It's getting a little late in the season. Usually by this date there are no more cherries even on our sour cherry tree. But this year to thwart the birds I had my daughter cut empty beer cans into a spiral with a pair of Fiskars and I hung them all around the trees. The birds still ate the cherries up high in the tree, but I can't get at those anyway. The lower fruit were allowed to actually get ripe enough that the flies started to get at them. In the five years we have been here I have never seen that. Usually by now there is nothing on those trees but leaves and a few stems, with a couple of cherry pits still stuck to them.
So it was that I went out with a 1 quart bucket yesterday about 6PM after the hottest part of the afternoon. As long as I stayed on the eastern side of the trees I could keep from being blinded by the setting sun for the next half hour. It was still terribly hot. By the time I gave up I was sticky and sweaty. The cherry juice was running down my arms and I was scratched up from the branches. I took my time though. If you try to pick cherries too fast you get a lot of dirt and branches in the can. Not to mention the percentage of inedible fruit. Its best to just take your time and be careful. I ignored the heat and the insects. I concentrated on the small dark red ones. As careful as I was, I dropped several. The just slip out of your hands and once they fall I never go looking for them. That would be a fun game for little kids, but I do this job alone – no grandkids yet.
You have to pull the branches toward you to get at the berries. Otherwise you spend more time getting down and up the ladder. If I had a taller ladder I might be able to get another couple of quarts. But after I had my bucket full I went inside and washed them.
The trick to this is to let the bucket fill and overflow. That way the dirt and stems just flow out. As you put your hand in to take our berries you spill off the top layer and stir up the grit at the bottom. The cool water felt good on my scratched arms. It took a while but I ended up with a bowl of fairly good cherries. Probably only threw 20 away. That's a good haul.
Next is the pitting. Now I know you can get several machines for this job ranging from the old hand crack variety to new ones that will fit on the front of your Kitchen Aid. I just never get around to buying one. So I have become pretty good at pitting the little buggers. After you get into the rhythm of the process it goes fairly fast. My back hurt when I was done and the table was covered with yellow juice. There was more juice in this batch than normal – probably because of the ripe factor. I used a strainer to clean off the pits so I was sure that nothing edible was being thrown away. You can imagine how much more respect our ancestors had for their food because they could not eat anything unless they worked for it. Doing some of that work once and a while gives you a new found reverence for food.
Imagine the difference between opening 4 jars of Morello Cherries and picking, washing and pitting them yourself. It took me over an hour and a half to get my cherries and that does not include getting the ladder or the bucket (or putting them away, which I didn't). I could have gone to the store (well not really, there is no store around here but Wal-Mart. They do not have Morello cherries. Hell, nobody but Whole foods in Nashville or Williams-Sonoma in Cool Springs has Morello cherries, I would have had to order them) but that would have taken hours or days. They are nor cheap either. I think it is close to $4 a jar and the full recipe calls for 8 jars.
Once I had them cleaned and pitted I would be damned if I was going to let anyone eat them. I pre-heated the oven to 425 and stretched some plastic wrap over them and put them in the back of the fridge.
The recipe that I use has three parts: the cherries themselves, the syrup and cobbler biscuits. I have made this desert so many times I don't' need to look it up but I suggest keeping track with a printout when you are starting out. It is too easy to forget some little something and screw the whole batch up (Karen is fond of say "it will still taste good…" as a means of consolation when I screw up a dish. That does not help me much. I am a performer and the mistake – even the one that the audience cannot detect – is still a mark of my failure). The only way to really get beyond it is to do it again. I cherish the cherries too much to screw up this recipe.
I split this in half because I did not feel like picking cherries in the dark. As it was we did not finish dinner until 9PM. This is for the full batch.
You will need 2 cups of unbleached flour
½ TSP baking soda
1 TBSP Corn Starch
½ TSP baking powder
1 ¼ cups sugar plus some for sprinkling
a 3 cinnamon stick
6 TBSP sugar for the biscuit
¼ TSP Almond Extract
3 TBSP Unsalted Butter very cold cut in ½ inch cubes
3 TBSP Cream Cheese very cold cut in ½ inch cubes
¼ TSP salt
1 Cup Dry Red Wine
1 Cup buttermilk or fresh keifer
Strain the cherries, reserve the juice
Macerate the cherry meat in the wine and 1 ¼ cup of sugar with the corn starch. Leave that in a colander for 30 Minutes.
Make the biscuit by putting the flour, baking soda and powder and salt in a food processor and pulse to mix. Sprinkle the butter and cream cheese on top and process until it looks like sawdust. Pour it out into a bowls and use a spatula to mix in the buttermilk. The batter will be sticky and runny. Use a spring release ice cream scoop to put well spaced 2" drops onto a Silpat and sprinkle with a little sugar. Bake for about 15 minutes. Do not turn off the oven.
After the berries have macerated, pour off the remaining juice into a non-reactive saucepan and add the cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 5 minutes until it thickens. Discard the Cinnamon Stick and add the almond extract.
Arrange the cherries in a shallow Pyrex dish and pour the syrup over the top. When the biscuits are done arrange them on top of the cherries and put this back in the oven until the cherries and syrup are bubbling, another 10 minutes or so. Take it out and let it cool (because it will burn you - syrup is sticky).
Serve this with fresh homemade French vanilla ice cream on top. All you need for that is 4 cups of heavy cream, a couple of fresh vanilla beans, 8 to 10 eggs and a cup of sugar. But I will tell you about that next time.