The smart people get down to the farmers market early on Saturday mornings. They beat the crowds, get the pick of the morning bounty, and enjoy a generous plates of chilaquiles from Cocina Primavera without having to wait thirty minutes in line. And while I know all of this on an intellectual level, my body rejects any sort of go-getter type behavior on what it believes is supposed to be a lazy weekend morning. So I don't fight it. More times than not I stroll into the market around 10am, sometimes 11. I inevitably have to stop at the ATM at the north end of the building, I like to swing by and get a coffee, and then out back to figure out what to bring home to cook, maybe get a bite for breakfast (really lunch). I actually don't mind the lines and the crowds so much as it has become part of the ritual. It is not so bad standing around in line chatting with friends or talking with travelers visiting the market for the first time. And as far as the produce, there is always something I'm excited to buy - even after noon.
A few weeks back when I saw the very first cherries of the season my eyes lit up in a spark of delight that dimmed into mild confusion. A card table nestled where the citrus normally sits was carpeted with baskets of perfect, deep red cherries. I thought there must have been a mistake, a freak harvest, that it was too early for cherries. A wave of sadness washed over me as it began to register that somehow nearly half the year had passed. Indeed, it is nearly June, and there will be more cherries to come in the weeks ahead.
I wanted to make something special with the first late spring cherries. I think these were were Brooks cherries, but I was so busy sampling I forgot to ask to be sure - sweet, with tight firm deep red skins, juicy ripe centers, and intense flavor. Pretty sure they were Brooks. There is a Cherry-Almond Gratin in the Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells that I've wanted to try, a recipe that celebrates the classic marriage of almonds and cherries. I have high expectations for the recipes from Patricia's cookbooks because so many I've tried in the past are beyond exceptional - this one was perfect. I love rustic desserts and this fits the mold. It is simple to throw together: a simple saute of pitted cherries tossed with sugar and kirsch beneath a moist almond cake topping.
The flavor in this gratin stops time. The almond top melds perfectly with the sweet spiked juice of the cherries - amazing and simple to pull together. I made individual-sized gratins, or you can do as the book calls for and make it family-style in a porcelain baking dish. It is a perfect recipe to welcome in cherry season.
For those of you who don't pit cherries very often, here's the trick: I don't have a cherry pitter, so I take a pair of clean needle nose pliers and use them to pit the cherries. Once you get the swing of things it goes fast. The trick is to insert the pliers into the side of the cherry at a 90-degree angle - straight in the side. Not through the top, not through the bottom. When you go in through the side with the pliers open just a hint you can get a grip on the pit at a comfortable angle and rip it right out. Leaves the cherry intact for the most part as well. Took me quite a lot of cherries to finally figure this out.
Cherry-Almond Gratin Recipe
2 pounds fresh cherries, rinsed, stemmed, and pitted
1 tablespoon kirsch (cherry eau-de-vie)
2 tablespoons sugar
The Almond Cream:
1 cup finely ground almonds
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 cup confectioners' sugar
Several drops of kirsch (optional)
Several drops of almond extract
Confectioners' sugar for dusting the gratin
10 1/2-inch round porcelain baking dish
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Butter the baking dish. Set it aside.
3. In a large, heavy skillet, combine the cherries, kirsch, and sugar. Cook over low heat, stirring regularly, for 5 minutes. Transfer the cherries to the prepared baking dish and set aside.
4. Prepare the almond cream: in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whisk, combine the almonds and butter. Whisk, blending until smooth. Add the eggs, cream, and confectioners' sugar and whisk until thick, smooth, and well blended. Add the kirsch, if using, and the almond extract, mixing to blend. Pour the cream over the cherries in the baking dish.
5. Place the baking dish in the center of the oven and bake until the gratin is firm and deep golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove to a wire rack and cool
6. Dust the gratin lightly with confectioners' sugar and serve in wedges, warm or at room temperature. This dessert is best served just a few hours after it is prepared.
From The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells (Harper Collins, 2001) - reprinted with permission