beauty as I made my way around the water. It was quite a difference from when I left NYC and there was still ice in the water. This Saturday, I returned to the park, but the cherry blossoms were gone. In a single week, not one was left on the trees. Well at least I managed to catch the end of the season. And it got me thinking about edible cherries, which will be making their annual appearance in a few weeks.
Most botanists contend that the wild cherry tree, a member of the Rosaceae family and close relative of the plum, originated in Asia Minor near the Black and Caspian Seas around 6,000 years ago. Two principle types of domesticated cherries, which do not cross-pollinate with each other, emerged: sweet cherries (Prunus avium) and sour cherries (Prunus cerasus). Sweet cherries are primarily eaten fresh, while the smaller and very acidic sour cherries are most often used in cooking, baking, and liqueurs.
These are not the same as the cherry trees in Central Park, which are from Japan. The ornamental Japanese cherry (Prunus serrulata), which has more than 200 varieties, do not produce edible fruit. There are also about 500 of those cherry trees in Central Park, which were originally gifted to the city by Japan in 1912. The ones around the reservoir are primarily rosy pink Kwanzans and a few pale pink Yoshinos. The earlier-blooming Yoshinos are along the bridal path at 90th Street and further south at 66th Street. Japanese cherry trees also line the Tidal Basin in Washington DC but it has been a number of years since I witnessed the spring spectacle.
The Greeks brought the cultivated fruit cherry westward from the northeastern Anatolian port of Kerasous (modern Giresun), whence its Greek name kerasion, Latin cerasum, and English cherry. The earliest clear record of cherries was around 300 BC in the work of Theophrastus, the “Father of Botany.” Purportedly in 72 or 79 BC, cherries arrived in Rome, which knew eight varieties. Following the collapse of Rome, cultivated cherries disappeared from most of Europe. They were reintroduced to England by Henry VIII after the king sampled some during a trip to Flanders.
Cherries were among the first trees planted in North America by the Europeans, already cultivated in 1629 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and shortly thereafter French colonists planted pits from Normandy in the Great Lakes region. In colonial Virginia, most farms and even many urban residences had at least one or a few cherry trees and cherries followed only apples and peaches in production. George Washington included cherries among his trees at Mount Vernon as did Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. However, the hot, humid weather of the South and East was not conducive for producing the best cherries. Then in 1847, Henderson Lewelling brought cherry trees to Oregon where he planted orchards and, twenty-eight years later, developed the Bing variety, which soon became America’s overwhelming favorite type. The cool climate of Oregon and Washington proved ideal for cherries, the area now accounting for more than 60 percent of America’s sweet cherries. Meanwhile, in 1852, Peter Dougherty planted cherries on Old Mission Peninsula in northern Michigan, the region also ideal for this fruit, primarily sour cherries.
The more than 600 varieties of sweet cherries and 300 varieties of sour cherries range in color from yellow to bright red to dark purple. The U.S. leads the world in sweet cherry production; sour cherries are more prevalent in Europe and Asia. Whereas all American sweet cherries were developed in the United States, all of the important sour cherries were imported from Europe.
There are two types of sour cherries: the darker colored griottes, most notably Morello, and the lighter colored amarelles, such as Montmorency. Morellos, also called Balaton, have a more complex and intense cherry flavor when cooked than Montmorency. Nevertheless, the majority of American sour cherries are Montmorency.
NAME TYPE COLOR SHAPE COMMENTS
Bing sweet mahogany large, round Most popular U.S.
meaty & juicy.
Lambert sweet reddish- heart- Firm & luscious.
purple shaped Preferred by
English sour deep red large Tender & juicy.
Morello Preferred in pies.
Montmorency sour light red; medium, round A French variety.
North Star sour deep red small, round
Rainier sweet yellow with large, oval Firm & juicy.
Republican sweet- dark purple small, round Tender.
Royal Ann sweet yellow with very large, Also called Napoleon.
red blush round Firm & juicy.
The cherry growing season is among the shortest of any fruit, lasting from early-June to late-July with most varieties available only in June. Cherries in general are a fragile fruit and, since most varieties are too delicate for shipping, only a few types show up in the market. If you do not have access to fresh sour cherries, use bottled Hungarian Morello cherries. Do not substitute canned cherry pie filling or maraschino cherries for fresh fruit. When cherries are cooked whole, the pits impart a slight almond-like flavor. To duplicate this effect, almond extract is frequently added when using pitted cherries.
The original maraschino cherries, initially produced in the eighteenth century in Croatia and introduced to America in the late nineteenth century, were sour marasca cherries fermented for about five days, then preserved in distilled cherry liqueur. The modern maraschino cherry was developed in 1931 by Ernest Wiegand of Oregon State University in which fresh cherries are bleached and firmed in brine with calcium salts, then soaked in a sugar syrup for about a month and dyed red or green.
Persians use sour cherries in rice dishes and various sweets. Persians also grind the soft bitter interior of the pit of the mahaleb cherry to make a spice called mahaleb. Syrians find the flavor of cherries complementary to meat, including meatballs and lamb roasts. Cherries are also popular in Europe, particularly throughout central Europe, where they are used in jams, soups, sauces, strudels, cakes, and liqueurs. The French serve cherries with duckling and other poultry and in desserts such as clafoutis. Italians, Sephardim, and Georgians use the fruit to fill double crusted tarts. In Alsace, sour cherries are used to make the well-known cherry brandy called kirsch, while in eastern Europe they are macerated with sugar and vodka for vishniak. Since cherries make their appearance in early summer, every so often in time for Shavuot, cherry dishes became traditional for that holiday, including cherry soup, compote, preserves, blintzes, kreplach (filled pasta), coffee cakes, and strudel. Most communities boil some of the summer sour cherry crop with sugar for flavorful jams and preserves.
TO SELECT: Choose plump, firm, and brightly colored cherries with stems attached. Avoid soft, shriveled fruit.
TO STORE: Store cherries unwashed in plastic bags in the refrigerator for up to a week. To freeze, wash and dry cherries, place on a baking sheet, freeze, transfer to containers, and freeze for up to a year.
TO PREPARE: Wash just before serving. There are several mechanical pitters available. To pit by hand, gently press down on the stem end to loosen the pit. Using the index finger and thumb of your other hand placed near the bottom of the cherry, press until the pit pops out of the top.
Anyway, the cherry season will begin in a few weeks, so those of you fortunate to have access to cherry trees, and save enough from the birds, here are a few of my favorite ways to enjoy cherries:
Meges Leves (Hungarian Cherry Soup)
(6 to 8 servings)
2 pounds (900 grams/4 cups/1 liter) pitted sour cherries
4 cups (1 liter) water
About ½ cup (120 ml) granulated sugar
1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
1 slice of lemon rind
Pinch of salt
1 cup (240 ml) dry red wine or fruity dry white wine
2 tablespoons (30 ml) fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon (15 ml) cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons (30 ml) water (or ¼ cup (60 ml) quick-cooking tapioca)
1. In a large pot, simmer 3 cups (720 ml) cherries, water, sugar, cinnamon, lemon rind and salt, covered, until tender (about 15 minutes). Discard the cinnamon stick and rind.
2. Puree the cherry mixture, then add the wine and lemon juice. Reheat.
3. Remove from the heat and stir in the cornstarch mixture. Return to heat, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, stirring constantly, until slightly thicken (4 to 5 minutes). Add the reserved cherries. Serve warm or chilled.
Creamy Cherry Soup: Add 1 cup (240 ml) heavy cream, heat through, and let cool.
Cherry and Fruit Soup: Just before serving, add 4 to 5 cups (1 to 1.2 liters) mixed coarsely chopped fresh fruit, such as blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, kiwis, nectarines, mangos, papaya, peaches, and plums.
Add 10 whole cloves and 10 whole allspice berries with the cinnamon stick.
Syrian Meatballs with Cherries (Kibbe ib Gheraz) M
(About 18 medium meatballs)
1 pound ground lamb or beef chuck or 8 ounces each
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
½ teaspoon ground allspice
About ¾ teaspoon salt
About 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 medium yellow onions, chopped
16 ounces pitted sour canned or fresh cherries or 8 ounces dried sour cherries
½ cup sweet wine
2 tablespoons sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon ground allspice or cinnamon
1 tablespoon tamarhindi (tamarind sauce) or ½ cup chopped dried apricots
1. Combine the meat, parsley, allspice, salt, pepper, and, if using cinnamon. Shape into 1-inch balls.
2. In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. In several batches, brown the meatballs on all sides, about 10 minutes a batch. Remove the meatballs.
3. To make the sauce: Add the onions to the pan and sauté until soft and translucent, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the cherries, wine, sugar, lemon juice, allspice, and tamarhindi.
3. Return the meatballs to the pan and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over a low heat or bake in a 275-degree oven until tender, about 50 minutes. Serve warm with rice, orzo, or toast.
(Makes one 9-inch pie/6 to 8 servings)
Flaky pastry (pâte brisée) for double crust 9-inch pie (about 18 ounces/520 grams)
1 egg white or 2 tablespoons melted cherry jam
4 cups pitted sour cherries (about 2 pounds/1 kg fresh unpitted/26 ounces/760 grams pitted frozen, canned, or jarred, drained)
About 1¼ cups granulated sugar, or ¾ granulated sugar and ½ cup light brown sugar (8.75 ounces/250 grams)
3 tablespoons (45 ml) cornstarch or potato starch, or ¼ cup (60 ml) quick-cooking tapioca, or 6 tablespoons (90 ml) all-purpose flour (or 2 tablespoons (30 ml) cornstarch and 3 tablespoons (45 ml) flour)
¼ teaspoon (1.25 ml) salt
½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) almond extract or 1 teaspoon (5 ml) finely grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons (30 ml) Kirsch, brandy, or cherry brandy (optional)
6 drops red food coloring (optional)
2 tablespoons (30 ml) unsalted butter or margarine
1. Position a rack in the lower third of oven. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees (220 C).
2. On a lightly floured piece of wax paper or flat surface, roll out 2/3 of dough to a 12-inch round about 1/8-inch thick. Fold into half or quarters and fit into a 9-inch pie pan or roll dough around a rolling pin and transfer to pan. Gently press into the pan. Trim the excess dough against the rim of the pan. Brush with egg white or jam. Refrigerate while preparing the filling.
3. Combine the cherries, sugar, cornstarch or tapioca, salt, almond extract or lemon zest, and, if desired, cinnamon or cloves. If using tapioca, let stand for 15 minutes.
4. Spoon the cherry mixture into pastry and dot with butter.
5. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the remaining 1/3 dough to about a 10-inch round. Arrange the top crust over the filling, trimming the excess to ½-inch beyond the rim of the pan. Fold the bottom dough over the top crust and crimp or flute the edges to seal. Cut several slits in top of the crust to vent the steam. Or cut the pastry into ½-inch wide strips and weave into a lattice pattern. Cover the edges of the pie with aluminum foil.
6. Place the pie on a preheated baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil, reduce the heat to 350 degrees (175 C), and bake until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbly (about 30 minutes). Let cool.
Reduce the sour cherries to 3 cups and add 1 cup (8 ounces/225 grams) dried sour cherries.
Reduce the sour cherries to 2 cups and the sugar to ¾ cup and add 2 cups pitted sweet cherries.
Substitute 4 cups pitted sweet cherries for the sour cherries, add 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, and reduce the sugar to about ½ plus 2 tablespoons.
Use 2 pounds (910 grams/32 ounce canned/30 ounces frozen/5 cups/1.2 ml) pitted sour cherries and add ½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) almond extract and, if desired, 1 tablespoon (15 ml) kirsch. If using tart cherries, increase sugar to about 1¼ cups (300 ml).
Cherry Cobbler (Medium)
(6 to 8 servings)
(For a 2-quart/2-liter casserole, 8-inch square pan, or 11- by 7-inch baking dish:)
2 pounds pitted sour cherries (910 grams/32 ounce canned/30 ounces frozen/5 cups/1.2 ml)
1 tablespoon (15 ml) fresh lemon juice or kirsch
½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) almond extract
About 1¼ cups (300 ml) granulated sugar
1 to 1½ tablespoons (15 to 22 ml) cornstarch, potato starch, arrowroot, or quick-cooking tapioca
1/8 teaspoon salt
1½ cups (7.5 ounces/210 grams/360 ml) all-purpose flour, measured by dip-and-sweep method
About 3 tablespoons (45 ml) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons (10 ml) baking powder
½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) salt
½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) ground cinnamon, nutmeg, or cardamom (optional)
6 tablespoons (¾ stick/3 ounces/90 grams) unsalted butter, margarine, or shortening (or 4 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons shortening)
About ¾ cup (180 ml) milk, soy milk, or water
About 1 tablespoon (15 ml) additional sugar for sprinkling (optional)
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees (190 C).
2. To make the filling: Toss the cherries with lemon juice and almond extract. Combine the sugar, cornstarch or tapioca, and salt. Add the cherries and toss to coat. (If using tapioca, let stand for at least 10 minutes.) Spoon into a 2-quart casserole, Dutch oven, 8-inch square pan, 11- by 7-inch baking dish, or 11- to 12-inch pie plate. You can taste the fruit mixture for sweetness, adding a little more sugar if necessary.
3. To make the topping: Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and, if using, spice. Cut in the butter or margarine until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in the liquid to moisten. Do not overmix.
4. Drop 6 to 8 spoonfuls of the batter over top of the fruit, leaving space between each mound. If desired, sprinkle with the additional sugar. Bake until the topping is golden and firm and the fruit is soft and bubbly (45 to 55 minutes). Serve warm or at room temperature. If desired, serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.
Cocoa Biscuit Topping: Reduce flour to ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons (210 ml) and add 2 tablespoons (30 ml) unsweetened alkalized (Dutch-processed) cocoa powder.
Clafoutis aux Cerises (French Cherry Custard Cake)
(6 to 8 servings)
1½ cups (360 ml) milk (or ¾ cup (180 ml) heavy cream and ¾ cup (180 ml) milk)
2/3 cup (3.25 ounces/90 grams/160 ml) all-purpose flour, measured by dip-and-sweep
About 2/3 cup (160 ml/4.5 ounces/130 grams) granulated sugar
3 large eggs (scant 2/3 cup/5.25 ounces/150 grams)
2 teaspoons (10 ml) vanilla extract or ¾ teaspoon (3.75 ml) almond extract
½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) salt
1 teaspoon (5 ml) grated orange zest or 2 tablespoons kirsch (optional)
3 cups (1½ pounds/700 grams) sweet cherries (preferably black), pitted
2 tablespoons (30 ml) confectioners’ sugar for sprinkling
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees (205 C). Grease a 7- to 8-cup (1.75- to 2-liter) baking pan, 10-inch deep dish pie plate, 10-inch springform pan, or 8-inch square baking dish.
2. In a blender, food processor, or with a beater, combine the milk, flour, 1/3 cup (80 ml) sugar, eggs, vanilla, salt, and, if desired, zest until smooth. Let the batter stand for 20 minutes.
3. Toss the cherries with the remaining 1/3 cup (80 ml) sugar, using more if the cherries are sour.
4. Pour one fourth of batter into prepared pan. Place in middle of oven and bake until batter is just set (about 5 minutes). Add cherries and pour remaining batter over top.
5. Bake until puffed and golden brown (35 to 45 minutes). Let stand for 15 minutes, but serve warm. (Cooled clafouti will slightly deflate.) Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar before serving.
Substitute 3 cups sour cherries for the sweet cherries and increase the sugar to about ½ cup.
Clafoutis a la Bourdaloue (Almond Clafouti): Puree ½ cup (120 ml) blanched almonds and 1 teaspoon (5 ml) almond extract with milk.