Ground cherries

Those who farm in Georgia know sweet cherries and sour cherries just are not our crop. Up in the coolest parts of north Georgia there might be a smattering of trees bearing fruit, but for a real cherry crop, head north.

What we can grow here are ground cherries, Physalis spp., a member of the nightshade family. Like its relative the tomatillo, ground cherries grow encased in a papery husk. The fruits themselves are about the size of a large blueberry and taste like a combination of mango and pineapple. Their tiny soft seeds may remind you of a fig. The flavor is addictive.

Ground cherries are native to the Americas and were once widely grown in home gardens.

Marianne Pizzitola and her partner Matt Tucker are founders of the producer-only Our Community Farmers Markets at MacDuff Crossing in Peachtree City, as well as owners of Magnolia Manor Sweets, a gluten-free, allergen-friendly bakery in Sharpsburg. The markets are held on Tuesday and Saturday mornings.

She and Tucker farm on nearly two acres in Sharpsburg, and they grow ground cherries.

“Matt and I found these little babies in Manhattan at the Union Square Green Market, a place I loved to shop during my decades of living in New York and visit every time I go back. We would buy them from an organic farmer there,” said Pizzitola.

When she moved to Georgia in 2009, she brought her love of ground cherries with her. “We found they grow here with no problem. They love the heat.”

This year, she’s also learned that a few others love ground cherries, including mocking birds and tomato worms. “We had to net the garden to save the crop.”

Ground cherries grow on bushes that can get to about three feet tall. Tucker has 30 plants that he directly sowed in April. By early July, they were bearing fruit and each plant can bear up to 300 of the little orange cherries.

The fruit has the unique attribute of dropping to the ground when ripe and then continuing to ripen further. The husks turn brown and papery and the cherries go from pale yellow to a deeper yellow-orange, and get sweeter as they change color.

“You don’t remove them from their husks until you’re ready to use them. That keeps them fresh. We usually have a lot, and end up removing the husks and freezing them like you would blueberries,” said Pizzitola. If you get your hands on a bumper crop, they will keep for up to a month in the refrigerator if kept in their husks in a bag or container with air circulation.

If you can resist eating them all fresh, the cherries are high in pectin and make delicious jams and a nice, thick pie filling.

Gluten-Free Ground Cherry Mason Jar Pies

Hands on: 40 minutes Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes Serves: 8

Marianne Pizzitola of Magnolia Manor Sweets in Sharpsburg says the bakery adapted a found recipe to make it gluten- and allergen-free for their bakery and farmers market customers. Short a little on the ground cherries? You can add some chopped peaches. As a matter of fact, this recipe would be easily adapted to any fruit.

After baked, pies served in 1-cup wide-mouth Mason jars leave just enough room after a small scoop of ice cream.

4 cups ground cherries (about 1 pound in husk)

Zest of one lemon

Gluten-Free Pie Crust (see recipe)

1/2 cup lightly packed light brown sugar

5 tablespoons tapioca starch or all-purpose gluten-free flour, divided

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons water

4 tablespoons granulated sugar

3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter or Earth Balance, cubed

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Have eight 1-cup wide-mouth Mason jars ready on a rimmed baking sheet.

Husk and wash ground cherries. In a medium bowl, toss with zest and set aside.

Divide dough into eight portions. Press one ball into each Mason jar covering bottom and sides to just below the rim evenly. You can also roll out this dough, cut circles and then line jars. This crust is very fragile, so if it breaks apart, press it back together.

Divide ground cherry mixture between lined jars.

In a small bowl, mix brown sugar, 1 tablespoon flour, nutmeg and salt. Divide between jars, sprinkling over ground cherries. Drizzle water over sugar topping, dividing between jars.

In the same bowl, mix together remaining 4 tablespoons flour and granulated sugar. Cut in butter until crumbly. Divide between jars, sprinkling over filling. Arrange jars on rimmed baking sheet and bake pies 15 minutes. Then reduce oven to 375 degrees and bake 25 minutes more or until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling. Allow to cool before serving.

Per serving: 398 calories (percent of calories from fat, 42), 5 grams protein, 54 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 19 grams fat (15 grams saturated), 35 milligrams cholesterol, 212 milligrams sodium.

Gluten-Free Pie Crust

Hands on: 5 minutes Total time: 5 minutes Makes: enough dough for 8 Mason jar pies

Pizzaiola suggests it’s easier to work with this dough when it’s more on the moist side. The recipe makes enough for eight 1-cup mini pies or one 9-inch double crust pie. The recipe works best with a gluten-free flour mix that has a bit of xanthan or guar gum.

2 cups all-purpose gluten-free flour

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup palm shortening, coconut oil, or butter

1 egg

1/3 cup water, or as needed

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar and salt. Add shortening and cut into flour until mixture is crumbly. Stir in egg until well incorporated. Add water in one tablespoon increments until dough holds together. If not using right away, wrap tightly and refrigerate. Use as recipe directs.

Per serving, based on 8: 243 calories (percent of calories from fat, 53), 4 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 14 grams fat (12 grams saturated), 23 milligrams cholesterol, 141 milligrams sodium.

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