I have to say, I'm a bit disappointed by cherries. Every summer I get so excited by the crates of glistening blood-red fruit appearing in the markets. I buy them in great quantities when they're cheap, simply because it seems rude not to. They look so gorgeous and inviting with their glossy skins and delicate green stems, particularly when piled high in scarlet abundance under the July sunshine. Yet I've realised recently that they never fill me with anticipation. Apricots, on the other hand, whether small and underripe-looking or gorgeously plump and rosy-cheeked, always glow with promise. If ripe, I might slice them and eat them with ricotta on toast for breakfast. If not (and this is the more usual scenario), I'll slice them in half and bake them with a drizzle of honey and a splash of orange flower water, turning them into a jammy, marigold-coloured compote that bursts with exotic delight in every mouthful. Squat green Williams pears, though hardly exotic, whisper enticingly of their juicy, glassy, grainy flesh, so much so that I can hardly ever resist buying a few, either to eat as they are or chopped and scattered over a bowl of nutmeg-scented porridge. But cherries?
Cherries just don't sing to me in the same way as other fruits. They look beautiful, but I find myself buying them because they're a novelty, because they only appear in such abundance and at such low prices once a year. In fact, if I try and imagine what a cherry tastes like, I have real difficulty. Maybe I've just never been lucky enough to find decent cherries, but the ones I've eaten have only ever had a hint of berry-ness about them, a slight tartness with no real fragrant juice to emphasise it. Yet I remember drinking a glass of cold cherry juice on a sweltering evening in Istanbul last year, and thinking at that moment it was the most delicious thing in the world (of course, the fact that even my hair seemed to be sweating at the time may have been the reason for this). There is potential in the poor cherry somewhere, it just seems that I have trouble finding it.
I did, however, really enjoy the bakewell pancakes I made recently. As with apricots, cooking cherries seems to bring out a juiciness and a sweetness that they lack in their unadulterated state. The idea of turning that concept into a cheesecake had been niggling at the back of my mind for a while, and I thought I'd have a go before cherries disappear and we sink into the depths of winter once more. Essentially, I wanted to recreate that classic, almost over-the-top flavour combination of a bakewell tart. You know the kind: there's no subtlety about it. Rather, it's as if a sack of almonds has hit you over the head, followed by a vat of cherry jam. There you lie, almonds tumbling on the floor around you, some of them lodged in your ears and nasal cavity, while cherry jam oozes into your clothes, your hair, your eyelashes, until your very pores are saturated with the stuff. That's the bakewell tart experience I was seeking (though I didn't go quite that far).
I was initially going to use shortbread biscuits for the base, to emulate that bland, pristine casing of commercial bakewell tarts. Then I had a better idea, one that would take the almond flavour from lying-on-the-floor-covered-in-almonds to full-blown swimming-in-an-olympic-sized-pool-full-of-ground-almonds levels. I crumbled up some amaretti biscuits in a blender, mixed them with butter, lined the base of the tin and baked it for ten minutes to crisp it up. I kept the filling fairly simple: a mixture of Quark, cream cheese, icing sugar, and almond extract (for even more almondy goodness). I set it with gelatine. I'm quite into gelatine-based cheesecakes at the moment, mainly because you can put whatever you like in the filling without risking it disintegrating in the oven. They're also a lot neater to look at.
Instead of topping the cheesecake with a cherry compote, which seemed a) a bit boring and b) rather too reminiscent of those awful frozen cheesecakes you can buy, with an unidentifiable layer of rubbery neon-red jelly on the top, I decided to stir the cherries into the cheesecake mixture. Before doing so, I cooked them for a little while in lemon juice, water, brown sugar, and a drop of kirsch (cherry brandy). They softened into a lovely jammy compote, full of squishy, alcohol-saturated fruits, which I then splattered all over the cheesecake filling and stirred in.
Cherry-related disappointment aside, I really enjoyed this. It's not for those who don't like almonds (although perhaps it is - my Dad, who claims to hate almonds because he hates marzipan, had two pieces of this, and he never has seconds of dessert), because it has a very pronounced, slightly artificial almond flavour from the extract and the amaretti. To tone it down a bit, use vanilla in the cream cheese mixture, or use digestives for the base. The cherry compote, brightened up a bit with sugar, alcohol and lemon juice, really makes the most of this fruit. I still can't quite put my finger on what a cherry 'should' taste like, but I have a feeling the right place for it is swaddled in a creamy blanket of almond-infused dairy, like this one. The crunch of the base contrasts nicely with the soft, squishy fruit and its alcoholic tang, and the cream cheese filling is incredibly light and fragrant with almonds. A true bakewell tart experience, but in cheesecake form.
Am I being unfair to the cherry? Does anyone else find them as nondescript as I do?
Cherry and amaretti cheesecake (serves 8):
- 200g amaretti biscuits, plus extra for decorating
- 50g melted butter
- 500g quark
- 200g light cream cheese
- 200g icing sugar
- 1 tsp almond extract
- 1 sachet gelatine
- 3 tbsp boiling water
- 250g cherries, pitted, plus extra for decorating
- Half a lemon
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 dsp kirsch (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Blitz the amaretti in a blender to fine crumbs. Mix with the melted butter and use to line the base of a greased 20cm springform cake tin, pressing down with a spoon. Bake for 10 minutes until crisp, then set aside.
To make the cherry compote, place the cherries in a small saucepan with a squeeze of lemon juice, a splash of water and the sugar. Boil and then simmer gently for about 15 minutes, covered, until the cherries have softened and released juice (if it dries out just add a bit more water - you want about 1tbsp left over in the pan). Taste - it might need more lemon or sugar to balance it. Add the kirsch, if using, and set aside.
Whisk together the quark, cream cheese, icing sugar and almond extract. Sprinkle the gelatine over the boiling water and leave for a couple of minutes, then stir briskly to dissolve (heat the water gently in the microwave if it doesn't all dissolve, then try again). Pour the gelatine mixture into the cheese mixture, and whisk in thoroughly. Stir in the cherry compote, then pour onto the amaretti base in the tin.
Leave to chill for about 5 hours, or overnight if possible. To decorate, blitz some more amaretti biscuits and scatter over the centre of the cake. Arrange some whole cherries around the edge, and dust with icing sugar.