Friday, August 10, 2012

slow dessert: sour cherry + caraway fritters

Two years is a damnably long time to wait for dessert, but sometimes these things happen. I don't know whether they happen to other people, but personally I have had experience. The summer before last, during the brief season for one of my favorite fruits, I had an idea about a dessert burrow deep into the dessert area of my mind: clumpy little fritters of sour cherry and caraway. I don't recall what inspired me to try pairing the two. I generally love caraway but rarely encounter it outside of rye bread; I generally love anything and everything frittered.

I also got it into my head that these particular fritters could be great with a sauce of more sour cherries, simmered in red wine and a vaguely medieval combination of spices, the inspiration for which is now apparent in my emails from around that time: a friend was going to a christening and we'd wondered whether the baby might be wearing one of those very long, vaguely medieval-looking gowns. I discovered this while rummaging Gmail to see whether I'd told anyone about the sauce in detail such that I might be able to reconstruct it this summer. Regrettably I can't tell you the proportions, but I see that I simmered the cherries in a syrup of rosé and sugar flavored with cinnamon and white pepper, a delicious combination ideal for spooning over ice cream. I had to content myself with eating it that way because I didn't manage to make any fritters that summer at all — I made the sauce without delay, but when I went back to the farmers' market for fritter supplies there were no more sour cherries to be found. Fritter-free summer No. 1 down the tubes.

Last summer came and went and I missed sour cherry season entirely, probably because I was busy screwing around. I wasn't going to let it happen again this year and I finally made the fritters. It's possible I'm biased but I think they were worth the wait. If you're a U.S. reader you probably won't find sour cherries in the market now, but if you're a long-range dessert-planner like me, bookmark this recipe and make yourself a lovely dessert in summer 2014 or so. Or try it now with regular cherries, which are more likely to still be available. I'm sure they'd be nearly as tasty.

sour cherry-caraway fritters caraway ice cream
Fritter innards with backdrop of rapidly melting
caraway ice cream. More on that below.

While there are any number of fritter recipes in my collection I could've used as a starting point for these, I began by Googling "sour cherry fritters" to see what was out there. One of the more appealing recipes was from Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking, which is curiously undated but looks 1940s or 50s-ish to me. Looking at it more closely, I noticed that the ingredients and proportions are nearly identical to a Thomas Keller recipe for apple fritters I had bookmarked, and I decided to more or less merge the two. (A third recipe from somebody's French grannie looked promising, but it calls for soaking the cherries in brandy overnight first and I didn't want any other strong flavors competing with the caraway I wanted to use). The Keller one relies mostly on baking powder to puff the fritters while the Pennsylvania Dutch recipe uses a two-pronged puff plan: baking powder, plus separating the eggs and beating the whites until stiff. I liked this idea better so I separated my eggs and used the lesser amount of baking powder. I stuck with the Keller recipe's use of milk instead of water, however, because all the other fritter recipes in my collection call for milk or buttermilk. I suppose I also stuck with Keller's recipe on the proportion of fruit to batter because I used two cups of pitted cherries rather than the stingy-sounding one the PD recipe calls for.

I departed from both recipes on frying instructions. Both call for deep-frying, which didn't seem necessary to me, and neither calls for lard, which I wanted to use. Yes, lardy old lard. Health-wise it's not as diabolical as it's made out to be, and in baking and frying it performs beautifully. Here, go read this if you're not convinced. I'd baked with it a couple times but somehow hadn't gotten around to frying anything in it yet, and my sour cherry fritters that were two years in the making seemed like as good an occasion as any to try it. There are great big tubs of lard for sale in East Harlem supermarkets ("manteca de cerdo" en Español) but they look pretty industrial, and I wanted to be sure of getting leaf lard (the highest grade) from not-industrial pigs, so I bought mine from Dickson's Farmstand Meats. Harlem Shambles is nearer to me and probably has nice lard too — it looks like they're using it in their pasties — but I frequently have doctor appointments round the corner from Chelsea Market so Dickson's it is. NYC readers can also find leaf lard at Union Square greenmarket, among other places, but I'm not certain it's rendered. Anyhow, the lard was magical for frying fritters. I almost never fry at home because it tends to stink up the place and, probably because I almost never do it, I seem to have a hard time keeping the temperature under control. I used maybe 1/2" of lard in a medium-sized copper pan  and it gave me no trouble whatsoever. The fritters were excitingly crisp around the edges, cooked evenly all the way through, and didn't taste porcine. (I'm not sure if would have lessened them if they had; I'm just saying).

sour cherry-caraway fritters
freshly fried fritters, minus a few sampled for quality control purposes

The other important ingredient here is, of course, the sour cherries. I buy them whenever I see them but they're seldom labeled as to what variety they are. In previous years the sour cherries I've found in the NYC area seem to have been either of two varieties, one very bright red, one darker. The latter look more like regular cherries but both types of sours have a translucent quality when held up to the light. A 2008 Gourmet article says that "Montmorencies and Morellos are the two types of sour cherries you’re most likely to find for sale. Montmorencies are bright red, slightly translucent, with clear juice; Morellos are purple with shirt-staining juice." The author describes the former as being more "complex, flavorful" than the more sour Morellos, but to me Montmorencies are less complex, sometimes to the point that they taste uncannily like cherry pie filling. (I nonetheless never pass them by; I like sour cherries, period). The sour cherries I found at the farmers' markets this summer were unlabeled and the probably-Montmorencies pictured below were less bright in color and less translucent than the ones I've encountered in the past, but I couldn't tell you whether that's because of the weather patterns we've had this year or because they're a different variety. My fritters were made with the darker, probably-Morello cherries below.

sour cherries sour cherries
The brighter ones were destined for sorbet but somehow got eaten instead.

I considered trying to repeat my delicious, vaguely-medieval sour cherry and wine sauce from two summers ago to go with the fritters, but I'm still in the honeymoon stage of getting to know my ice cream machine and opted to make a caraway ice cream instead. I was willing to try my hand at improvising a recipe but I found one from a BBC show here and simply halved it. It was delicious, both with the fritters and, later on in the week, with fresh peaches for breakfast. Pairing these fruits with caraway brought out the woody qualities in each, in a good way. I used a heaping teaspoon of ground caraway seeds in my half-batch, and I toasted them before grinding to bring out more of their flavor. I used the same amount in the fritters, which had a more subtle caraway flavor, and I intentionally didn't grind them too finely, preferring to encounter a whole seed every now and then. If you'll be making the fritters without the ice cream I recommend increasing the amount to 1 1/2 or maybe even 2 teaspoons, depending on your love of caraway.

sour cherry-caraway fritters caraway ice cream
Fritters are just the sort of lumpy, homely-looking dessert improved by
a dusting of cocaine, for added glamour. Or confectioners' sugar.

sour cherry and caraway fritters

Adapted from Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking and Thomas Keller's apple fritters, as described above. 

Yield: approximately 15 fritters

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 heaping teaspoon ground caraway seeds, preferably toasted before grinding
2 eggs, separated
1/4 cup or so milk (buttermilk would probably be great if you have some, or beer)
2 cups pitted sour cherries
leaf lard for frying, or a neutral-tasting oil if you're not into lard
confectioners' sugar for serving (optional)

Thoroughly combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl and whisk together the egg yolks and the milk in a smaller bowl. In a third bowl — sorry! — beat the egg whites until stiff. Stir the milk and yolks into the dry ingredients and, when blended, fold in the egg whites. Then add the cherries, stirring gently just until they're integrated. If the batter looks dry, add a splash more milk. Drop spoonfuls of the batter into hot fat and fry for approximately two to three minutes on each side, or until they're nicely browned. Let the fritters rest on paper towels for a few moments before serving, with another layer of toweling on top to absorb some of the grease. Dust with confectioners' sugar if you like.

The fritters are best when fresh but can be refrigerated and reheated in a 350°F oven for ten minutes or so.

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