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James Beard's Favorite Way to Celebrate the Cherry

James Beard

July 12, 2019

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In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from a lesson in chicken anatomy to a sandwich manifesto to the undeniable allure of summer cherries, which we share with you today. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more! 

Beard on Food: Cherry Ripe

When I was staying at the beach as a child, one of the things I most looked forward to was the great splitwood baskets of Bing cherries, picked from the trees in our backyard at home, that arrived by mail. The cherries from these enormous trees were as big as a small plum, with a deep blackish-red color, an exquisite flavor, and an unforgettable texture, the most delicious fruit one ever sank tooth into, completely and utterly soul-satisfying. From those days on, I have always loved ripe dark cherries.     

The Bing is one of the two great varieties we have in this country. Strangely enough, it is one of the few fruits we grow that was named for a Chinese, a gardener called Bing who developed this large, dark, fine-meated cherry by crossing various varieties.

The other variety is the Lambert, a development of the Napoleon cherry, which is deep red and very sweet. The best Bings and Lamberts come from the West Coast. After the California harvest is over, the Oregon and Washington cherries start coming in about the third week in June and last into August, so there is a long period of fruition. Nothing, of course, is more blissful than to stand in a cherry orchard, pick a branch of these cherries, pop them into your mouth, and bite into their luscious juiciness. However, with modern methods of packing and shipping, I find that the cherries remain firm and fresh after being shipped across the country and taste almost as good when we get them on the East Coast as they do when freshly picked on the West Coast.

Cherries have many uses. The less sweet red cherries are much better for pies, but the glorious Bings and Lamberts are excellent in ice creams, puddings, and various kinds of tarts in which you want extreme sweetness. If you have a mind to, you can freeze cherries on the stem and enjoy them all year round. Take fresh cherries, wash them very well, leaving the stems on, then place them in freezer containers (I find the round or square plastic ones are best) and shake the container so the cherries nestle together tightly—don’t shake so hard as to crush them, just gently until they slide into place. Cover them tightly without more ado, and put them in the freezer. When you take them out, you’ll find they have retained all their beautiful natural color. It’s fun to use them as a garnish or as a table decoration—people never expect to see cherries out of season that look as if they had just been picked.

In August, when cherries are at their prime, you have a great opportunity to experiment with Bings and Lamberts. You might like to serve them just chilled, by themselves, eating them from the stem, or to poach them in sugar-and-water syrup, then flame them and spoon them over vanilla ice cream. Or you might try one of the many traditional European dishes made with cherries. Some of these may be new to you, so I am going to suggest one way of using Bings or Lamberts, a French dessert with the unusual name of Clafouti aux Cerises. Cerises, of course, are cherries. What clafouti means I haven’t the faintest idea, but that’s the name of the dessert, and see if you don’t love it as much as I do. In this country, most people consider it should be made with pitted cherries, but I think part of the fun and tradition is not to pit them. Who minds a few pits if the dish is good?

For Cherry Clafouti, wash a scant 4 cups Bing or Lambert cherries. Pit them or not, as you wish. I would say not. Toss them with about 2 tablespoons sugar and 2 tablespoons kirsch or Cognac, and let them stand for a few minutes while you cream 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter with about 2/3 cup granulated sugar. Cream the butter very well and work in the sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in 3 whole eggs, one at a time. Add 1 tablespoon grated orange rind and 1 cup unsifted flour. Blend very well, then add 1 teaspoon vanilla. Butter and lightly flour a 9-inch cake pan, pie pan, or spring form. Put a few spoonfuls of batter in the pan to cover the bottom, and distribute the cherries well in the batter, then pour the rest of the batter over the fruit. Sprinkle the top with 1 or 2 tablespoons granulated sugar. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 5 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375 degrees and continue baking until the cake tests done, between 40 and 45 minutes. Let it cool to just warm, and serve cut in wedges. Pass sweetened whipped cream with it.

This simple, extraordinarily good summer dessert is even more welcome in winter, made with frozen cherries. If you don’t have cherries you can make it with fresh prunes, plums, nectarines, or pears, in the same way.

To me, the cherry season is one of the pleasantest we have, a time to feast on cherries in every possible way—with one exception. I don’t like cherries in that awful jellied black cherry salad that you find on so many tables throughout different parts of this country. With all the lovely things you can do with Bings and Lamberts, to trap them in insipid rubbery gelatin is an abomination. So keep your cherries pure and simple, and enjoy them in all their delectable unspoiled ripeness.

Get James Beard's recipe for Cherry Clafouti.

Read more essays from Beard on Food.

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