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Our sour-cherry-season adventure, in which we go to surprising lengths for the sake of cherry pie and cherry ice cream.


People who are in the Midwest, and possibly in the Pacific Northwest, will be wondering what I'm fussing about -- sour cherries are local and readily available. People from other parts of the country probably have no idea what a sour cherry is, or why they'd care. I don't think anyone who reads my stuff will be surprised that I'm prepared to geek out about it, though.

Sour (or tart) cherries are the varieties of cherry which are used in the US for cherry pie and similar confections (Montmorency is the primary variety), and in Europe and elsewhere for cherry jam, brandied cherries, etc (Morello and Marasca cherries here). They differ from sweet cherries in being less sweet, much more fragile, and much, much more cherry-flavored. The other thing about sour cherries is that the trees need a cold period each winter, or they don't set fruit properly. They're not a popular crop in California, since we're basically cold-deprived here. Since sour cherries are not well-known or in high demand, it's also basically impossible to get frozen ones either. All the canned and jarred varieties I've tried are pretty watery, and very expensive. What are we to do?

The Source:

After extensive searching on Chowhound, I located what appears to be the only you-pick source of sour cherries in Northern California. They have 26 trees in Brentwood, all the Montmorency variety. The season last year was about 4 hours long. Four hours. Fortunately, this year was better -- the cherries lasted for about 3 days. We went out there with a cooler and picked 50 pounds of lovely fruit at the bargain price of $2.50 per pound. These cherries are actually translucent when ripe, and glow in the sun -- it's amazing, and totally worth doing once a year. We also bought, courtesy of a nearby grocery store, a second cooler to hold the berries and 25 lbs of dry ice for quick-freezing. Then we went home and started stemming and pitting cherries. And treating our sunburn.

Stemming and pitting is a labor of love. I found that a large bobby pin worked way better than a cherry pitter; the bent end is just big enough to slip under the pit and drag it out along with the stem. It still took us 3 days of intermittent labor to get through all of them. We'd pit 3 or 4 pounds, quick-freeze the batch, and take a break -- so we could have gone faster. I'll note that the cherries don't keep at all well -- they started turning opaque and brown from oxidation after about a day -- but even ugly-looking specimens taste pretty good. The stem and pit also make up a good hunk of the total weight -- between half and two-thirds of your original weight will remain after you're done.

Quick-freezing: Alton Brown's strawberry episode of Good Eats covers this really well, but what you want to do is take a chunk of dry ice about equal in weight to your fruit, wrap it in a couple layers of cloth, and hit it with a hammer until it breaks up into dry ice snow. Be careful -- this is instant frostbite territory. The bricks are compressed dry ice snow anyway, so breaking it up isn't too hard. Dump the dry ice in a large metal or ceramic bowl, then dump the fruit in on top. That will keep the cherry juice from sticking everything to the bowl.

Mix the fruit into the dry ice with a pancake turner or something, then stick the whole package into a cooler for about half an hour so the cold stuff can do its thing. When you mix the fruit and dry ice, you'll get huge mad-scientist clouds of carbon dioxide; you can take pictures, but remember to ventilate the room so you don't de-oxygenate it. Also -- don't stick your head in the cooler, later -- it will be chock-full of cold carbon dioxide, which you can't breathe. If you pass out into the dry ice and freeze your face off, it will be really hard to explain to people.

After half an hour (possibly much sooner), the fruit will be frozen completely, and mostly as individual cherries. At this point, you can pull on winter gloves and put the individual fruit into freezer bags or whatever. The fruit will keep nicely in the freezer, and you can pull out whatever amount you need and defrost it later. After doing several batches, you'll also have a bunch of cherry-juice snow mixed in with the dry ice. You can put that into a container in the freezer, and leave a corner of the lid off overnight to vent any remaining dry ice.

When you run out of dry ice, you can also freeze the fruit in sugar. Use a 4:1 ratio by weight of fruit: sugar, mix it in a bowl and let it sit until the sugar is dissolved, then bag/box and freeze. I think about 2 pounds of fruit makes a pie, but I haven't checked yet to be sure. Obviously, you'll have to defrost a whole package at a time this way -- so package it in the quantities you're going to use.

For pies, I stick closely to Jeffrey Steingarten's recipe from his column 'Perfect Pies', originally published in Vogue (no, really, Vogue) and reprinted in The Man Who Ate Everything. Steingarten is pretty obsessive about food -- and this is me saying it. I'll try all the baguettes in a neighborhood to find the best one, but he'll hire a taxi so he can hit 40 bakeries in a morning.

If you follow his remarkably detailed instructions carefully, and remember to keep the crust thin, you should end up with a remarkable cherry pie. My only additions: (a) When you preheat the oven, stick the baking sheet in at the start so it's hot when you put the pie on it. (b) You really need to let the pie cool all the way to room temperature before you cut it, or the filling won't thicken properly. OK, and (c) don't forget the almond extract -- it's really essential. I didn't do a super job on my first pie, but it tasted great.

Finally, for ice cream we modified an 1860's recipe: 2 quarts cherries, chopped fine; mix with 1 quart cream and 12 oz. sugar. And add a half-teaspoon of almond extract, since the original recipe calls for pounding the whole, stemmed but not seeded cherries in a mortar and sieving. If you're that dedicated, let me know how it turns out. You could also do a custard-style ice cream, of course, and it would probably turn out very nicely.

And yes, I'd do it again. Though I'm not sure I'd be so quick to roll my own if I could buy frozen sour cherries at the grocery store.

Date: 2010-06-17 05:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Whoa! Color me impressed. Especially with all the pitting. I need to think about trying this- JT adores cherries.

Date: 2010-07-29 09:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Having made a couple of pies now, I can say it was totally, utterly worthwhile.


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