Thursday, July 5, 2012

Cherry Almond Cake and The Saga of the Michigan Cherry Crop

I am apparently famous for my love of tart cherries.  My friend Jean, of Delightful Repast, even wrote to me recently and said, "I had last night's dessert for breakfast ....  Actually, I thought of YOU because of what I was eating.  Cherry upside-down cake ....  I always think of Michigan when I have cherries!"

Michigan is the #1 producer of tart cherries, and their short season usually coincides with the 4th of July.  But crops throughout the state were utterly destroyed earlier this year, as detailed in this article from the Michigan Farm Bureau:

"The degree to which western Michigan orchards have been wrecked this spring has most people in and near the agriculture industry talking in extremes, but even words like 'disaster,' 'catastrophic,' 'devastated' and 'decimated' seem inadequate after witnessing the situation firsthand ....  Wet, heavy snow broke thousands of branches in late winter. Then two weeks of summerlike temperatures in March tricked everything into budding four to six weeks ahead of schedule. A brutal April inflicted more than twice as many damaging frosts and freezes than normal. Water-gorged buds were frozen dead, making the trees themselves vulnerable to bacterial canker."

The ramifications of this situation go far beyond a threat to my annual cherry pitting fest and baking spree.   "What would you do if you lost 80, 85, 90, 95 or 100 percent of your family's income for a year?" asks one cherry grower from the northwest part of the state.  Many farmers say that it's not even worth bothering to harvest the meager crop, leaving summer workers without jobs.  And then the ripples will spread to shops, to entertainment venues, and to all the other places where lost income might have been spent.  It is tragic, truly, on an unimaginable scale.

And yet, there are glimmers of brightness in the cherry world.  Because when I was at the Farmers Market on Saturday morning, Kapnick Orchards from Britton had - gasp! - tart cherries for sale!  They told me they'd lost 50% of their crop, but they were happily selling these gorgeous fruits that had survived the onslaught.

These aren't the Balatons that I usually buy along with the bright red Montmorencies.  These are an entirely new variety for me to bore my loved ones with too many details about: Meteor cherries, which have dark skins, clear juice, freestone pits, tart flavor, and strong resistance to disease.  I bought two quarts, and hauled out my late grandmother's cherry pitter.

I know that most people would simply purchase a ready-made pie, or at least buy prepared cherries for baking.  And then there's lil' ol' moi.  I walk out into the back yard with a large bowl of cherries, a smaller bowl for the pits, another large bowl to hold the pitted fruits, and my MP3 player.   Then I sit in the sun engaging in my annual meditative process of picking up a cherry, plunking the stone out of it, and then depositing it into a different bowl before repeating the process several hundred more times.  And I love it so!

There is immense satisfaction not only in baking from scratch, but in baking with fruits I've processed myself.  And this almond-topped sour cream cake is a perfect way to use some of the cherry bounty.  It's rich, moist, delicate, crispy, crumbly, sweet, tart, and ideal with a cup of coffee or a glass of milk ... or, frankly, all by itself.

Cherry Almond Cake

1 cup tart cherries, chopped
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon almond extract

1/4 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup sour cream
1 egg
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder
1 cup flour

2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/3 cup sliced almonds
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons melted butter

confectioners' sugar

Cook cherries: Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Cook 1-2 minutes until thickened. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

Bake cake: Preheat oven to 350F. Grease an 8"-round cake pan, line bottom of pan with foil, then grease foil.

In a large mixing bowl, combine butter, sour cream, and egg; add sugar, salt, baking soda, and baking powder. Stir in flour, then pour batter into prepared pan.

Place dollops of cherries onto batter, then swirl in gently; smooth batter.

Combine brown sugar, almonds, cinnamon, and butter for topping; dollop over cake and spread a bit. Bake for 40 minutes until a tester comes out clean. Let cool in pan, then turn out into a serving platter.  Dust with confectioners' sugar.

Serves 8-12, depending upon serving size.


Jenn said...

It is sad to hear that so many crops can be lost just because of nice weather too early in the year... and growing up around farmers, I know that life for them is not always the easiest - your life truly depends on the weather. At least there is hope... and this amazing looking cake! I would eat this for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert!! YUM!

Bibi @ Bibi's Culinary Journey said...

We live surrounded by orchards and I've seen how devastating bad weather can be on crops.I live in area that is known for its sweet cherries and end of June is liker Christmas for me :)

Debra said...

Oh my. That is so sad. I just had my first fresh cherries in three years. They didn't sell them in South Texas. They are so delicious, it breaks my hearts for these families.

Chris said...

So THAT explains the $6 a pound I paid for fresh cherries!

Sad thing is, most farmers have crop insurance. They'll get some reimbursement (still at a loss I'm sure) but the workers will be totally at a loss. Not bashing the farmers, just the way it is.

Cranberry Morning said...

I remember when you wrote about your grandmother's cherry pitter! And that cake looks just fantastic. I love cherries. Too bad for Kevin that he's allergic to them. :-(

Carla said...

Yummy! I love your story. Well done!

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