Sweet and tart cherries cooked with a French touch
The sweet smell of a newly baked cherry tart fills the kitchen as we enter the Robert's home in West Newton, Mass. Bright red cherries peek through a lattice crust, the color enhanced by the white pastry board it is set on to cool.
Ann Robert, co-owner and co-manager with her husband, Lucien, of Maison Robert in downtown Boston, greets us and we walk out to a handsome open porch bordered with large potted geraniums and an inviting white wicker chaise longue at one end.
''Fresh cherries are not as plentiful here as they were in Wisconsin, where I grew up, and we used both sweet and tart ones in cooking,''she said.
''Unfortunately we can't go to the orchards and pick them from the trees as they do in some parts of the country . . . but my boys have wonderful memories of eating cherries up in the trees on the farms in Normandy, where they have spent several summers.
''There are delicious cherries in France, both the sweet and tart varieties. Although they aren't grown commercially in Normandy, where Lucien is from, each family has a cherry tree, and they are picked and cooked in many different ways.
''Lucien is very fond of cherries. About three days before Father's Day he looked at the bowl of fruit on the kitchen table, full of apples, oranges, and bananas, and asked why we didn't have any summer fruits, since wonderful peaches , plums, and cherries were in the markets.
''So as a special present for him I bought a crate of cherries and filled an enormous bowl with them, put it on the table with a sign saying ''Happy Father's Day.''
Ann began thinking of ways to use the cherries in cooking, remembering childhood experiences of her own. She baked a cherry tart, using her sister's recipe, which is probably the same one her mother used.
Substituting a rich, buttery pastry made in a food processor for her sister's flaky lard pastry, she baked the tart in a large French tart pan rather than her sister's deep-dish pie pan.
The result is a unique blending of Ann's Midwestern upbringing with the many hours she has spent learning to cook from French-born Lucien.
Since the triplets, Jean, Pierre, and Rene, have grown up, Ann has had more free time to cook and try new recipes at home in their spacious, modern kitchen with its large restaurant stove. A vegetable and herb garden three steps from the kitchen door makes it possible to gather a bunch of tarragon or pick a handful of slender French green beans just before cooking them.
''Having three hungry boys to cook for is a challenge. But in the last five years, since they were 10, the boys have become my best critics, especially Rene , who has his father's palate. They are venturesome, too, and will try anything I make.''
Here are some of Ann's cherry recipes that she shared with us. She prepared the poached cherries and Hilda's plumcake with sweet Bing cherries, large, heart-shaped, deep maroon cherries, plentiful now and available through August.
If fresh tart cherries are available where you live, they are best for the cherry tart, otherwise substitute canned tart cherries.
Poached cherries are delicious served just as they are and look particularly nice in glass bowls. Or if you like, serve them with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Poached Cherries 2 cups water 1 cup sugar, or to taste Juice and zest of 1 lemon 1 vanilla bean 1 1/2 pounds cherries
Combine sugar and water in large saucepan. Add lemon juice and zest and vanilla bean. Bring to a boil and boil for 2 minutes.
Add cherries, pitted or unpitted. Cook gently until slightly soft, only about 5 to 7 minutes. Be careful not to overcook. Remove cherries and transfer to serving bowl.
Boil syrup until fairly thick and reduced to 1 to 1 1/2 cups. Let cool slightly. Remove vanilla bean and pour over fruit. Serve cool or chilled.
''Hilda's plumcake is a wonderful recipe to do with children because it's so easy. It is a good way to use just a small amount of fruit, especially if it has just been picked,'' Ann said.
The recipe comes from old family friends who spend the summer months in Door County, Wis., where Ann's relatives live. Hilda and her husband, Marvin, always invite the Roberts over for this dessert when they are visiting, made with whatever fruit is in season at the time - cherries, wild blueberries, raspberries, chokecherries, or plums. It is similar to a French ''clafouti,'' or a German ''kuchen.''
Hilda serves it with vanilla ice cream for the Robert boys, but it is equally good with freshly whipped cream.
Hilda's Plumcake 2 large egg yolks 1/2 cup sugar 4 ounces soft butter 7/8 cup sifted flour 1 cup fresh fruit, sugared lightly
Beat egg yolks lightly. Add sugar and butter and mix well. Add flour. Batter will be quite stiff. Butter an 8-inch square pan and spoon batter into it.
Halve and pit cherries. Place cut side up one by one, pressing lightly into batter. Bake at 400 degrees F. for 45 to 50 minutes, until bubbly and brown. Cut into squares and serve warm or at room temperature.
Cherry Tart Very short pastry: 2 cups all-purpose flour 1 cup frozen butter, cut in 1-inch pieces 1 egg 1 tablespoon heavy cream 1 teaspoon salt Filling: 3/4 cup cherry juice 1 cup sugar 6 tablespoons flour, or 3 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch Dash of salt 3 tablespoons butter 3 cups fresh tart cherries, pitted, or canned tart cherries, drainedWith metal blade in place, add flour, butter, egg, cream, and salt to beaker of food processor. Process, turning on and off rapidly, for 15 seconds. Continue processing until ball of dough forms on blades. Chill 1/2 hour. For a very flaky pastry, roll pastry into rectangle 16 by 8-inches, then fold in thirds as you would a letter. Repeat, rolling out and folding into thirds 2 more times. Chill at least 1 hour before using.
Combine cherry juice, 1/2 cup sugar, flour or cornstarch, and salt in large saucepan. Cook over low heat until thickened, about 3 minutes. Add butter and remaining sugar and stir. Add cherries. Remove from heat and set aside.
Take tart pastry from refrigerator. Divide pastry in half, and return half to refrigerator. Roll out pastry for bottom crust. Shape into 9-inch tart pan. Chill in refrigerator for 1 hour. Partially bake tart pastry at 400 degrees F. on bottom shelf of oven for 10 minutes with beans or rice in shell to weight it; remove beans and continue baking until pastry is light brown, 4 or 5 minutes. Remove from oven.
Pour filling into tart pan.
Roll out remaining chilled pastry for lattice strips. Brush pastry with egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon heavy cream, then cut into 1/2 to 3/4-inch wide strips. Place strips on filled pie, laying them across each other at right angles. Press ends into edge of bottom crust.
Bake in 425 degrees F. oven for 45 to 55 minutes. If pastry seems to be getting too brown, cover tart with a piece of aluminum foil to prevent further browning. Serve the tart warm or at room temperature.