WHEN THE first cherries appear at the market, we prefer to savor them in their natural state. But once the excitement of the new fresh fruit abates somewhat, we search for other ways to serve them.
Cherries present an obstacle that discourages many cooks: Removing their pits is not only time-consuming, its difficult to do without mashing the fruit, losing the precious juice and getting stained fingers. Cherry pitters (which often double as olive pitters) save some time but don't really solve the problems of bruised fruit and lost juice.
Resourceful cooks in cherry-rich France, Italy and Eastern Europe have come up with a smart and simple solution: They leave the pits in. In fact, many cooks insist that the pits add flavor. And in some desserts, even the cherry stems are left on (although they are shortened) to serve both as decoration and a clear indication that the fruit is unpitted.
Of course, not all cherry recipes lend themselves to this treatment. Cherry pie, strudel or blintzes filled with unpitted fruit would be downright disasterous, dentally speaking.
Unpitted cherries work best in recipes where the fruit is visible, rather than in a filling hidden under pastry or cake. Cherries poached in spiced wine are an excellent example. Russian cooks prepare kissel by cooking cherries in water with sugar and a little lemon juice, then thicken the mixture with potato starch and serve it with sour cream. In all cases, cherries are poached gently over low heat so they retain their texture and shape (the pits help preserve the form).
Fresh, unpitted cherries also can be macerated (steeped) along with other fruits in a mixture of liqueur, lemon juice and sugar, as in the lovely Italian dessert called macedonia or the similar French mace'doine de fruits. The multi-colored layers of fruit temptingly displayed in glasses in European cafe's are irresistible after a hard day of summer touring. The only problem is deciding whether to enjoy the fruits just as they are, or choosing richer versions garnished with whipped cream or ice cream.
Many cooks also take advantage of this seasonal crop by putting the cherries up in jars and freezing containers for future use. For these purposes, the cherry pits and part of the stems are often left in. In northern France, cherries are pickled in vinegar and served as an unusual substitute for cornichons. Brandied cherries are popular throughout France and in some parts of Italy, as a dessert or as an after-dinner digestif; the fruit is placed in a jar and covered with a mixture of brandy, sugar and sometimes cinnamon and cloves. The Russian equivalent is cherries in honey, which calls for simply covering the cherries with honey. In all versions, the cherries are left to mature in their jar for at least two weeks before using.
When serving a dish containing unpitted cherries, remember one rule: Warn your guests and family -- especially any potential refrigerator-raiders. CLASSIC CHERRIES IN WINE (4 servings)
The French prefer to use red bordeaux wine in this recipe and usually accompany the fruit with ladyfingers. Italians use either red barolo wine or white wine, omit the jelly and increase the amount of sugar. They often flavor the mixture with cloves and lemon or orange zest, in addition to the cinnamon.
Poached cherries are perfect for summer. They are refreshing, simple to prepare and marvelous with ice cream -- the poaching liquid becomes the sauce. 1 pound cherries (about 2 1/2 cups) 1 1/2 cups dry red wine 3 tablesppons sugar 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon 1 tablespoon red currant jelly or other red jelly
Cut off the tips of the cherry stems. Put the cherries in a stainless steel saucepan. Pour the wine over them and add the sugar and cinnamon. Cover and cook over very low heat for 10 minutes. Uncover and let the cherries cool in the wine for 30 minutes. Remove fruit with slotted spoon to a serving bowl and set aside. Boil the remaining liquid over medium-high heat until reduced to about 1/2 cup. Add the jelly and cook over low heat, stirring, until the jelly has melted. Pour the mixture over the cherries. Chill thoroughly. Serve cold. MACEDONIA ROSSA CON GELATO (5 servings)
For this Italian delicacy, it's best to pit a few of the cherries so they absorb more of the kirsch flavor, but the unpitted cherries are used as garnish. Red seedless grapes can be added or substituted for one of the fruits. 1 pound cherries (about 2 1/2 cups) 1 pint strawberries 1 pint raspberries 1/4 cup sugar 1 tablespoon lemon juice 2 tablespoons kirsch, Grand Marnier or other fruit liqueur 1 quart good-quality vanilla ice cream
Pit about a quarter of the cherries, holding them over a large bowl to catch the juice that escapes. Cut off the ends of the stems on the remaining cherries. Put all the cherries, pitted and unpitted, in the bowl. Hull and halve the strawberries and add to the bowl. Add the raspberries, sugar, lemon juice and kirsch. Using your fingers, gently toss the fruit in the bowl to combine the ingredients (mixing with a spoon would bruise the raspberries). Chill for about 1 hour.
Before serving, remove as many unpitted cherries as you can find from the fruit mixture and set them aside. Divide the mixture among 5 stemmed glasses. To serve, add 2 generous spoonfuls of ice cream to each glass. Top with the unpitted cherries and serve immediately.
Note: If you don't have a cherry pitter, halve the cherries and use the point of a sharp paring knife to outline and remove the pits. RUSSIAN CHERRIES WITH SOUR CREAM (6 servings)
In the original version of this simple Ukrainian recipe, the cherries were pitted, but they are just as good (and much easier to prepare) this way. 1 pound cherries (about 2 1/2 cups) 2 tablespoons sugar 2 cups sour cream
Wash the cherries and remove the stems. Put the cherries in a glass bowl. Sprinkle them with the sugar, stir well and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Stir them occasionally but don't worry if some of the sugar doesn't dissolve.
To serve, spoon the sour cream over the cherries and stir it until smooth. CLAFOUTI LIMOUSIN (3 to 4 servings)
This dessert is prepared throughout central France, sometimes with other fruit when cherries are not in season. Recipes vary greatly from one village to another. Sometimes rum, cognac or vanilla is used instead of the kirsch, but often these are omitted so the taste of the cherries predominates. This version is relatively light because it contains little flour, but as in all clafoutis, the fruit will rise to the top during baking. 1/2 pound cherries (about 1 1/4 cups) 1/4 cup flour 1/4 cup sugar 1 cup milk 2 eggs 1 to 2 tablespoons kirsch (optional)
Put the unpitted cherries in a buttered shallow 1-quart baking dish.
Sift the flour into a bowl. Add the sugar and mix. Make a well in the center of the mixture. Pour 1/2 cup of the milk into the center of the well. Gradually whisk the flour mixture into the milk until the batter is smooth. Add the remaining milk, whisking gently. Add the eggs one at a time, whisking gently after each addition, just until the batter is smooth.
Pour the batter evenly over the cherries. Spoon the kirsch on top. Bake at 375 degrees for 35 minutes or until the clafouti is puffed and lightly browned. Don't worry if the batter doesn't brown evenly. Serve warm or at room temperature. Pass a bowl of softly whipped cream, if desired.