The glorious but brief cherry-picking season lasts for little more than one month. Piles of ruby-hued fruits begin to appear in California markets sometime around Mother's Day, and shortly after Father's Day, they're gone.
Most of the fresh cherries for sale belong to the species Prunus avium. They are known as "sweet cherries" and are sweet enough to eat by the handful. Within this species there are several commonly grown varieties. Mahogany-colored Bings have a distinct heart shape, Rainiers are yellow but they blush in shades of crimson, and Lamberts shine in proper fire engine red. In the U.S., sweet cherries are produced primarily in Washington, California, and Oregon. Growers east of the Rockies cultivate a different species of cherry, Prunus cerasus, which is smaller, softer, and more tart. These "sour cherries" may be mouth-puckering in their raw state, but their tartness mellows during cooking, making them ideal for preserves and pies.
All members of the genus Prunus -- which includes apricots, peaches, and plums -- share the common characteristic of a stone-hard pit at their center. Inside that pit, there is a squishy kernel that smells as though it fell from the heavens. The aroma comes from a molecule called benzaldehyde, which occurs naturally in bitter almonds and is used to make pure almond extract. (Here's how to find the kernel: place a cherry pit on a flat surface, wrapped in a kitchen towel, and whack it with a hammer.)
These perfumed kernels are potentially dangerous to consume in large quantities because they contain trace amounts of amygdalin, a molecule that, when digested, is transformed into hydrogen cyanide. However, the kernels can safely be eaten in small quantities so don't worry if you accidentally swallow one or two cherry pits! Apricot jam made with just a single kernel has an intense floral quality to it. Whole cherries, baked with their pits, become nutty, almost savory. Eating them is primal, a tad messy, and very enjoyable.
Brown Butter Cherry Clafoutis
Traditionally, clafoutis is made by pouring an eggy batter over unpitted cherries. Once baked, it has a subtle flavor of bitter almonds and a texture similar to that of a thick crêpe. Do be careful not to bite down on the hard pits! (In fact, if you'd like to avoid the pit issue entirely, use pitted cherries and add a few drops of pure almond extract to the mix.) If you're left with a remaining slice or two, you're in luck -- a piece of clafoutis with a spoonful of thick yogurt for breakfast will motivate anyone to get out of bed in the morning.
2 cups milk
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 large eggs
½ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
1 pound cherries, stems removed
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting
Preheat oven to 375ºF.
In a small bowl, combine the milk and lemon juice. Set aside for several minutes to thicken.
Meanwhile, crack the eggs into a large bowl. Add the brown sugar, vanilla extract, and salt. Whisk vigorously for two minutes. Continue whisking while you slowly pour in the thickened milk. Add the flour and whisk for one minute longer. Set the batter aside.
Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium heat for one minute. Place the butter in the hot skillet and swirl the pan until all the butter melts. When the butter browns to a light golden color, add the cherries to the pan. Continue swirling and cooking for another minute or two, until the cherries release some of their juices and the butter smells nutty. Remove the skillet from the stovetop.
Pour the batter into the hot skillet and transfer the skillet to the oven. Bake for 45 minutes. The clafoutis should puff up in the center but it will proceed to fall back on itself as it cools. Serve the clafoutis at room temperature with a dusting of confectioners' sugar, a dollop of crème fraîche or yogurt if you like, and a small bowl for cherry pits.