CHERRY SEASON means a summerlong feast of fat, sweet, glossy Washington-grown fruits … that is, unless you have a taste for tart cherries.
Washington ranks as the nation’s top producer for claret-colored sweet cherries like Bings and Lapins, as well as our signature yellow-blush Rainiers. The sour cherries, though, are maddeningly hard to find. Even though our state is No. 3 in sour-cherry production in the United States (Michigan is No. 1 by a mile), the numbers represent a small fraction of our sweet crop.
The fresh tart cherries have less universal appeal than sweet ones, as they’re generally used for pies and jams rather than snacking by the sour handful. We fans find them so alluring, though, it feels like a secret society — one mostly made up of bakers.
Glowing candy-red Montmorencies are the most popular tart cherries, with mahogany-dark Morellos a distant second. That’s if you can find them. The season for sour cherries is fleeting, and harvests are generally diverted for commercial uses like canned pie filling or dried fruit. I’ve yet to see fresh sour cherries at a supermarket; only a few vendors offer them even at farmers markets, and shoppers who skip a few visits might well miss that crop, too. Making matters worse, the thin-skinned cherries are delicate and don’t travel or keep well.
Over the years, I’ve stopped trying to time the sour-cherry harvest (it varies by year, but July is typical, though some might continue into August). If I stumble onto a few pounds, I’ll succumb if I have time to pit each tiny fruit before the batch goes bad, and if there’s extra money for the premium they command. I love the way they look and love their complex flavor, even though sweet cherries can be used for baking, too. (Cathy Barrow, who’s written a few authoritative books on pie-baking, says sour cherries are generally preferred for their consistency, as their skins break down more easily when baking than those of sweet cherries.)
Mostly, I’ve been following the forces of the bigger market rather than the farmers market, opting for frozen sour cherries instead of fresh.
Among the many advantages: The frozen cherries are already pitted and stemmed. Most recipes work as well with frozen cherries as fresh. They’re available in well-stocked supermarkets. If you crave local cherries, they’re sometimes even available from the growers. One happy year, I ordered 12 frozen pounds from Tonnemaker Family Orchard, which grows a limited number of sour cherries along with rows of sweet cherry trees. (Kurt Tonnemaker tells me they’re not offering frozen sour cherries this year, though they’ve planted more trees that will be coming into production next year, so the odds are better for 2020.)
For now, frozen is my best bet.
Longer-term, I have some other dreams.
Once the swing set in my backyard is retired and some space is cleared, I’m hoping to plant my own sour-cherry tree. I’ve had a sweet-cherry tree before, and the fruit — while excellent — tasted just like what I could buy anywhere else. With sour cherries, that definitely won’t be an issue.
One of my favorite uses for sour cherries is in what Seattle writer Molly Wizenberg calls “Everyday Cake,” a cake so easy to whirl together that it can be a regular weeknight dessert. (Or, in my own children’s interpretation, “It’s called Everyday Cake because you want to eat it every day.”) The recipe Wizenberg adapted from Alison Roman’s version in Bon Appétit actually called for frozen raspberries, but it’s even better with sour cherries.
Sour Cherry-Ricotta Cake
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
1½ cups whole-milk ricotta
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
1½ cups frozen sour cherries, divided
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9-inch round cake pan, and press a round of parchment paper into the bottom.
2. In a large bowl, whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder and kosher salt. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, ricotta and vanilla extract until smooth. Gently stir ricotta mixture into the dry ingredients until just blended. Then fold in the butter, followed by 1 cup of the cherries. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing it evenly, and scatter the remaining cherries on top.
3. Bake the cake until it is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes. Let cool at least 20 minutes before unmolding. Cool completely before serving.
Very lightly adapted from Orangette.net