Then, on a trip to Door County, Wis., I tasted my first fresh tart cherry, and my world changed.
Door County, a picturesque peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan, is known for its sour Montmorency cherries: ruby-red gems that zing with a haunting complexity redolent of wine and spice. So lovely and so petite, so delicate in their demeanor, they make the sweet cherries we import from Washington, California and Oregon seem downright common.
It was at Seaquist Orchards just outside Sister Bay, Wis., that I sampled my first Montmorency and met up with cherry baron Dale Seaquist, who gave me a tour of his farm and told me about the lady visitor who once inquired: "When do these cherries go 'bing'?" (Cymbal crash.)
A strapping, garrulous Wisconsinite, Seaquist, who had a vintage cherry-red Studebaker in the back of his warehouse with a “do not touch” sign on the window and wore a red-and-white-check shirt, is the best mouthpiece the Door County cherry industry could hope for.
It only makes sense that most cherry pies are made from tart cherries, Seaquist said, because they are smaller. Ergo: You can pack more cherries into the pastry and every bite. And who doesn’t want more cherries?
At Seaquist Orchards’ market, I discovered fresh-baked cherry pies and house-made cherry fudge, cherry jam and cherry salsa, cherry juice and cherry cider, dried cherries, frozen cherries, fresh cherries. And I developed a serious case of cherry fever.
At Parador, a tapas restaurant in the town of Egg Harbor, I had charcuterie paired with Door County cherry jam. At 109-year-old Wilson's Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor in Ephraim, I inhaled a vanilla ice cream sundae loaded with hot fudge sauce, Door County cherries, whipped cream and pecans. At what may be America's cutest pie shop, Sweetie Pies in Fish Creek, I chatted with owner Cathy Mazurek and wolfed down a slice of her peach-and-cherry pie and got some cherry bars to go.
Back in Sister Bay, at Fred & Fuzzy's Waterfront Bar & Grill, I slurped a wonderfully sweet-tart Door County cherry margarita. And at the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek, I had what "Good Morning America" viewers voted the best breakfast in the nation back in 2010. That would be the inn's Cherry-Stuffed French Toast: slices of egg bread with pockets of Wisconsin cream cheese and Door County cherries, topped with real maple syrup. Gracious goodness, that stuff is good.
If you ever get to Door County, you won’t forget those cherries.
Unfortunately, fresh tart cherries of any kind are not to be found in Atlanta, though you can find sour cherries in canned pie filling and dried.
As Seaquist told me, these juicy little Midwestern Montmorencys and other tart varieties are a challenge to ship. However, you may order dried Montmorencys from any number of sources, and they are great for cookies, bars, granola, etc. They are good in salads (how about some cherry-pecan sal?) and may be chopped and added to salsas, relishes and chutneys.
I had terrific luck with the dried and frozen Montmorencys I ordered from Friske Orchards in the neighboring state of Michigan, the nation's No. 1 state for tart cherries. As research for this story, I made an amazing meat loaf studded with Montmorencys and slathered with a catsup-y cherry sauce. I'm saving the rest for cherry pies and White Gull's killer French toast.
So here’s the thing about cooking with cherries. They are versatile. So if you can’t find sour, most sweet varieties work just fine, though might add a little lemon juice or zest to impart tartness. After heating up the kitchen to make cherry baked goods, I’ve decided that cold cherry treats — like ice creams, smoothies, cocktails and salsa – are the way to go in this hot summer season.
There’ll be plenty of time for cherry baking this fall and winter. Right now, it’s time for a pick-me-up, so I think I’ll dump some cherries, bananas and nonfat yogurt in the blender and slurp my troubles away.
Cherries three ways
Here are recipes for a cool cherry salsa, a cherry-and-apricot clafoutis and cherry-bourbon ice cream. To pit cherries for the clafoutis, just poke the stem end with a wooden chopstick, and the pit should pop out.
This is a perfect way to enjoy fresh sweet cherries (or tart, if you can find them) as a summer snack with tortilla chips. Basil adds a hint of anise to the relish. But feel free to create your own recipe, using mint, cilantro, scallions, hot sauce, or whatever mild or hot peppers you have on hand. Lime juice may be used in place of lemon. The salsa keeps well in the refrigerator, and would be delicious with grilled meats, chicken or as a stand-in for cranberries with turkey.
1 1/2 cups stemmed, pitted and chopped cherries (may use sweet or tart)
1/3 cup chopped onion (may use white, yellow or red)
zest of one small lemon
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely minced jalapeño pepper, seeds and stem removed (may use other chiles of choice, such as Serrano or Thai)
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
2-3 tablespoons chopped sweet basil (may use Thai basil)
Place the cherries, onion, lemon zest and juice, jalapeno, Worcestershire sauce and salt in a small bowl and mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings. (If using tart cherries, you may want to add a bit of sugar; start with 1 teaspoon, then more as needed.) Cover and chill for at least one hour before serving. Just before serving, stir in chopped basil. Makes: Almost 2 cups.
Per 1-tablespoon serving: 5 calories (percent of calories from fat, 4), trace protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 36 milligrams sodium.
Cherry and Apricot Clafoutis
This classic French flan is a quick and easy way to show off summer fruit, especially sweet cherries. In the French region of Limousin, black cherries were traditionally left unpitted because the stone was said to enhance flavor. Try that at your own peril. If you don’t want to use apricots, try peaches. Or omit altogether and use a full pound of cherries. Leftovers are good for breakfast.
3/4 pound sweet cherries, stemmed and pitted
4 apricots, pitted and halved
2/3 cup granulated sugar, divided
1 tablespoon kirsch or rum (optional)
butter, for greasing pan
1 cup whole milk
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
confectioners sugar for dusting (optional)
Place cherries and apricots in a medium bowl and top with sugar and kirsch or rum (if using). Toss well to coat and allow to sit for 30 minutes. Grease a 9 1/2- or 10-inch tart pan or glass pie plate with butter.
Strain the fruit over a bowl, reserving liquid, and arrange the fruit in the baking dish.
Place the reserved fruit syrup, milk, remaining 1/3 cup of sugar, eggs, vanilla extract and flour in the bowl of a blender. Mix at highest speed for 1 minute; then pour in the baking dish. (If you don’t have a blender, beat the milk, eggs and vanilla extract until just mixed; add flour and mix until smooth and frothy.)
Bake in a 350-degree oven until the clafoutis is firmly set at the center and nicely browned, about 1 hour, 15 minutes. (A toothpick or knife inserted at the center should come out clean). The clafoutis will puff up, then settle as it cools. Allow to cool briefly, about 15 minutes. Slice into wedges and serve. Sprinkle with confectioners sugar if desired. Serves: 6-8
Per serving, based on 6: 241 calories (percent of calories from fat, 17), 6 grams protein, 43 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 4 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 112 milligrams cholesterol, 56 mil
Cherry-Bourbon Ice Cream
Cherries and smoky sweet bourbon are a heavenly marriage, especially when folded into this rich vanilla custard. You may also use rum or brandy. Chocolate sauce or shavings would be a nice addition.
For the cherry-bourbon sauce
1 1/2 cups halved pitted cherries
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons bourbon
For the vanilla ice cream
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup granulated sugar, divided
A pinch of kosher salt
1/2 vanilla bean (or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)
5 large egg yolks
To make the sauce: Place pitted cherries, sugar, and 1 tablespoon water in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until syrupy, 4-5 minutes. Remove from heat. Allow to cool for at least 15 minutes. Stir in bourbon. Cover and chill until to ready to make ice cream.
To make the ice cream: Combine heavy cream, whole milk, 1/4 cup granulated sugar and a pinch of kosher salt in a medium saucepan. Split vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape in seeds; add pod (or use vanilla extract). Bring mixture just to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat. If using vanilla bean, cover; let sit 30 minutes.
Whisk 5 large egg yolks and remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a medium bowl until pale, about 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in 1/2 cup warm cream mixture. Whisk yolk mixture into remaining cream mixture. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick enough to coat a wooden spoon, 2-3 minutes. Strain custard into a medium bowl set over a bowl of ice water. Place vanilla bean back in the custard. Let cool, stirring occasionally. Chill in refrigerator for at least 2 hours, or overnight.
When ready to make the ice cream, fish the vanilla bean out of the custard and discard. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer to an airtight container, and fold in cherry-bourbon sauce. Cover and freeze until firm, at least 4 hours and up to 1 week. Makes: About 1 quart
— Adapted from a recipe in Bon Appetit magazine, August 2013
Per 1/2-cup serving: 309 calories (percent of calories from fat, 63), 4 grams protein, 24 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 21 grams fat (12 grams saturated), 200 milligrams cholesterol, 59 milligrams sodium.