Northern Michigan boasts all things cherry

Fresh-from-the-oven cherry pie is hard to resist. BY JACK CLEMONS
July 16, 2012

We’ve just returned from a week with my cousins in northern Michigan, where we learned all about cherries. Driving from Traverse City airport (known there as the Cherry City airport) we stopped at a bakery to pick up something for dessert. Since my aunt would be serving us dinner featuring a regional delicacy (grilled lake whitefish) we opted for a local cherry pie. I didn’t understand why the clerk apologized for only having sweet cherry pies.

Once we arrived and started catching up with family news, the topic turned to cherries and the problems with this year’s crop. A weeklong heat spell in mid-March tricked the cherry buds into blossoming too early. When April temperatures fell to their normal below-freezing levels, the blossoms suffered extensive frost damage. The subsequent opportunities for pollination were severely limited, and the crop was decimated.

Michigan typically grows almost 80 percent of the domestic cherry crop, but this year most of the tart cherry trees were barren and farmers had to fight the birds to salvage a meager crop of sweet cherries. Many of the roadside stands with signs for “washed sweet cherries” stood empty, and the supermarket supplies were labeled from Washington State or Poland.

Back in Traverse City, where the town prepared for the annual National Cherry Festival, retail chain Cherry Republic posted placards in their window thanking Norway for saving the festival by shipping enough fruit to satisfy the expected half-million visitors. We were a few days early for the festival, but watched (or rather, heard) the F16 and stunt plane air show rehearsal.

Tart cherries are the more valuable crop; they have longer shelf life than sweets, with beautiful color and intense flavor. They’re used in baking and for frozen, canned and dried fruit products. A few enterprising farmers have examined the possibility of replacing the traditional Montmorency tart cherry with the Balaton variety from Hungary. This seems a logical choice, since central and eastern Europe were the source of the tart cherry varieties that originally came to America. Through research based at Michigan State University, this hardy stock has begun to find its way to local orchards; in fact, most late cherries will be the Balaton. While they may not look the same to consumers since they drop their stems and the spot heals over, this feature protects the fruit from juice loss.

While we were visiting, we had the opportunity to try all things cherry: soda, soup, chutney, cherry-studded turkey salad and cherry compote on cherry-swirled French toast. I won’t be able to include recipes for all of these, but will share a few highlights. The Hungarian Cherry Cake is an ideal dish to feature Balaton tart cherries; the light texture of the crumb and almond hints complement the bright cherry flavor. The salad recipe is just one variation on a theme seen throughout Michigan. Some restaurants served this with a sweet lemon poppy seed dressing, while others served a sharp cherry vinaigrette - different, but equally delicious.

One note about the cherry pie in the photo: To avoid the conditions observed here – hot cherry filling oozing from the crust – you’ll need to resist the temptation to slice the pie as soon as it leaves the oven (unlike us), a cherry challenge indeed.

Cherry Pie
pastry for 2-crust pie
5-6 cups pitted cherries
1/2 C water
2 T lemon juice
1/2 to 2/3 C sugar
4 T cornstarch
1/4 t almond extract
1/4 t grated nutmeg
2 T milk

Preheat oven to 425 F. Combine cherries, water, lemon juice, sugar and cornstarch in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to low; simmer for about 10 minutes. Stir in lemon extract, remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Pour filling into pie pan lined with pastry crust.

Sprinkle with grated nutmeg and cover with second pastry crust, crimping the edges to seal. Cut a few slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape.
Lightly brush the top crust with milk. Bake the pie for 15 minutes; reduce heat to 375 F and cook an additional 15 minutes.

Crust will begin to brown; reduce heat to 325 F and cook 15 minutes longer. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly before slicing.

Cherry Turkey Salad
3 C micro greens
6 oz sliced turkey
3 T dried cherries
3 T chopped walnuts
10 grape tomatoes
2 T crumbled blue cheese
salad dressing, to taste

Divide the greens onto two salad plates. Arrange remaining ingredients on greens and serve with your favorite creamy dressing or vinaigrette.

Yield: 2 servings. Adapted from Benjamin Twiggs.

Hungarian Cherry Cake
1/2 C pitted, halved tart cherries
1/2 C brown sugar
1/2 C milk
1 pkg active yeast
5 eggs, separated
8 T softened butter
1 C sugar
2 C flour
1/2 C sliced almonds
1 t vanilla
1/8 t almond extract
1 t cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 F. Coat the inside of a small bundt pan (or 9-inch cake pan) with nonstick cooking spray. Combine cherries with brown sugar and spread across the bottom of the pan; set aside. In a small saucepan, bring milk just to a boil.

Remove from heat and cool slightly. Sprinkle yeast on the milk and stir to dissolve; set aside.

In a mixing bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form; set aside. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Whisk in egg yolks and milk mixture along with flour. When batter is smooth, fold in almonds, extracts and whipped egg whites.

Gently pour batter into the pan over the cherries. Bake until a tester comes out clean, about 50 to 60 minutes. After cooling on a rack for about 10 minutes, invert cake onto a serving plate and sift cinnamon over the top. Adapted from Edible Grande Traverse.