The internet tells me that sour cherry season lasts from early July to mid-August. This is most definitely a lie. At least at the Union Square Greenmarket here in Manhattan, they never last for more than a week. Unlike sweet cherries which are everywhere all the time, I don’t get to see the sour kind again until next early July to mid-August (lies). Every other year, I’ve let the season pass me by. Not this time. When I spotted sour cherries at the market last month, I started making mental notes of all the things I wanted to make with my most prized possessions. Ice cream, sorbet, jam, cordials, preserves, brandied…PIE! I grabbed all the pints that I could carry.
After stemming and pitting what must be at least a thousand cherries, Stella Parks’ sour cherry pie was up first. Fun fact about Stella: She is firmly on #TeamCake but somehow has developed what I think are the best pie recipes around. She uses a high ratio of fat and water for a flaky crust that stays crisp beneath the juiciest filling without parbaking. Her crust technique is similar to that of rough puff pastry, which is a simplified version of puff pastry that layers several small butter cubes into the dough instead of one big butter block. Stella uses a 1 to 1 ratio of flour to butter (by weight) and a generous quantity of water to bring it all together. Most recipes I’ve seen are conservative with hydration, fearing the gluten development that occurs when water and flour hook up. Instead Stella embraces gluten development to support all the butter that's layered throughout the dough.
Stella has also mastered the fruit filling, finding the perfect ratio of sugar to tapioca starch to set a sliceable yet glossy filling. Sugar does more than simply sweeten desserts; it provides structure and texture. Stella’s recipe uses exactly enough sugar to raise the gelling temperature of the tapioca starch, so it sets by the time the crust browns.
It was the best pie I had ever made, so we immediately made a second. Even though sour cherries are super delicate and thin skinned, they maintain their integrity and bracing acidity when baked, resulting in a puckery pie. The pie was perfectly sliceable, with the filling never feeling too goopy or thick, and the crust stayed crisp until the last slice.
Ice cream was up next. Brooks Headley (of Superiority Burger fame) makes the best gelato and sorbet in the city. I knew I wanted to use his recipes to make a sour cherry pit gelato and a sour cherry sorbet. I started with the sorbet, blending the cherries until smooth and then combined the purée with Brooks’ trademark sorbet syrup.
At its most basic, sorbet is a dairy-free frozen dessert made from spinning a syrup of water and sugar in an ice cream machine. You can flavor sorbets with everything from fruit to herbs and grains. The syrup made from cooking the water and sugar isn’t just for sweetening, it is what gives sorbet its melty and smooth structure. Adding sugar to water lowers the liquid’s freezing point—the more sugar added, the lower the freezing point becomes. Brooks’ sorbet syrup interesting because he adds dextrose. Dextrose is less sweet than table sugar, but makes a more viscous syrup which results in a creamier sorbet. Once I mixed the sour cherry puree with my Brooks Syrup ™ , I decided against straining it, because I really wanted the sorbet to have the bite of eating fresh fruit. Sour cherry sorbet, done.
Brooks has an interesting method for making gelato as well and, like most traditional gelato, is completely free of eggs. Compared to ice cream, gelato has more milk than cream and less air whipped into it when it churns, giving it a pleasantly dense texture. Without eggs in the way, flavors really pop. He mixes the dairy with sweeteners and milk powder and cooks it at a steady 180 degrees F for 30 minutes. This allows the milk powder to not only dissolve into the base, but also hook up with the other milk proteins there for an extra creamy gelato without any eggs.
The sorbet bursts with the taste of of fresh fruit and summer. I can’t wait to have it on top of a pavlova with fresh fresh summer fruit. The sour cherry pit gelato was just as successful, dense and chewy with slight hints of marzipan from the sour cherry pits. It was the perfect accompaniment to my sour cherry pie.
The rest of my jewels became sour cherry jam using Kevin West’s recipe from his book Saving the Season. I really like how simple the recipe was, using only the sour cherries, sugar, and lemon. I hit it with a potato masher as it simmered to break it up just a little bit—I like my jam really chunky. I am looking forward to the end of the day when I can turn my jam into a cocktail with whiskey, seltzer, and bitters for a cherry Coke vibe. What a way to end the day.
Sour cherries for lyfe,