Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sour Cherries: Rare as Rubies

It all started with an email.

The email was from a fellow member of the Baker’s Dozen that was sent to the general membership. Jennie Schacht from Schacht & Associates wanted to know where oh where she could get fresh sour cherries in the SF Bay Area.

I read her email then followed the thread of responses with growing interest. I had no idea how hard it was to find sour (also called tart) cherries in this area.

I had no idea because having grown up in the Mid-West, finding sour cherries wasn’t a big deal. And for me, it was especially easy because we had a cherry tree in our back yard!

Every springtime our cherry tree would be thick with white blossoms foretelling the bounty we would soon harvest. And every June we would have Montmorency sour cherries – baskets and baskets of them.

My mom, who worked full time, had quite the difficult time keeping up with the harvest. Having grown up during the Great Depression, it went against her thrifty nature to waste anything.

As the youngest of five, the best way to get some of her time was to bake with her on her rare day off. And bake I did – pies, cakes, cookies, -- many a Sunday was spent rolling dough.

She would put up jars and jars of cherry jam. She would make lots of cherry pies. And when she was overwhelmed with too many cherries, she would make cherry cobbler.

I know that depending upon where you live or where you grew up, there is more than one definition of what makes something a cobbler as well as differing opinions on how to make a cobbler.

All I know is that in my house, cobbler was something that was made in a glass casserole dish that measured 9x13 and had a top crust only; no bottom crust. The crust was basic pie dough made from Crisco.

I guess this must have been my mom’s version of pie fast food – a way to use up a lot of cherries with a minimal amount of effort.

I ruined many a shirt pitting those cherries. I look liked I’d been shot – my shirts were scattered with brown stains. I didn’t wear an apron because she didn’t – I don’t remember why she didn’t but to this day, I often don’t realize I’ve forgotten to put on one of my many aprons until I’m covered in flour (or worse).

So, back to that email from Jennie. Her recommendation on how to score sour cherries in the SF area is to keep your eyes out for the cherries at your local market or ask one of the farmer's at your local farmer's market to hold some for you when they come in.

I checked with two local organic farm stands near me. The produce manager informed me that the season this year for the cherries was only about two weeks long and they sold out immediately. The local season is usually mid-May to early June.

Two of the gourmet grocery stores near me had the same response. At one of the fruit stands, I asked about a wait list for next year and was met with a long silence, then a nod and an offer to come see him next year so he could put me on the list.

I felt like I was making a drug deal.

I hadn’t made a cherry pie or cobbler in years – probably because of all those cherry pies in my past. I usually opted for a peach pie during the summer and apple in the fall.

But now I just had to make a cherry cobbler. But where to find cherries? And did they have to be the rare sour cherry? Is that the only cherry that would do? What about frozen or canned cherries from other cherry producing states?

Most bakers like to use sour cherries in their baked goods. These cherries are called Montmorency as I mentioned above. But some bakers like to use the sweet cherries, which are called Bing cherries. Bing cherries are easily found at grocery stores and farmer’s markets. There are of course many other types of cherries such as the Rainier cherry with yellow and reddish skin and the Royal Ann variety that are mostly used for maraschino cherries. But it was the rare and elusive sour cherry that I sought.

And as Matthew Amster-Burton put it in his May 2008 article for Gourmet Magazine, “they’re lovely, fleeting, and very expensive, like a pony. I’ve routinely spent $50 on them.”

If I had a back yard I would be planting a Montmorency tree right now. And in fact, that is what Jenni told us she was going to do. I will be sure to introduce myself to her at our next meeting!

In her book, The Pie and Pastry Bible, Rose Levy Beranbaum recommends that if you are unable to find fresh, local cherries, to get them from American Spoon Foods located in Michigan.

If Beranbaum says it is ok to use frozen or canned, who am I to argue??

Some markets carry frozen cherries from Michigan, Washington and Oregon – the primary states for cherry production. But most of the cherries were sweet cherries, not sour and I was too impatient to order them online.

But then I remembered the cherry strudel I had made for a recent Daring Baker’s Challenge. I hadn’t paid too much attention to the filling since the real challenge had been in making strudel dough. I had used canned cherries from Oregon Fruit Products. They were nothing more than fruit packed in water. No additives. And this time I noticed that the label declared that the cherries were Montmorency cherries. They were about $6/can.

I thought of my mom as I rolled out the pie dough and fitted it over my filling in my seldom-used 9x13 casserole dish. I put my own twist on the cobbler while remaining true to her original recipe.

For the crust I used Crisco but also added a bit of butter. For the filling I primarily used the sour cherries and a small amount of their juice, which I had thickened with a bit of cornstarch. I had decided to add some sweet Bing cherries to my cobbler --- also from Oregon Fruit Products -- so I added just a small amount of sugar to my filling. And in a nod to all those baking days with my mom, I didn’t wear an apron – but of course I didn’t have to pit those cherries either!

As it baked, my house was filled with the familiar scent of pastry dough and bubbling cherries. I wished that my mom were still alive to enjoy it with me. But like the rare Montmorency cherry, I didn’t know she would leave so soon.


  1. Hi Patricia,
    I'm glad you found a solution to your sour cherry dilemma! If you will be in the Berkeley area, there have been dark tart cherries (they're not Montmorencies, which are my favorite, but another variety, possibly in the Morello family) at the new Berkeley Bowl West, at least last weekend when I was there. We bought 16 lbs and they are now all pitted (aprons on!) and packaged up in our freezer in pie-size bags, which for me is 2-1/2 lbs post-pitting.

    You will find a recipe for sour cherry pie in my Farmers Market Desserts cookbook, out next Spring (Chronicle Books).

    And for the record -- I have never bribed a farmer at the market! (or anyone else for that matter) Just asked them when their cherries were coming in and to hold some for me.

    Happy baking!

  2. We would love to make this!!! We have everything but the sour cherries :>( we can make it with some other fresh fruit...and yes, we know all about Crisco! Nice post, Best, s