Prunus Virginiana is the only native North American cherry, commonly called “chokecherry” for the astringent taste of the fruit. The trees grow wild in many places, for instance along the hiking trails of Salt Lake City’s Emigration Canyon, so the fruit can be foraged. Chokecherry trees are resistant to bugs and blight, and when their branches are laden with ripe fruit, it seems like every bird in the neighborhood has gotten the memo, creating a lively spectacle for our cat (who prefers to catch and eat mice). The fruit is extremely high in antioxidants and unusually delicious. How to describe it? A whiff of rose, a titch of almond, a depth akin to black currant. Alas, chokecherries are the saffron of the fruit world–extremely labor intensive.
You won’t find any recipes for jam (as opposed to jelly) because the only way to get the flesh off the tiny pit (about a quarter the size of a lady bug) is to boil the cherries and then pit each one by hand. A couple of years ago, I borrowed a steam juicer and extracted the juice for jelly, but jam is more satisfying: the texture of the cherry flesh provides interest.
Anyway, for evenings of labor, I set myself up (covered in an apron and towels) with three bowls–boiled cherries, flesh, and pits–and I can pit a pound in two hours. (See photos above of raw cherries, boiled ones, and pits.) It is slightly easier to pit the cherries when they have been boiled (for about 1/2 hour, and then left to cool). I have dreamed of hiring children to do this, but I doubt they would have the patience. If I’m watching something on a screen, however, it’s satisfying not to “waste” the time. After pitting, I go through the mound of flesh and juice with my fingers (stained red and black) to feel for stray pits and discard them, because like many stone fruits, they contain cyanide. I then cook the flesh and juice with sugar (and pectin or cranberries, for a more firm jam. I freeze a bag of cranberries for this purpose each fall.) And voila–the most exotic jam you can’t buy. But can easily make, with an investment of time.
And here’s a recipe for a moist chokecherry ricotta cake. Because a fruit as healthful as chokecherries deserves an equally nutritious cake. The flavorings can be varied or even left out, because the fruit is the star.
2 ounces unsalted butter
4 ounces sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
4 drops lemon essential oil
15 ounces whole milk ricotta cheese
4 eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar, plus 1 teaspoon sugar
3.7 ounces all purpose flour
3.7 ounces blanched almond flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
8 ounces pitted, uncooked chokecherries (dust with 1/8 tsp stevia if you’d like a slightly sweeter cake)
Preheat oven to 350 with a rack in the middle.
In a food processor, cream butter and sugar. Add egg yolks and flavorings, then ricotta cheese. Process until smooth. Blend in flour, almond meal, baking powder, and salt until combined. Be sure to scrape bowl. Stir in all but 2 tablespoons of the chokecherries.
Whip egg whites with cream of tartar, whipping in a teaspoon of sugar once they are stiff, but not dry.
Fold about 1/4 of the whipped egg whites into the batter until well combined, then gently fold in the rest of the egg whites. Pour batter into a 9 inch springform pan, and sprinkle the remaining chokecherries on top. Even with an angled spatula.
Bake for 50 minutes or until a tester comes out clean. Cake will puff during baking and then fall upon cooling, to a height of about two inches.