Celebrating the Sour Cherry, One of Summer's Most Fleeting Fruits
I never ate cherry pie growing up. We didn't have Fourth of July traditions, either. My mother isn't from America; she's a descendant of Huguenot emigrés, chased out of France for their religious beliefs, who was raised in South Africa and later moved to Ireland. My father is a first-generation American, whose Jewish parents emigrated from Ukraine. We went where our summer plans took us, and if there were fireworks involved, all the better. We also enjoyed barbecues, swam in other people's pools, jumped off docks, and cooled down with ice cream. But as for so many Americans, our holiday rituals were a work in progress—and pie-making wasn't one of them.
Then three years ago, my husband and son and I settled into an old farmhouse at the edge of the historic village of Kinderhook, in New York's Hudson Valley. Our home is a block from Samascott Orchards, one of just a few places in the region where you can pick your own sour cherries. Every June, devotees sign up for the farm's updates. When the precious gems are ready, people arrive in droves. Some come because sour cherries make the best pie; others have cultural traditions that use the fruit in dishes both sweet and savory. All varieties—from firecracker-red Balatons; to late-season morellos, deep maroon with a hint of warm spice in their juice; to lighter-fleshed Montmorency cherries, mainly from Michigan—share a few qualities. They're thin-skinned but hold their shape better than sweet cherries when baked, and they're small, with a bright pop of flavor in the mouth. Raw, their tartness is refreshing on a hot day; cooked, it balances a subtle sweetness. But their cultlike appeal also stems from the fact that they are hard to come by. These days, when more produce can be found most of the time, fresh sour cherries are a fragile anomaly. They bruise easily, so they're difficult to ship or store, and their three-to-four-week season means that when the time is ripe, you harvest—and cook.
Here, a dessert with a complicated name, Sbriciolata di Millefoglie With Sour-Cherry Preserves, and a divine taste: store-bought puff pastry adds delicate crunch to this layered dessert of creamy custard with Sour-Cherry Preserves that's topped with the fresh fruit.
Prop styling by Ayesha Patel
As I walk into Samascott's Pick-Your-Own entrance at 9:30 a.m. on opening day, it's already scorching hot. The trees offer shade, and the quiet is punctuated by the chatter of visitors filling their buckets and cartons. On one side of a tree, an elderly couple debate whether they have enough for two cherry pies; on the other, a young man reaches up to branches that are too high for his mother. Farther on, two tiny girls carry one pail, and when I pass them, I see they belong to a family of seven, speaking what sounds to me like Russian—the dad so high up in the tree, he's almost invisible.
Down another row, I recognize the Farsi that my cousin Molly's in-laws speak. Her husband, Shawheen, and his family emigrated from Iran when he was 12; he once drove two hours with relatives to pick at this very orchard. I've asked him about his childhood memories of cherry season in Tehran, and he described being smacked on the head by his grandmother: "Hey! Stop snacking! Pit, don't eat!" He conjured a fun, messy gathering, the vivid juice everywhere, and a fragrant pot of Sour-Cherry Preserves bubbling on the stove. After spooning them into jars, three generations would enjoy a feast of the Persian rice dish Albaloo Polo
A Holiday Favorite
Back in my kitchen, I dream up my own feast. I imagine what one might eat on a hot day in the Ukrainian countryside, sitting at a long table in the shade, the scent of dill and cucumbers coming from a summer kitchen. I remember a vibrant pizza parlor in Rome, where for dessert the cream in a tall glass was layered with fruit and crumbled pastry. I riff on a recipe for Cherry Bounce, a colonial drink, from a small cookbook called
. It calls for steeping cherries in booze before bottling. I hold the fruit between my fingers, three at a time, and quickly jab them with the tip of a paring knife before dropping them into a jar. I imagine them macerating in earthenware crocks in cool, ground-level kitchens in 18th-century Virginia, and with our fore-fathers (and -mothers) in mind, I make my own declaration: Henceforth, the Fourth of July is for celebrating sour cherries. What's more American than bringing the best of many cultures to a new place, and reimagining them in a fresh, personal way?
Garden Salad with Herbs and Sour-Cherry Dressing
Chilled Sour-Cherry Soup
Cold fruit soups are commonly eaten in Central and Eastern Europe as a savory course. They are a delicious, palate cleansing way to cool down in the heat of summer. This one is the essence of juicy sour cherries and fresh herbs. Serve a small amount as a starter.
Sour-Cherry Frangipane Tart
In the style of French country tarts, fresh fruit is arranged in a filled tart shell before baking. The almonds in this frangipane-style filling complement the flavor of cherries perfectly. This is an easy summer tart to make; the crumbly crust doesn't require any rolling. Dust with confectioners sugar just before serving.