Fact: Winter cherries are sad, sad little creatures. This week’s Baked Occasions recipe for Baked Sunday Mornings is Cherry-Almond Crisp for President’s Day, because you know, George Washington and cherry trees and all. Unfortunately, cherry season is a few months out, and the quality of cherries makes all the difference here. I made this a few weeks ago when I happened to find cherries at the grocery store… these were not the springtime farmers’ market cherries of my dreams. However, I figured that fresh ones would be better than frozen, so I tried them anyway, but I was quite wrong about that. January cherries = EWWWW.
I’m not a huge fruit-dessert person overall (just give me chocolate or caramel, and I’m a happy girl), and I loathe almond extract, so this recipe wasn’t on my shortlist to begin with, but I was determined to try it, as I have been surprised with BAKED recipes more times than I can count. This one was not a winner for me, but I plan to revisit it in May, when those glorious, bright-red beauties are back in the markets. In the meantime, I made the recipe a second time with frozen cherries, which works decently enough for the winter months if you must have it at this time of year.
According to the recipe intro in the book, this cherry crisp was somewhat inspired by old-school cherry cordials, and in truth, I didn’t know exactly what those were until now… and I can safely say that I could live out the rest of my life happily without eating one. They just look a little skeevy– something like cough syrup candy enrobed in bad chocolate. Ugh. In addition to not favoring fruit desserts, I definitely don’t want fruit sullying my chocolate experience, though if I did combine fruit with chocolate, it would be raspberries or orange, not cherries… but I digress.
In stark contrast to the fruit filling, the almond-chocolate granola topping was wicked delicious– buttery, crunchy, nutty, lightly chocolaty. The nod to cherry cordials lies in the recommendation to use a chocolate-laced granola in the topping. I found a Double Chocolate Chunk granola that I wanted to inhale in its entirety straight from the bag, but fortunately I managed to exercise just enough restraint to set aside a bit for this recipe! Although not overwhelmingly chocolaty in the cherry crisp topping, it added a nice hint of chocolate undertone. I kept the toasted almonds because they’re delicious– I don’t understand why their extract counterpart tastes so different…
To solve that inconvenient little almond extract problem (i.e. I find it repulsive), I substituted vanilla extract, which lent a wonderful, warm flavor to the fill and topping. Everything in this dish pairs beautifully with vanilla, so it was an easy 1-to-1 swap.
The topping comes together quickly by combining flour, light brown and granulated sugars, and salt in the bowl of a food processor, followed by the addition of cold butter and almond (or vanilla) extract, then the toasted, blanched almonds, and lastly the chocolate granola, pulsing a few times after each addition. Don’t over-process; by the time everything has been incorporated, you should have a somewhat coarse-textured, crumbly mixture (not powdery). Put this in the fridge while you mix up the filling to keep that butter cold.
If you’re using fresh cherries, you will have the pleasure of pitting them individually– don’t wear white! 😉 I find a certain OCD therapeutic effect in this type of task, so I didn’t mind, nasty cherries notwithstanding. If you’re using frozen cherries, make sure to thaw and drain them– I did this in a colander, then absorbed the remaining liquid on paper towels.
Once the cherries are pitted/drained, combine them with instant tapioca, lemon juice, almond or vanilla extract, sugar, and lemon zest– your filling is ready. The cherry mixture smelled delicious after adding lemon zest and vanilla! Incidentally, I wasn’t sure if there was a difference between instant and quick-cooking tapioca, but I had used the latter successfully in peach pie before, so I decided to use what I had. For the first batch, I tried to grind the granules down to a powdery consistency in a mortar-and-pestle to avoid having gelatinous little bits in my cherry crisp, but that didn’t work very well. No matter, the granules mostly dissolved during baking, so I didn’t bother with this step the second time. In other words, whether your tapioca says instant, quick-cooking, or granulated, it’s all fine for thickening your fruit filling; just don’t use regular tapioca balls, because they are much bigger and will not dissolve.
This dish is meant to be baked in an 8″ round cake pan, but since I didn’t think such a thing would all get eaten, I cut the recipe in half and baked it in 2 mini pie dishes for the first attempt. There wasn’t quite enough cherry filling for this though, so they looked a little meager, yet I had enough crumble topping left over for 2 more minis. This was rather serendipitous, since I ended up making it a second time and didn’t need to remake the topping.
The large-sized crisp is supposed to bake in 25-35 minutes, but the minis took 45 minutes and the fruit still wasn’t particularly bubbly, perhaps slowed by the thick ceramic pie dishes and the cookie sheet underneath. For the second batch, I used smaller ramekins so I could fill them up higher with fruit– these ones did in fact bake in 25 minutes, with the last 5 minutes under a foil tent to prevent the topping from burning.
The second batch turned out more visually attractive with a “black cherry” color, and the filling had a bubbly, thick, syrupy consistency; the liquid of the fresh cherry filling was thinner. The first batch did not have a lot of flavor– there was really nothing appetizing about the fruit, though the topping was delicious. Despite the second batch being frozen, these cherries were more flavorful than the fresh ones, though they were a little icky to bite through.
(Another great reason for a second bake-off: I finally got a macro lens for my camera for super close-up food porn shots!)
I would make a couple of small changes (besides making it during cherry season, obviously): 1) If making the full dish, I would increase the filling amount by 50%– that way, you can have a nice, thick cherry layer; 2) I would reduce the oven temperature from 400°F to 350°F and increase the baking time to about 45 minutes in order to soften the fruit more and keep the topping from over-browning. Although I had tons of topping left over after the first batch, I’m in the “the-more-topping-the-better” camp for these sorts of desserts, so I’d rather have enough to heap a thick layer on there than risk having a skimpy one!
As suggested, I topped the cherry crisps with vanilla ice cream– Straus Organic Vanilla Bean to be exact, which was perfect. Another advantage of using smaller dishes is that no one has to fight for patches of crunchy topping, and everyone gets their own scoop of ice cream. Because these are things that I lay awake at night thinking about. 😀
Moral of the story: Skip the depressing winter cherries and use frozen ones if you feel absolutely compelled to celebrate President’s Day with cherry crisp, or if you want to make this any time before cherry season. Better yet, wait until those gorgeous cherries come back around at the farmers’ market in May and go to town! And if you really want to make it to celebrate a patriotic American holiday, it would be perfect for the 4th of July. You can find the recipe for Cherry Almond Crisp at Baked Sunday Mornings, and see how my fellow cherry bakers liked this dessert!
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2015.