Now Is the Sweet Spot for Cherries
This stone fruit is worth all the extra effort pitting requires.
Cherry compote at Aunt Mary's is great as a topping on pancakes and other things.
Photo by Lori Eanes
Cherries tend to inspire fond childhood memories for most people.
Jack Stewart is not one of them. Without getting into specifics — it involved a cherry pie eaten at a diner inside a hot Texas bus station — one might suggest that this unpleasant early incident is a reason why cherries are not a regular presence on the menu at Aunt Mary’s, his popular Southern-inspired brunch spot in Oakland’s Temescal district. Stewart maintains that the real reason is that sweet cherries remain primarily a seasonal delicacy whose appearance in late spring heralds the bounty of summer fruits to come in the Bay Area.
“I like them in large part because they are still such a seasonal thing,” he says. “Like most stone fruit, cherries have that, ‘They’re here!’ quality.”
That sentiment is echoed by Jessica Stonebarger, vice president of Harvest Time Brentwood, a nonprofit devoted to promoting agritourism to eastern Contra Costa County, home to dozens of cherry farms.
“There’s a sense of anticipation and excitement when the cherry trees start blooming,” she said. “It’s a signal for spring — that the winter is over, the warm weather is coming, and we’re out of the rainy season.”
Cherry season can be blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quick here. It technically runs from April through July, but May through June is the sweet spot with the peak right around Memorial Day weekend, said Stonebarger. The main sweet varieties seen locally are the classic deep-red Bings, generally the sweetest, and the yellow-white Rainiers, which tend to be tarter and better for baking. When picking them at the market — or straight off the trees at U-pick events hosted at Brentwood farms — look for firmness, intactness (i.e., no holes), and vibrant color. One thing to keep in mind is that cherries do not ripen once harvested, so what you see is what you get.
At Aunt Mary’s, Stewart uses fresh cherries in a sweet compote topping for pancake specials on the weekend brunch menu (check online for availability). The recipe emphasizes cooking the cherries just enough so that that they incorporate the flavor of the ingredients but not so much that they break down and lose their fresh character. Keeping with his restaurant’s philosophy of putting fresh spins on Southern comfort fare, Stewart adds vanilla because it brings to mind the vanilla-cherry sodas he used to drink as a kid growing up in Texas.
While he uses it on pancakes, the compote can be used as a topping for cookies, ice cream, or waffles. Perhaps the only drawback? It can be time consuming.
“My baker will grumble a little bit, good naturedly, because it takes more work to pit all the cherries,” Stewart said with a laugh.
Most people would agree that it’s worth the effort.
Cherry Vanilla Compote
(6 cups equals 12 servings)
1 cup red wine
1 cup apple cider
1 ounce balsamic vinegar
½ cup honey
1 pound fresh cherries, pitted and halved
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon vanilla
Reduce red wine and cider to a quarter cup. Add the vinegar, honey, and cherries and simmer for five to 10 minutes. Combine the cornstarch and water until dissolved and slowly add to the compote. Simmer five minutes more. Turn off the heat and add vanilla.