This time last year, I began a trip through the French countryside that would last all summer. It was no longer spring, but it wasn’t quite summer either. It was that bonus in-between season called cherry.
My first guesthouse was on a patch of land called, fittingly enough, Clos des Cerisiers (“field of the cherry trees”) in a tiny Perigord town. The house, a converted barn, was ringed by fruit trees. But as soon as my traveling companions and I arrived, our hosts -- knowing what a name like that conjured in our imaginations -- apologized profusely. The birds, they said, had swooped down a week ago and eaten every last cherry.
I looked wistfully at the fruit-bare trees. If only we had arrived earlier.
So I wasted no time in the next month. I picked cherries off roadside trees whenever I could. I helped myself to a bottomless bowl of them at a farmhouse B&B. I ordered any dessert that had cherries in it -- clafouti, flan des fruits, you name it. In short, I ate them as if I would never see them again.
This season, back in L.A., I am only slightly more restrained. I’ve devoured them, straight from the farmers market, and was happy to spend the rest of the season popping them fresh. Then I tasted something brilliant at AOC -- roasted cherries.
“Roasting softens them up and develops the flavor a little more, bringing out the sugars,” says chef de cuisine Daniel Mattern. He uses roasted cherries as a finishing touch for a spectacular little salad. He layers endive, radicchio and frisee made smoky by grilling, Serrano ham sliced paper thin and wild arugula, then he sprinkles over some almonds and the roasted cherries.
They’re not cooked beyond recognition but to perfection. You bite into a roasted cherry and get a bit of resistance as you would from its unroasted skin, but inside, it’s a different story. The fruit’s juicy flesh melts warmly in your mouth, releasing a cherry sweetness with a hint of almond flavor.
Mattern dresses the salad with extra virgin olive oil, almond oil and noble sour, which is an Austrian vinegar made from the Pedro Ximenez sherry grape. “Every time I taste it, I think of cherries,” Mattern says. But considering noble sour costs around $50 for 250 milliliters, or about 7.5 ounces, Mattern says that aged balsamic vinegar is a fine substitute; in fact, it’s what Mattern used when he first put the dish on the menu while waiting for delivery of the hard-to-find noble sour.
There’s a lot going on in this salad, but the flavors (sweet, smoky, salty, bitter and sour) pull together beautifully. And Mattern says he deliberately doesn’t stem the fruit, an invitation “for people to grab a stem and eat a cherry just like that.”
Mattern isn’t the only chef roasting cherries. Chris Kidder, executive chef at Literati II in L.A., likes to serve juicy, roasted cherries with a thick pork chop made succulent by brining. He garnishes the dish with fried and grilled leeks and serves a potato and walnut gratin alongside.
To roast the cherries, he splashes olive oil and port vinegar in the pan and adds a few sprigs of thyme. “It’s good to be able to cook things with the pit and the stem,” Kidder says. Roasting cherries whole draws a hint of the bitterness from the pit; serving them with their stems adds visual appeal.
Campanile pastry chef Dahlia Solomon adds a little kirsch to her roasting pan, then serves the cherries and its juices around a slice of gateau basque. The cherries pair naturally with the tart’s almond pastry cream filling. “I like to keep the cherries nice and plump,” she says. “They’re great over ice cream too.”
Roasting cherries couldn’t be easier. There’s no pitting or slicing involved, and it takes just a few minutes. So of course I had to try it at home -- and immediately. Cherries are starting to dwindle at local farmers markets, though we can enjoy them for a little longer as growers to the north send them our way.
Reminiscing about my French trip that began with cherries got me to thinking how it ended with duck breasts -- and this inevitably led to a craving to have those two things together. My last stop was near the town of Mirepoix, just shy of the Spanish border, where the meaty magret de canard, from fatted ducks raised for foie gras, is a specialty.
In my quest to replicate it as I had it there, I found a terrific pan-roasting technique in a cookbook by Paula Wolfert. It’s simple and foolproof. I sear the meaty side of the duck, turn it onto its skin side for 15 minutes, then flip it over to finish. I don’t even have to multi-task: The five-minute resting period before slicing is all I need to roast cherries in the same skillet.
As with roasting cherries in the oven, pan-roasting is quick work. In either case, pull the cherries from the heat after just a few minutes. Their skins should be intact, holding in all that luscious juiciness. So don’t let them split or pop.
That way, you make every cherry count -- as you should. It’s such a short season, after all.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat the egg yolks and sugar on high until the mixture is very thick, pale yellow and forms a ribbon when the beater is lifted from the bowl, about 3 minutes. Remove the bowl from the mixer and sift in the cornstarch and flour, whisking to combine.
In a medium stainless steel saucepan over high heat, begin to warm the milk. Add the vanilla bean and seeds. Bring the milk to a boil. Remove the vanilla bean. Slowly pour about one-fourth of the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Return the egg-milk mixture to the saucepan and combine with the remaining milk.
Cook over medium heat, whisking the mixture until it’s thickened and bubbles in the center, about 6 minutes. Over a medium bowl, strain the cream through a fine mesh sieve. Cover the mixture with plastic wrap, pressing it against the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Place the bowl over ice while you prepare the filling.
Prepare the filling. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, grind the almonds with half of the powdered sugar until it’s the consistency of a fine meal.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter on low, 2 to 3 minutes, until softened. Add the remaining powdered sugar and mix on medium 3 to 4 minutes until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the almond mixture and mix another minute, until combined.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolk, rum and almond extract. Turn the mixer to low and slowly add the egg mixture a few teaspoons at a time into the butter mixture, mixing until incorporated. Add the pastry cream in batches and mix on low until just combined. Refrigerate until chilled, about an hour. Let the puff pastry sheets temper in the refrigerator 1 hour before rolling.
On a lightly floured surface, quickly roll one sheet of puff pastry dough into a 12-inch circle, one-eighth-inch thick, flouring the surface of the dough as necessary.
Lightly coat a 10-inch tart ring with melted butter. Place the ring on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Gently fold the circle of dough into quarters. Position the point in the center of the mold and carefully unfold. (If the dough is too soft to move, chill it on a baking sheet until firm enough to handle. Alternately, if it is too rigid to handle, let it warm for a few minutes to soften.) Fit the dough into the pan by working your way around the edges, gently lifting up the dough and easing it down so that it fits into the corners and sides of the mold. Dip the knuckle of your index finger in flour and run it around the inside of the pan, gently pressing the dough into the corners with the flat part of the knuckle. Using the three middle fingers of one hand, press the dough into the sides of the pan, pinching slightly if necessary to make sure that the dough comes up slightly above the top of the rim and is an even thickness all around. Chill until firm, 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Flouring the surface as necessary, roll out the second sheet of puff pastry and cut out an 11-inch circle to make a top crust. Place it on a baking sheet, and using a straight-edge razor or a very sharp knife, score the dough with diagonal lines, spaced three-fourths inch apart, to cover the entire surface, being careful not to cut all the way through. Score diagonal lines going in the other direction to make a diagonal grid. Chill until firm, 30 minutes to an hour.
Adjust the oven rack to the middle position. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the tart shell and the top crust from the refrigerator. Spoon the filling into the tart shell and spread evenly. Press the excess dough down over the outer rim of the ring. Brush the edge of the tart shell with the egg white. Center the top crust over the tart, pressing down gently. Using a rolling pin, roll over the edge gently to seal the top crust to the bottom crust and cut away the excess dough. Brush the top crust with the egg white and sprinkle the surface with the sugar.
Bake for 1 hour, 20 minutes or until nicely browned. Remove from oven. Remove the tart ring and let the tart cool to warm. Increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees to roast the cherries while the tart is cooling.
Roasted cherries and assembly
In a large bowl, toss together the cherries, sugar, oil, kirsh and vanilla bean and seeds. Place the mixture in a baking dish.
Bake for 7 to 12 minutes, stirring halfway though. Be careful not to over-bake; the cherries should wilt and release some juices but remain intact. Keep warm until ready to serve.
Slice the gateau with a long serrated knife starting at the side and working to the center gently, sawing back and forth with gentle pressure. Cut into 10 portions and place on individual plates. Spoon the warm roasted cherries and their juices onto the plates, surrounding the cake. Serve immediately.
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