By Dana Zia, The Golightly Gourmet
“Life is just a bowl of cherries, don’t take it serious; it’s too mysterious” -Lew Brown
Cherries just make me happy. I bought a bunch of cherries at the first farmer’s market of the season and when I started munching on them, the old song, “Life’s is just a bowl of cherries” came dancing into my head. The red juice was staining my fingers and I was chewing around the pits and spitting them out and thinking that song was spot on. Life doesn’t get much better.
We at the beginning of cherry season here in the NW, with cherry stands popping up everywhere. This season is through in August and is fast and furious as cherries are highly perishable. The State of Washington grows 40% of the country’s sweet cherries but what most people do not know is that Oregon has quite a history with cherries too. The beautiful and uber popular Bing cherry was developed in Milwaukie Oregon in the late 1800’s by Seth Lewelling and his Chinese foreman, Ah Bing. (It was named after Bing when he couldn’t get back to the US from China after going there for a visit.)
Cherries are an excellent crop here in Oregon where most of them are grown tucked in the shadow of Mt. Hood on hillsides overlooking the Columbia River. The mountain blocks most of the rain that blows in from the west, protecting the cherries from weather that would otherwise split and soften the fruit. The Willamette Valley also have orchards and there have been cherry orchards surrounding The Dalles for generations but the industry has changed over the years.
For one thing, there’s more profit in fresh cherries now. It used to be that the lag time to get the cherries from the tree to the mouth was so great that only people living around cherry orchards had that privilege. Now with planes, trucks and refrigeration much of the world gets to enjoy fresh cherries. In Japan, the Rainier cherry is considered a delicacy. They get a buck a piece for them since it is so expensive to get them there fast, but it can be done.
A generation ago, it was impossible, so the industry centered on the sugary, lipstick-red preserved concoction called the maraschino cherry. We all remember those, if only in our “Shirley Temple” drink as a child. The maraschino was originally created from Marasca, a small black cherry that grew wild on the coast of present-day Croatia. To preserve them, the ancients pickled the cherries in seawater then marinated them in a liqueur made from the Marasca’s juice and pits. A taste for the marinated Marascas soon drifted beyond the Croatian shores and an ingenious recipe was created to turn Oregon cherries into maraschinos.
Because of this, processing maraschino cherries became a big industry in Oregon during the mid-20th century. The nation’s two largest maraschino manufacturers are still located in Oregon to this day. I remember being told as a child that the maraschino cherry wouldn’t digest for 7 years in your gut. (Now who would tell a kid that?) I stopped eating them and so did many other people and the maraschino cherry fell from grace to be replaced by the fresh cherry industry.
One of my favorite ways to eat cherries, other than fresh, is in the delicate and delicious French dish clafoutis. (Pronounced “kla-foo-tee) The French have a way with food and this dish perfectly highlights the lovely cherry suspended in a custardy goodness and it’s easy! Some French bakers like to bake it with the pits in the cherries because they release an almond flavor into the dish. I prefer to pit my cherries and add a bit of almond flavor so I don’t have to worry about someone breaking a tooth on a pit! This is the one reason to buy a cherry pitter which I am eternally grateful for so that life is not the pits, just a clafoutis full of sweet cherries.
Julia Child’s Cherry Clafoutis
This luscious dessert is super simple! To make gluten and dairy free sub almond flour for flour and almond milk for milk. It serves 6-8 (Maybe, depending on your portions sizes)
1/3 cup of organic granulated sugar
1/2 cup of flour
1.25 cups of whole milk (preferably the Bennet Farm’s milk)
1 TBLS of vanilla
2 tsps of amaretto (optional)
OR a few drops of almond extract
Pinch of salt
3 cups of pitted bing cherries
1/4 cup of sugar for the top
Powdered sugar (optional)
Turn on the oven to 350 degrees and butter up 6 ramekins or a ceramic tart dish. (Try not to use metal and DO NOT use a cast iron skillet it makes the clafoutis turn grey and taste like iron. As you can tell, I thought this was a good idea…once.)
This job is done best in a blender. I know Julia Childs did not make it in a blender but she would love how this turns out. Start by putting the flour, eggs and sugar in the blender and whirling on medium speed till blended well. In a small bowl, combine the milk, vanilla, amaretto and salt then slowly add the milk mixture to the egg mixture while the blender is going. When your batter is smooth pour it into your prepared dish(s) and then drop the cherries in so they are well distributed.
Tuck in the oven to bake for 10 minutes, then carefully sprinkle the 1/4 cup of sugar on top, close the oven and bake for another 30-35 minutes for the large dish and 20 minutes more for the ramekins. The clafoutis are done when they are puffed, golden and a knife comes out clean when poked in the center. Let them cool for a few minutes then sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve warm or at room temperature with whip cream.