Saturday, July 28, 2007

Sour Cherries and Currants: Glowing, Glowing, Gone

They are the precious jewels of summer. Sparkling, transparent, rare and ruby-red, they’re the gemstones of July: sour cherries and red currants. They literally glow from the side of the road—there’s no mistaking them for raspberries, even from a distance—and then they’re gone. One week, two weeks, three if it’s a very good year.
They’re scarce as well as short-seasoned, too, making them all the more prized. Only a few varieties of sour cherry are generally grown in the United States today, principally Montmorency, in contrast to scores of cultivars only 50 or 60 years ago. Both sour cherries and red currants are highly perishable, sometimes sticky-oily to the touch, moisture-laden, and medium-soft (in contrast to the firm eating cherry), and while currants sometimes appear in conventional markets here (a fortune for a tiny ¼ cup, mere tablespoons), sour cherries never do. The commercial crop of sour cherries, grown primarily in Michigan, is raised for processing, packed in water or syrup. Pity, because a canned sour cherry is a faint sister to a fresh—and has added food coloring, as well. This leaves us searching, waiting by the side of the road, where a few farmers or local residents, most with old trees, pick them and sometimes share them with us, supplicants for a quart for cherry pie. And search you must, and make your needs known: believing there’s no demand for them, some country people with old trees don’t even bother to tend or pick them anymore. (Haying seems to coincide with the appearance of the cherries, I’ve noticed; if you see mowing and bailing going on, it’s time to look for cherries). Currants too are sometimes left unpicked because, well, they’re a pain to clean —all twiggy and tangly—and bunches and bunches yield only miniscule amounts (hence the price when you do find them in a market). They also have tiny seeds which, somewhere along the way, Someone decided that people don’t like, aiding their disappearance from the market despite their being a hardy and relatively easy crop to grow. I once was so desperate for currants that I told an elderly couple whom I knew had some among their other berries that I would just buy the branches, and clean them myself, which I did.
One consequence of this scarcity is that many people don’t even know what these fresh fruits are anymore, they’ve been absent from standard use for so long (Yet they’re both all over Europe! The first time I went to Paris, in the ‘70s, I was amazed to see the glowing little boxes of currants and cherries lined up like infantry along rue Moffetard). The other day, when picking up sour cherries and currants, which sat neglected alongside the raspberries everyone else was buying (thank goodness), a woman of around 70 said to me as I picked them up, “And what are those?” This is pretty surprising, especially for sour cherries, because they are in fact the fruit that defines our notions of the color and the taste of “cherry.” Think about it: a nearly black bing cherry is not the taste of “cherry” as in cherry cough drops or cherry cola, or the color of cherry lipstick, is it? Sour cherries are where all cherry-flavored and colored things, all things cerise, come from. One look, and taste, tells all. Currants too come in red and black, and likewise have different tastes and textures (pink or white currants, also very pretty and still scarcer, are similar to red). Red currants have a bright, snappy-tart, sweet-acid taste.
Both sour cherries and red currants make quintessential summer pies and preserves, primarily for their unique vibrant tastes that shout “Fruit!” and their made-in-heaven match with a good flaky crust. Red currants have the additional benefit of being high in pectin, making it a classic for jelly (which also deals with “the problem” of the seeds); preserves made with sour cherries will need an acid such as lemon or need to be combined with a higher-pectin fruit.
Here is a straightforward recipe for a cherry pie; a currant meringue pie or summer pudding; and sour cherry-currant preserves, the best of both worlds. As for freezing either sour cherries or currants, even in syrup? The texture and color changes render them inferior for pie or other relatively unadorned uses, such as a topping for ice cream. But frozen cherries in a light syrup are serviceable for cooked sauces, smoothies, and the like—should you be so lucky to find enough to freeze. In any case, you’re better off making jam and freezing that; it actually improves with storage.
To pit sour cherries: Using the nail of your thumb (my preferred tool) or the looped end of a small trussing skewer (don’t even think about buying a “cherry pitter”), pry the pit from the stem end; also pull away any bruised areas. Do this over a bowl to catch the juice.
Sour Cherry Pie
They’re not called “pie cherries” for nothing: here you find their true calling. Most sour cherry pie recipes call for almond extract, which, even when it is pure and natural, I don’t particularly like. I use best-quality 100% vanilla extract, a soul-mate with cherries. Many recipes also call for tapioca, which I reject. Like blueberry pie, you don’t want this too gummy or too gelatinous, but getting the perfect balance between fluid and gel is tricky. With experimentation, I’ve settled on a combination of flour and cornstarch for thickener. The fruit itself is a big factor, so don’t despair if your pie is a little runnier than you like; far better than stiff and rubbery. Serves 6.
2 cups flour
¾ tea salt
6 T cold unsalted butter
4 T lard or shortening
5-6 T ice water
In a food processor, pulse flour and salt. Drop in cold butter, and pulse a few times until pea-sized; drop in lard, and pulse again a few times until mixture is coarse and crumbly, with a few larger pieces of fat still visible. Through the feed tube, add 3 T ice water all at once with the motor running, then add remaining water, a tablespoon at a time, pulsing only until the dough comes together into a ball. Remove, divide and shape gently into two discs, and refrigerate while you make the filling, or overnight.
5-6 cups fresh sour cherries, pitted
scant 1 ¼ c sugar
1 T lemon juice
1 tea vanilla
2 T flour
2 T cornstarch
2 T unsalted butter
Heat oven to 400 F. Gently mix the pitted cherries, sugar, lemon juice, vanilla, and flour and cornstarch in a large bowl. It will make a lot of juicy liquid, even with the starch. Remove pastry and roll out to about 12-13”; fit one loosely into a 9” pie plate, and cut the other into ½” strips with a pastry wheel or sharp knife (you can use a ruler, but don’t bother unless you are entering a contest). Pour the filling into the pie plate and dot with the 2 T butter. Working from the center, weave the strips into a lattice; I lay all the “vertical” strips, starting with the center one, then weave outward in two directions from the center of the pie. Trim the overhang of both pastry layers to within an inch of the plate rim; tuck them under (to sit on top of the rim), and crimp. Chill the unbaked pie about 10 minutes, then bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 and bake another 30-40 minutes, until crust is golden and the juices boil up and begin to gel. Let cool completely before cutting or you will have a river of juice!! Vanilla ice cream is nice.

Currant Pie
As in the photos, you can also bake this in small blind-baked tartlet shells or in ramekins, and serve it as an old-fashioned summer pudding. This makes an 8” pie; you can use the above crust, dividing it accordingly and freezing the rest for a larger pie. Making this with all currants is equally fabulous, but because 3 cups of currants are not always that easy to find, I often combine them with raspberries, and that is how I’ve written this down. It is adapted from a very sketchy, somewhat different one handwritten in pencil in the “Notes” section in the back of one of the old cookbooks I collect, dated 1939. I’ve made a number of changes to proportions, and added my favorite spice, cardamom. Serves 4.

1 ½ cups red currants
1 cup raspberries
¾ cup sugar
2 T flour
1 T cornstarch
1/4 tea cardamom
pinch of salt
2 egg yolks
2 T water
2 egg whites
1 T sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Gently mix the currants and raspberries with the sugar, flour, cornstarch, and cardamom. Lightly beat the egg yolks with the water and stir it into the berries, blending well. Pour it into buttered ramekins or a partially blind-baked crust (8-12 min at 425 F, cooled). Bake the filling 15 minutes; remove to a rack, and reduce the oven to 325 F. Beat the egg whites with a tablespoon of sugar until it forms stiff peaks but is still moist and shiny; spoon it over the top of the still-warm filling, spreading it to touch the crust or the sides of the ramekins. Bake another 15 minutes at the lower heat. Cool.
Sour Cherry-Currant Preserves
Currants, which are high in pectin, add both flavor and body to this jam. I first made this years ago, when I had cherries and not enough currants to do anything else with. A nice outcome. With or without currants (add lemon, if not), sour cherry jam is special. In addition to spreading it on toast, it is excellent stirred into European-style plain yogurt or vanilla ice cream, and served with cheese and meats, particularly on sandwiches. Makes 2 8-oz jars plus a little extra.
1 cup fresh currants, stemmed
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup water
2 ½ cups pitted sour cherries (about 3 cups before pitting)
2 cups sugar
pinch salt
5” piece fresh stick cinnamon, broken in half
8-10 cherry pits, cracked, and kernels removed
In a small saucepan bring currants and the ¼ cup each of sugar and water to a boil; cook a few minutes, until the fruit breaks down into a mush. Line a measuring cup with a double layer of cheesecloth, and pour the currant mixture in; twist the ends (do not squeeze the contents or the juice may become cloudy) and latch them over the handle, allowing the juice to drain into the cup and keeping it above the liquid. This should yield about ½ cup.
Pit the sour cherries, reserving some pits to dry. Put the cherries in a 3-qt slope-sided pan with the remaining sugar and the salt and cinnamon. Bring to a rolling boil, then reduce heat just a bit and boil, skimming only the true foam from around the edges, for about 12 minutes or until it sheets off the spoon. Remove from the heat, pour into clean jars, and add a few kernels to each. Seal. (To crack cherry pits, wipe off any remaining pulp, and put them in a small baggie. Crack gently, so as not to smash the kernel itself, and separate the kernels from their shells; discard the shells.)


Willa said...

To my surprise and delight, while on my passionate wild search for pick your own farms for currants and sour cherries in New Jersey,I discovered your site.

Am I the sole admirer, [surely I am not the only one], interested and passionate for what appears to be a near lost art, that of loving what is an obscure berry!

The currant, not to mention the sour cherry.

Thank you for your flavorful mark you have left here for us searchers.

You have whetted my hunger to find the delicate little round jewels, yet this season.

Willa Mitchell

Jane said...

Hi Willa: As a NJ native myself, I doubt you will find sour cherries (possibly currants)--but the good news is, if you are not too far from Philadelphia, one of the Amish farmers sells them at Reading Terminal Market: Kauffman's Lancaster County Produce. You can find him using this map: The trick is to catch them during the right weeks--sometime between about now and early July. Good luck!

Kristine said...

Hi Jane,

Thank you for your blog, I love reading the email updates! I have received 4-5 cups frozen pitted sour cherries (Door County cherries) and I am wondering if this recipe will work with frozen cherries or can be modified.

Jane said...

Hi Kristine: Thank you! I appreciate your reading. Door County mostly grows the good old Montmorency,so that's a good start. If your cherries were flash frozen individually, without sugar, and are still cherry-red, you can try the pie, perhaps with an additional T cornstarch and a little more lemon to be on the safe side. Use them straight from the freezer. The preserves, definitely. The recipe for pickled cherries and vinegar, at this link, are also a safe bet: . You can also use them for a salsa or chutney or other sauce. However, if the cherries were frozen with sugar or in syrup, or were blanched, they will not be ideal for pie. Use them for something else, like a nice sauce. Let me know how you make out.