Pucker Power

Big Cherry Pie à la mode, oil on panel, by Mary Ellen Johnson

Big Cherry Pie à la mode, oil on panel, by Mary Ellen Johnson

Can you bake a cherry pie?

Of course you can and this is the time of year when you must, absolutely MUST, try it.


Bing cherries

Now I know we all love to eat those plump, luscious, wine red cherries out of hand, spitting the pits into our palms or on to the lawn or (for the more fastidious), into a tidy receptacle. These big, fat, meaty, dark cherries (usually Bing cherries) are in season now and available in all of our local markets. These cherries, which originated in China, were developed in the Pacific Northwest and the ones from Oregon are simply “to die for.”  They are the type of cherries that don’t need anything done to them beyond washing and plopping them down on the table in a pretty bowl.

But I am thinking about the other type of cherries that also are currently in season. These are the smaller, softer cherries which can be either a bright, vivid red or a darker, garnet red colour. These are sour cherries and they are usually divided into two main categories:  either amarelles or morellos.

blackforestcakeMorellos are the darker kind, the cherries of Hungary and eastern Europe. (They actually evolved in the Black Forest area of Germany and, hence, their use in Black Forest cake.)   Morellos are also used in various types of cherry liqueurs — cherry brandy or kirsch.  I must admit, that the first time I tried a cherry liqueur I thought it tasted like cough syrup. (Buckley’s, anyone?)  But after trying it in a Singapore Sling (a vastly complicated, yet stunningly delicious cocktail), I decided that it was pretty much alright. Anyway, if your interest lies in cherries plus alcohol, I can recommend Cherry Heering, LCBO 227140 or the less expensive Bols Cherry Brandy, LCBO 24380.  Both of these liqueurs are ruby red and very sweet.  Kirsch or kirschwasser (the LCBO has several different kinds) is also a cherry liqueur but is clear in colour and dry.  (Are you old enough to remember how we used to add it to Swiss cheese fondue?)

Anyway, the other type of sour cherries, the amarelles, are a bright, fire engine red and are usually Montmorency cherries. These cherries are probably the most common type in Ontario and are the cherries that we use to make pies and sauces and jams. They have a long history in Ontario, even though they are not native to North America. First brought to Canada by French colonists from Normandy, cherry pits were planted in the lands edging the St. Lawrence River and along the borders of the Great Lakes, early in the 17th century. (In the “American” way, Traverse City, Michigan has named itself “the cherry capital of the world.”)  These sour cherries are a hardier plant than the sweet ones and are well suited to our cooler climates. They thrive now, especially near the shores of Lake Erie and on the Niagara Peninsula. They are commonly harvested from the middle or toward the end of July.


Montmorency cherries

Montmorency cherries are only in season in Ontario for a very brief period, so you need to be quick if you intend to use them. Fortunately they can be frozen, preserved and dried — so you can buy a few extra quarts, pit them and freeze them and enjoy them all winter long. Instructions for freezing suggest that the cherries be pitted and frozen in single layers on paper-towel lined trays. When the cherries are hard, double bag them in heavy re-sealable plastic bags and store them in the coldest part of the freezer. They should be used within a year.   Dried sour cherries are available from supermarkets all year round nowadays and they make a dynamic addition to chocolate chip and other cookies, salads and cereal.

I have encountered people who like to eat Montmorency cherries by the bowlful, but I think that they are a very small percentage of the population. These dainty yet acerbic cherries, smaller and softer than their relatives, pack a surprisingly sharp and tangy bite. The assertiveness of the flavour definitely will come as a shock if you pop one into your mouth. But when they are cooked and combined with the right ingredients, they exhibit a sophisticated, grown-up burst of flavour that contrasts with the suave, seductive, and less complex charms of their wine red cousins. And sour cherries are good for you – high in flavonoids that lower blood pressure and the organic acids known as phenols, antioxidants which also give them the wherewithal to stand up to heat.

For this reason, when we think of sour cherries, we think of cooking.They are a perfect ingredient for baking and make a wonderful complement to roasts and poultry.  And, since I am certain that you are well able to make a cherry pie, I’ll leave you with a recipe for a cherry cobbler.  Easier and quicker than having to fool around with all of that lattice crust and fancy pastry.

Cherry Cobbler

from Gourmet magazine, July 1997 



1 cup sugar

1 1/2 tbsp cornstarch

6 cups fresh pitted tart cherries

1 tbsp Amaretto or Frangelico

1 tsp vanilla

1/4 tsp ground allspice

Biscuit Topping

5 tbsp cold unsalted butter

1 cup all purpose flour

2 tbsp yellow cornmeal

2 tbsp sugar

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup milk

1/2 tsp vanilla


1) Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

2)  Make filling:  In a large saucepan whisk together sugar and cornstarch. Add cherries, liqueur, vanilla and allspice and bring to a boil over moderate heat, stirring occasionally.  Simmer mixture, stirring, 2 minutes and transfer to a shallow, 2 quart baking dish.

3)  Make topping:  Cut butter into pieces.  In a bowl with a pastry blender or in a food processor blend together flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, salt and butter until mixture resembles coarse meal.  If using a food processor, transfer mixture to a bowl.  Add milk and vanilla and stir until mixture forms a dough.

4)  Drop topping by rounded tablespoons onto cherry filling. Do not completely cover it. Bake in the middle of the oven for 40 minutes or until topping is golden and cooked through.  Transfer to a rack to cool slightly.

5)  Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.  Serves 8.



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