Fresh From the Farm – Katie Malich

Cherry season is in full swing, and the Culver City Farmers Markets are the go-to place for these early summer favorites. Walking along Main Street this afternoon, you’ll find the best local cherries: plump, juicy, tree-ripened red Brooks, deep burgundy Bings, and golden blushed Royal Anns.

Once you’ve tried cherries fresh from local Southern California orchards, you’ll return to our weekly markets throughout the remainder of the cherry season. The difference between the cherries sold at farmers market stands and those sold in supermarkets is simply stunning. Both have been recently picked, but you’re less likely to find super-ripe cherries at grocery stores. Cherries at the peak of perfection have a short shelf life, and what retail seller wants to risk reduced profits due to spoilage? I’ve not researched supermarket chain buying practices, but it seems to me that the taste of fresh cherries I’ve purchased at stores consistently falls somewhat short of perfection. Were they picked a bit sooner than farm stand cherries? Have they been refrigerated a bit longer during storage? Did some of them get bruised during transit? Perhaps. I’m just speculating. And, truth be told, if the only fresh cherries available were those in grocery stores, I’d still buy them. As long as they reached the store with a fairly minimal carbon footprint, that is. I have drawn a firm line at out-of-season imports from South America. But I’m ever so grateful that we Southern Californians .

So far this season, most of the cherries I’ve purchased have been eaten just as they are. Some have ended up mixed with plain yogurt. And a handful have ended up in fruit salads. But as I continue to take advantage of the far-too-short cherry season, I’ll be doing a little baking. And what desert wouldn’t be enhanced by a little touch of chocolate?

Want a tried and true method for preserving cherries for later use? Try freezing or brandying. Brandied cherries are wonderful over ice cream, crepes, or warm cake. For every three cups of stemmed, pitted cherries, combine a cup of sugar and a cup of cognac or other brandy. Stir the sugar and liquor until the sugar melts, then add the cherries. Remove to clean pint jars which have been thoroughly washed – lids and all – in very hot water. Gently shake the jar to ensure equal distribution of sweetened brandy. Store in the refrigerator for at least a week before using. Brandied cherries will keep for up to a year in the refrigerator.

If you have space in your freezer, you can stem and freeze extra cherries. Frozen, they will keep up to six months. Do not defrost before use in baking and cooking to ensure the frozen cherries retain their juice. If you have any leftover defrosted cherries, don’t refreeze them. They’ll turn mushy. But you don’t have to discarded or compost unused defrosted cherries. You can always adjust the amount of brandy and sugar in the brandied cherry recipe. Just make sure to keep the same 1 to 3 ratio and to use thoroughly cleaned jars washed in super-hot water. Brandied defrosted cherries should be good for at least six months if kept refrigerated.

Fresh or frozen cherries are good in cobblers, pies and tarts. But you needn’t limit yourself to tried and true baked recipes. You can mix things up with cherry-almond loaf cake, adopted from a Deborah Madison recipe I found in her book Local Treasures: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers Market.

Loaf Cake with Cherries and Almonds
(6-8 servings)

1 c. plus two tablespoons white flour
1 t. baking powder

1/2 t. salt
1/2 c. unsalted butter
3/4 c. sugar
1/4 c. almond meal (available at Trader Joes and most health food and co-op stores; although you can make your own in a food processor if you’d rather)
3 extra large or jumbo eggs
1/2 t. almond extract
1/2 t. vanilla extract
2 1/2 c. pitted Bing cherries
1 t. sugar
1 c. blanched, slivered almonds
confectioner’s sugar

*(for crunchier cake, substitute  1/2 c. whole , blanched almonds for almond meal)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter and flour a 3 x 5 x 8 inch pan and set it aside. Before you start to pit the cherries,.bring the butter and eggs and eggs out of the refrigerator so they’ll be at room temperature when needed. Wash, stem and pit the cherries. Next, cream the butter and sugar.

My version of this recipe diverges from Madison’s at this point. My version does not require a food processor and results in a smoother cake. Sift the flour, salt and baking soda, along with the almond meal. Stir, a bit at a time, into the creamed mixture, until smooth.

Madison’s recipe calls for whole blanched nuts instead of my almond meal and slivered almonds. You’ll need a food processor to follow her instructions. First, process the butter and sugar until well-creamed. Next, add half of flour – along with the salt and baking soda – and process. Then it’s almond-time. Add _ cup of whole, blanched almonds, and pulse all of it several times, just enough to roughly chop the almonds. Finally, the rest of the flour is added, and everything is processed for another minute or two.

If you want a smooth, non-crunchy cake body – and less dishes to wash – follow my version.

Whichever version you choose, it’s now time for the eggs. Add them one at a time, fully incorporating each egg into the batter before adding the next. Add the almond and vanilla extracts, stirring well.

Next, pour the batter into the prepared pan. You may need to use a spatula to scrape all the batter into the pan. Cover the top with cherries. Mix the almonds with one teaspoon of sugar and sprinkle over top. Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Let cool for 5-10 minutes, then remove to a cake plate. Dust with confectioner’s sugar just before serving.

Cherries with chocolate and cream

2 lbs ripe sweet cherries, pitted and stemmed
1/2 c. sugar
1 T. cream de cacoa
whipped cream
11/2 ounces finely grated bittersweet chocolate
dark chocolate shavings

In a large nonstick skillet, heat cherries and _ c. sugar over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium once sugar dissolves. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for around 5 minutes until cherries are heated through. Add one tablespoon cream de cacoa to juices in pan, stir. Remove from heat and let cool.

You may serve this in individual dishes or in one dish. Remove cherries from skillet with slotted spoon. Top with whipped cream. Drizzle reserved juices, dust with grated chocolate and garnish with dark chocolate shavings.

The downtown Culver City farmers market is held on Tuesdays from 2 to 7 pm on Main Street, between Venice and Culver Blvds. The Culver South Farmers Market is held on Saturday mornings from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the northeast corner of the Westfield Culver City parking lot at the corner of Slauson and Hannum Boulevards.

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