After surprisingly successful cherry harvest, make cake

  • Sour Cherry Almond Cake is a great use of frozen fruit. Hillary Nelson / For the Monitor

  • Sour Cherry Almond Cake is an upside-down cake that can be made with other types of fruit if you don’t happen to have cherries on hand. Hillary Nelson / For the Monitor

  • Sour Cherry Almond Cake is the delicious reward for a summer spent tending cherry trees. The fruit are the target of bacteria, fungi, insects and small animals. Hillary Nelson / For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Tuesday, January 09, 2018

If you are like me, your freezer is stuffed with last summer’s produce. Roasted tomatoes, tomato puree, chutneys, jams and hot pepper sauce take up most of my freezer space.

But this year I also have bags and bags of sour Montmorency cherries!

Why the exclamation mark? Because on our farm, cherries are hard to grow. Few ripen, because they are attacked by bugs, bacteria, fungi, birds and even voles. When I have enough cherries any given year to make a couple of pies, I am delighted. But when I have enough cherries to also make pies and preserves and some left over to freeze? I am ecstatic.

Most years, the onslaught against our cherries begins in spring, with plum curculio (whose moniker is misleading – plum curculio love to destroy every orchard fruit, from apples to quince, and the entire alphabet in between). They leave tiny crescent marks in the baby cherries where they have laid eggs, and those egg-infested cherries tend to drop off the tree before ripening. Cherries are also susceptible to a bunch of bacterial and fungal infections, the couplet of “brown rot and black knot” being two of the worst.

And should we make it past curculio and the various rots, then come the critters. We have to cover our trees with netting every year to keep the birds from eating all the ripe cherries. Angry flocks of cedar waxwings and solo red-bellied woodpeckers scold me as I climb the ladder to tie on the protection each summer, and then squeeze through small openings in the net to gorge on the fruits, only to be trapped inside, until I come along to free them.

Frantic birds flapping against the inside of the net, I am used to. But last July when I squeezed under the barrier to pick, I was entertained by the antics of a vole who seemed to be a little drunk on Montmorency cherries and could not figure out that “down” was the best escape option. Instead, it ran around and around the inside of the net, passing not six inches from my face several times, before I got in its way, insisting it to jump to the grass and make a run for it.

This year’s bumper crop of cherries I chalk up to my husband’s perseverance. He got out in the orchard with organic sprays and amendments at just the right moments last spring and early summer. We put the netting up in good time, before the cherries were ripe enough to attract the cedar waxwings and woodpeckers. And the weather cooperated – dry at the right time, wet at the right time, and never too hot or cold. All the stars aligned. And somehow, the cherries survived, ripened, and didn’t succumb to either disease or animals.

And so, we wound up with a whole lot of beautiful, ripe sour cherries.

I feel like Midas, and with good reason. If we factor in the cost of all the organic fertilizers and pest controls, netting, hours spent in the orchard spraying, fertilizing, pruning and so on, each cherry must be worth its weight in gold. Which means that I will waste not one of the cherries I put by in our freezer last July.

Montmorency cherries are fragile and contain a lot of juice, which makes them both delicious and problematic. When fresh, they have to be used immediately or frozen. One of the easiest things to do with them is fill up a quart canning jar with the fresh fruit – unpitted, because the pits have a delicious cinammon-like flavor – and cover them with good vodka. Screw on the lid, place in a cool dark spot and wait. After a few months, you have the most delicious sour cherry cordial imaginable, just in time for the holidays.

Once they are frozen, it’s best to keep them that way when baking. That’s right – do not thaw cherries, or any frozen fruit for that matter, before baking. The fruit’s cell walls have burst during freezing. Once thawed, the juice runs out of the broken walls and out of the fruit. Thawed fruit in a puddle of juice must be drained before adding to muffins or cakes or a pie. And all that juice goes to waste, unless, in the case of a pie, it is cooked with some sugar and cornstarch and thickened before having the fruit stirred back into it.

Here’s a fast, delicious almond cake topped with fruit. The original version can be found in the beautiful, excellent book The Artful Baker by Cenk Sonmezsoy, though I changed the topping to work with frozen fruit and to incorporate my upside-down cake tweaks.

I used my frozen sour cherries, but you can substitute whatever frozen fruit you like – blueberries, sweet cherries, peaches, and so on. Leaving the fruit frozen means the cake takes a little longer to bake, but the results are well worth the wait. And it keeps for days (if you can resist it), so you can bake it ahead of time when your schedule is busy.

Upside-Down Cherry Cake

For the topping:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

¾ cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch (for less juicy fruit, use less cornstarch)

2 tablespoons sugar

3 cups frozen sour cherries (or other frozen fruit)

For the cake:

10 tablespoons unsalted butter (plus extra for buttering the pan)

3 large eggs

½ teaspoon almond extract

1 teaspoon vanilla

1½ cups fine almond meal

¾ cup white flour

¾ cup sugar

1½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat the inside and bottom of a 3 inch deep, 8 inch wide cake pan with a thick layer of cold butter. Melt the butter in a small pot and add the brown sugar, stirring it all together well. Remove from heat and pour into the bottom of the prepared cake pan, spreading it evenly.

In a small bowl, toss the cherries with the cornstarch and sugar, then spread them over the brown sugar mixture. Place in the refrigerator until the cake batter is ready.

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs with the almond extract and vanilla until well blended. Set aside. Cut the cold butter into chunks and set aside. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the almond meal, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt until well combined. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture becomes very thick and homogenous. Add the eggs and pulse again until completely combined.

Remove the cherries from the refrigerator and spread the batter evenly over them. Tap the pan several times on the counter to settle the batter well. Place in the oven and bake for about 1 hour and 10 minutes, turning the cake halfway through to brown it evenly. If the cake browns too much during this time, turn the oven down to 325 degrees. The cake is done when it is no longer soft in the center and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Allow the cake to rest and cool for about 10 minutes. Run a knife around the inside edge of the pan to loosen the cake. Invert it onto a plate carefully and lift the pan from the cake. Allow to cool well before cutting.

Serves 8.