I heard about Butler Ranch, about a two-hour drive from where I live in San Francisco, years ago from a FedEx driver. Last summer, my husband and I finally made it there. After a drive up some winding roads, we spotted the hand-lettered sign announcing “cherries” and pointing the way up a dirt road. It’s a pick-your-own operation, and we were greeted by a wonderful sight: row after row of trees laden with fruit. The branches, heavy from the fruit, slumped so close to the ground that we could easily reach the cherries without a ladder.
Cherries are one of the few fruits still truly seasonal, and a short season it is, lasting from mid June to mid August. I had intended to pick only a modest amount, but it had been so long since I’d had fresh cherries, and the fruit was so luscious and came off the trees so effortlessly that when we weighed our bounty we had eighteen (eighteen!) pounds.
The cherries we picked were Bings, the most popular and widely distributed sweet cherry variety. I can eat these cherries—with their shiny deep-red skin, crisp texture, and sweet juice—by the handful raw. But even I, a true lover of cherries, would not be able to enjoy all of our bounty in the four or five days that fresh cherries last. So we gave some to neighbors. I divided a few pounds among large jars, covered the cherries with vodka and a little sugar, sealed them, and stowed them away in a cupboard to add to cakes and scones during the winter holidays. I also made preserves, an arduous task with all that pitting. I still had a few pounds to go, so I turned my thoughts to cooking with them. While cherries do make their way into savory dishes, my expertise is in baking, so desserts took center stage.
Raw cherries add texture and flavor; baking softens both aspects
One of the best things about eating cherries raw is the tension between the fruit’s firm, shiny skin and its supple, juicy interior. A great way to feature that is to create a fruit salad based on cherries. Mangos and kiwis, with their softer textures and bright flavors, make good companions. A few slivers of mint and a splash of dessert wine bring everything together. I also like to serve raw cherries with feta cheese; the salty cheese accentuates the sweetness of the cherries. In another quick dessert, I fold puréed raw cherries into whipped cream for a refreshing mousse.
Once you cook a cherry, it loses some of the excitement inherent in the raw fruit. The resulting softer flavor and texture creates dishes more soothing than spirited. Strewn on top of focaccia and then baked, cherries add just the right touch of sweetness; the bread is wonderful for breakfast or as a snack with tea. In the custard tart, the baked cherries are assertive enough to announce their presence but also restrained enough to allow the complementary almond flavor to play a role as well. (Maybe the reason cherries and almonds are a classic combination is because cherry pits have a hint of almond flavor in them.)
Poaching preserves cherries and lets you boost flavor. Even after trying all these ideas, I still had cherries left, so I decided to poach some in sugar syrup, thus extending their life a few more weeks in my refrigerator. I chose a light syrup so the cherries weren’t drowning in a sugary suspension, a fate that canned cherries often suffer. I kept the sugar level down and added some peppercorns and citrus zest for interest. Ice cream—vanilla is good, but chocolate is great—reaches another level with a topping of these poached cherries.
Add a little color or a little pucker with other cherry varieties
Here in California, a few other varieties of sweet cherries are available besides Bings. Lambert and Van are dark-red cherries; good, but not quite as flavorful as Bings, to my taste. Rainier, yellow-hued with thin skin, is juicy and sweet with better flavor than the Royal Ann, another pale variety; both look great tossed with Bings on top of the focaccia or in the fruit salad. These paler cherries are more fragile, so check them for bruises before buying. As with darker cherries, they should be shiny and firm.
Traditionally, people baked with sour cherries, such as the Montmorency. But sour cherries, grown primarily in Michigan, are now used almost exclusively for processed cherry products and are hard to find fresh. If you do come across them, you can use them in place of some or all of the sweet cherries in these recipes; they do have a more intense flavor. All cherries will keep for three or four days in the refrigerator, but the sooner you use them, the better.
Oh yeah, the pits
All cherries not eaten out of hand have one drawback: they must be pitted. If faced with just a few, you can pry out the stones with your fingers, but the cherries will look battered. Hand-held pitters do a neater job, but it’s slow going. Small, countertop pitters with a hopper on top and a box on the bottom (see the photo at left) are much faster. A plunger pushes the pits into the box and the cherries fall from a chute into a waiting bowl. Both types will miss some pits, especially if the cherries are large, so check each cherry. And all pitting methods will stain your fingers, which you can wear with pride as a sign of eating fresh cherries in season. But you might want to know that rubbing your hands with a cut lemon will remove the stains.
Two tools for quicker pitting
While you could pit your cherries with your fingers, one of these tools will make the job a lot easier. Chef’s Catalog carries both styles.