Sour Cherry Sweet

Sour Cherry Sweet

Susan and Paul both love sour cherry season. They love the red, jewel-like, sour-snappy little cherries with big flavor.

Sadly, the season is short, too short.  But they have figured out a way to make it count, and make it last.

Two ways, to be precise.

Susan makes preserves.  Paul makes pie.

I don't know about you, but I can't even say the phrase "sour cherries," I can't even plan to say it, without my mouth starting to water.  They have a tart, bright bite that works best cooked.   And they make tremendous preserves and pies.

Not that just anyone can work the necessary magic to do so.  Working with these things takes some doing, some research.  Paul, a lawyer, had been buying up quarts of pie-bound farmers' market sour cherries for some time before Susan, a preschool teacher and artist, tried her hand at preserves.  Though they aren't available in grocery stores, and despite their very brief appearance at farmers' markets, you can freeze sour cherries and make pies with them almost all year long.   Paul says you can't actually tell the difference between fresh and home-frozen in a pie.  That frozen supply runs out before the next season's cherries arrive in the farmers' markets, leaving just long enough of a sour-cherryless gap that you are happy to see them again.

One of Susan's wisest purchases ever, she contends, was Rose Levy Berenbaum's Pastry Bible, a birthday present for Paul years ago.  He kind of took it and ran with it.  His pies are something worth waiting for.

Married a happy twenty-six years and with two fine mostly grown sons, they work together in companionable silence to pit the cherries, side by side.  Each has their own method for pitting.  Susan uses a knife while Paul removes the pits by hand. If it were me involved I would insist on a race, or some way to measure whose pitted cherries were "better," or who did more, but maybe this is why I don't use fresh cherries for pies, or more to the point, why I don't bake cherry pies with my husband.

Paul uses Rose Levy Beranbaum's cream cheese pastry, a simple pie crust, very nice to work with.  On a day like the one I was there, the blisteringly hot kitchen threatened to undo that workability.  He had the dough in the fridge until the exact moment he wanted to roll it out--"on a hot day like this, the point of success or failure."  Working not quite as fast as the heat, using a gorgeous old maple rolling pin of Susan's mom's, he politely said, "I'm about to invite you out of the kitchen while I start swearing."

But he was able to get the bottom crust in the pan just as it was getting slidey, and then he whisked the whole thing into the freezer to counteract the heat for a moment.  The cherry filling also comes from Rose, but Paul uses just a little less sugar than she suggests.

For the top crust Paul uses a crust-sized cut out, also a gift from Susan.  (She likes pies.)  This was extremely tricky given the conditions but soon all was complete and whisked into the oven, pretty as a picture.

sour cherry pie

Preserve day was hot too, especially so given the big pot of boiling water which is the sterilization bath for the preserves.  All of this canning stuff terrifies me.  Susan assures me it does so with good reason.  Canning is "not for the faint of heart," she says, noting that everything she knows about it she learned from Putting Food By, a wonderful, information-packed 1970s sort of countercultural survivalist bible by Ruth Hertzberg, Beatrice Vaughan, and Janet Greene.  The book "put the absolute fear of God" into her over how many things can go wrong, and taught Susan a precision that can only be called surgical.  I confess that most of what scares me about canning has to do with things like botulism, E-coli, and the Ebola virus, with a little West Nile anxiety thrown in for good measure, though who knows what the actual hazards are.  I do appreciate folks who can forge ahead given the worrisome possibilities.

Susan explained the jars to me.  You can use the lids only once, but the rings and jars you can use many times. "I feel very cool when I just buy a box of lids," she told me.  "I feel like a farm wife."  And the process: After sterilizing the jars and pouring in the gorgeous garnet-colored preserves, you place the lid on the jar and loosely screw on the ring.

making sour cherry preserves

You put it back in the boiling pot and boil it for 10 minutes.  You can hear the vacuum seal sound, sort of a "schwoop," but some of them don't make it till after you get them out of the pot.  One of the jars she made this day was recalcitrant and did not schwoop, so she had to put it back into the pot until it did.  Lovely preserves, perfect on toast.

sour cherry toast

Sour cherry pies and sour cherry preserves to sweeten the household for a year, until the small, bright red fruit makes its brief appearance once again. When you can take sour and turn it into sweet, it is a rare, ephemeral magic.


Rose Levy Beranbaum's Sour Cherry Pie with Cream Cheese Crust

Pie Crust

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold
2 cups + 3 tablespoons pastry flour or 2 cups (dip and sweep method) bleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt (for savory recipes, use 1 1/2 times the salt)
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 3-ounce packages cream cheese, cold
2 tablespoons ice water
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
Place a medium mixing bowl in the freezer to chill.

Cut the butter into small (about 3/4-inch) cubes. Wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes.

Place the flour, salt, and baking powder in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Add the cream cheese and rub the mixture between your fingers to blend the cream cheese into the flour until it resembles coarse meal. Spoon the mixture, together with the cold butter, into a recloseable gallon-size freezer bag. Expel any air from the bag and close it. Use a rolling pin to flatten the butter into thin flakes. Place the bag in the freezer for at least 10 minutes or until the butter is very firm.

Transfer the mixture to the chilled bowl, scraping the sides of the bag. Set the bag aside. Sprinkle the mixture with the water and vinegar, tossing lightly with a rubber spatula. Spoon it into the plastic bag. (For a two-crust pie, it is easiest to divide the mixture in half at this point.)

Holding both ends of the bag opening with your fingers, knead the mixture by alternately pressing it, from the outside of the bag, with the knuckles and heels of your hands until the mixture holds together in one piece and feels slightly stretchy when pulled.

Wrap the dough with plastic wrap, flatten it into a disc (or discs), and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes, preferably overnight.


Sour Cherry Pie
Rose's recipes are usually laid out in a grid like this.

Preheat to 425° at least 20 minutes before baking.

volume ounces grams
your favorite pie crust for a 2 crust pie . .
2 pounds. fresh sour cherries, pitted, juices reserved 4 1/2 cups, pitted 26 ounces 737 grams
sugar 1 cup +2 Tablespoons + 2 teaspoons 8 ounces 227 grams
cornstarch 3 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon 1 ounce 31 grams
salt a pinch . .
almond extract full 1/4 teaspoon . .

Remove one piece of dough from the refrigerator. If necessary, allow it to sit for about 10 minutes until it is soft enough to roll. Using a pastry cloth and sleeve, rubbed with flour or two sheets of plastic wrap, sprinkled lightly with flour, roll the dough into a 1/8-inch thick circle large enough to cut an even 13-inch circle. (Measure your pie plate from the top of one edge going down the sides, across the bottom and up to the opposing edge and add enough to tuck under for a nice edge—about 1 1/2 inches extra.). Fold this dough under so that it is flush with the outer edge of the pie plate. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes.

Set the oven rack in the lowest level and place a baking stone or baking sheet on it before preheating.

Prebake the bottom crust:
Remove the plastic wrap from the pie plate with the dough in it, and set a large coffee urn filter or piece of parchment in it. Fill it about three-quarters full with rice or beans and bake 20 minutes. Lift out the parchment with the beans and prick all over with the tines of a fork, but only half way through, i.e. not all the way to the bottom. Return it to the oven for 5 to 10 minutes more or until pale golden brown. Check after 3 minutes and prick again if the upper layer of dough bubbles up.

Remove the crust to cool and reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees.

Place all of the above ingredients (including the reserved cherry juices), except for the almond extract, in a medium saucepan and allow them to sit for about 10 minutes or until the cherries exude enough juice to moisten the sugar. Stir gently until evenly mixed and bring to a full boil, over medium heat, stirring constantly. Lower the heat and simmer for a minute, or until the juices thicken and become translucent, stirring gently. Remove it from the heat and stir in the almond extract. Pour the cherry mixture into the prebaked pie shell.  Cover with remaining dough, rolled out to a 10" round.   Crimp edges together, cut some adorable decorative holes in the top, and bake at 400° for 15 to 20 minutes or until bubbling all over. If the edges start to brown too much protect them with a ring of foil.


Sour Cherry Preserves
This recipe comes from Martha Stewart.

3 pounds fresh sour cherries, without blemishes, stemmed and pitted
2 1/2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (1 lemon)

Place a round wire rack in the bottom of a large stockpot. The rack should fit as snugly as possible and should stand 1/2 to 1 inch above the bottom of the pot. Stand the three jars on the rack, and add the lids; it is not necessary to add the screw bands. Fill the pot with enough water to cover the jars by 1 to 2 inches; an additional 1 to 2 inches of space should remain below the rim of the pot so the water doesn't overflow. Bring the water to a simmer (180 degrees., and simmer the lids and jars 10 minutes or until you're ready to fill them. Place four small plates in the freezer.

In a medium stockpot, combine sour cherries, 1/4 cup sugar, and lemon juice; place over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until sugar has dissolved, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in one-third of remaining sugar, and cook, stirring, until it has dissolved, 1 to 2 minutes. Add sugar in two more batches, stirring each batch until sugar has dissolved.

Bring the mixture to a full boil, and cook, stirring frequently, 10 minutes. Place a candy thermometer in the mixture, and cook, stirring frequently, until the temperature registers 220 degrees. 30 to 40 minutes. While cooking, skim any foam that floats to the surface.

With the temperature at 220 degrees. perform a gel test: Remove one of the plates from the freezer, and place a spoonful of the jam on it. Return the plate to the freezer, and wait 1 minute. Remove plate from freezer, and gently nudge the edge of the jam with one finger. If the jam is ready, it will wrinkle slightly when pushed. If it is not ready, it will be too thin to wrinkle. If the jam does not wrinkle on the first attempt, cook two or three minutes more, and repeat the gel test.

 sour cherry preserves Martha Stewart gel test

Once the jam has gelled properly, remove stockpot from heat. Using canning tongs, remove a jar from the simmering water, and empty the water back into the stockpot. Place the jar on a clean surface, and insert a canning funnel. Using a ladle, pour the jam through the funnel into the jar; fill to within 1/4 inch of the rim. Remove the funnel; wipe rim with a clean damp towel. Using tongs, lift a lid from the hot water; place lid, sealant side down, on the filled jar. Screw down the band, and tighten firmly, being careful not to force it. With the tongs, stand the filled jar in simmering water. Repeat with the remaining jam and jars, making sure the jars aren't touching sides of pot and are spaced 1 inch apart.

Raise the heat to high, cover stockpot, and bring the water to a boil. Process jars in the boiling water for 10 minutes. Using the canning tongs, transfer the jars to a wire rack to cool completely. Let jars stand 24 hours. Check cooled jars for slight indentation in the lid that indicates a vacuum seal. Store jam in a cool, dark place up to 1 year.


Filed under: recipes

Leave a comment