There are so many new arrivals that promise that Spring, she is well underway, but for me, the most pivotal of this crop of deliciously tender vegetables and fruits is not a spear of asparagus, a tightly curled fiddlehead fern, a stalk of rhubarb, a long and snaking pea tendril, a spicy ramp, or even a curled and bright green garlic scape.
When the piles of ripe and ruby red bing cherries show up at the markets, I know I can finally stash away my riding boots and pull out my cutoffs —
Spring has officially sprung, in my book.
Popping their cherubic little faces up sometime in early June, the cherry season comes in quickly – and it doesn’t last long. As they stick around only for about a month or so (before their quality inevitably takes a turn for the worst), my impatience for them to arrive always makes it seem as though they take their sweet-ass time. By early June, and especially here in Boulder, we have already had a few days of mid-Summer-worthy sunshine and temperatures, and I tend to get a bit uppity waiting for these red beauties to show up.
But that very moment they do – I am there eager and waiting.
The trouble is I tend to get just a bit too excited. That first day I push my cart out from the heat of the parking lot and into the air-conditioning of the market and spy those zip-topped bags stuffed full of round and blood red cherries, I toss at least two pounds worth in my cart. It’s that now-or-never sensability that kicks in, and I know that I better get them now, while the gettin’ is really good.
I’ll usually sneak a sample of a couple (read: seven) into my mouth while I navigate my cart through the rest of my shopping list, and I’ll arrive home to carefully unpack my precious crimson cargo first, and send it straight into a colander for a cool shower in the sink.
The cherries get placed in my favorite porcelain farmer’s market basket, and sit in the fridge, at the prized location of eye level, to make them easily available for reaching, snacking, grazing, and lusting upon throughout the following days.
We’ll walk by, grabbing and popping a handful each time (and of course pitting a couple for the spoiled Puglet while we are at it), and then, the inevitable happens.
After plowing through multiple lots of said two-pound-hauls straight from favorite porcelain vessel to mouth, we find ourselves with red stained fingers and a bit of a bellyache; a sure sign that our household’s addiction to the juiced up red orbs has shot too fast out of the gates, and left us a bit weary far too soon.
Though I might have over-indulged a bit too much from the get-go, I would never – ever – let a bag of cherries become sad and wrinkled; even I know better than to take something so fleeting and delicious for granted. I found myself last week with a few cups of hanging-on cherries left in the bottom of our bowl, and rather than eat them again in some oatmeal, or over cereal, or even just man-up and plow through them plain, I thought that baking them up into a tart would invigorate our cravings and be a nice departure from simply inhaling them.
Plus, said tart is not only a tart, but a cherry custard tart.
Fresh cherries and creamy custard and a sweet sugar crust?
Shut the front door.
This recipe is going down into our house’s hall of fame. It’s honestly one of the best desserts I’ve made all year, and despite being dead simple (seriously…just take a gander at that short and sweet recipe), it is totally fresh and original and tastes like nothing I have ever had before.
There is a sweet crust, that is made up of sugar, butter and flour, and then pressed into the bottom of a tart pan with a removable bottom. (If you don’t have one of those, I highly suggest you invest; they make removing a baked up tart a snap, and if you can find one that’s non-stick [like this one] you’ll question how you ever navigated the tricky waters of life without it.)
The crust is then covered with fresh, pitted cherries, and baked up in the oven until the crust has started to set and the cherries are just starting to sizzle and cook.
While this magic is all going down, you whisk together a bit of half-and-half and a few eggs – but no sugar – to make the custard filling. Though a non-sweet and eggy custard might seem a bit lacking, all of the tart’s added sugar is located in the crust, which bakes up and caramelizes against the hot metal to create something akin to a giant, chewy, sugar-cookie-like base. The custard bakes up and suspends the juicy whole cherries mid-tart, and the natural sugars in the cooked ripe cherries are the perfect of sweetness against the creamy custard.
I’ll note that this is the time to fork over a few bucks for a cherry pitter (I have this one, that I got on sale for five bucks at Sur la Table last year); besides being great for making quick work of the tedious, tortuous, messy task of pitting cherries, it also does a bang up job of quickly extracting the pits from olives. Sold.
It’s a strong statement, but I’m going to go ahead and say that I love this tart as much as I love fresh cherries on their own. What can I say — I’m a girl obsessed.
But just wait till peach season arrives. Oh, and nectarines, too. And those dark purple plums with the red insides…..
Chery Custard Tart
Makes one 11″ tart
I followed this recipe almost to a T, with the exception of amping up my cherries to around three cups from two. I had a lot of extra space to fill in when I only had two cups, so I popped another handful in there. In doing that, I had a bit of extra cream filling left over, that had I added would have spilled over the sides of the tart as it cooked. I was fine with that though; I liked the extra fruit in my tart and thought it came out perfectly.
Also, as I am at a high altitude (over five thousand feet, but who’s counting??), I baked this tart at a temperature closer to 400F, for a bit less time. To read more on high altitude baking, look here; I generally just increase the temperature a little bit, and decrease the time I bake for – I probably should follow the rest of the guidelines, but everything I have baked here has come out great (knocks on wood) so far, so for now, this method works for me.
1 stick of unsalted butter
1 cup of sugar
1 1/4 cup of flour
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of baking powder
2 cups pitted fresh cherries (I used more like three cups)
2 cups half and half
Preheat oven to 375.
Cream the butter and sugar – cream it well, so that the butter is pale, light, and fluffy looking, about 5 minutes. Sift together the flour, salt, cinnamon and baking powder, and add to the butter and sugar mixture and and mix briefly. The mixture should be crumbly but moist enough to hold together when pressed. Set aside 1/4 cup of the mixture, and press remaining dough into tart pan, making sure the sides are strong and even.
Add the cherries, spreading them evenly over the bottom of the pressed in dough. Sprinkle the reserved 1/4 cup of dough mixture over the cherries, carefully place the tart pan on a baking sheet (being sure not to accidentally push up on the bottom of the pan, which would dislodge your crust), and slide it into the oven. Bake for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk the eggs in a bowl, then add the half and half and whisk until it is well combined. After 15 minutes, open oven door and pull the baking sheet half way out of the oven. Carefully and quickly pour the custard mixture over the tart, then carefully and gently push the baking sheet back in, and close the oven door. Bake the tart for another 25 minutes, until the crust is a deep golden brown and the custard is set and beginning to brown.
Remove from oven and let cool slightly before removing tart ring. Let cool completely before sliding off bottom. Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled.