When I was a little girl, I never wanted Grandma to make me a birthday cake.
When she asked me what kind of cake I wanted her to bake for my birthday, I always gave the same answer.
And she would toss back her bandana-clad head and laugh, but on my birthday, I always had a pie made out of the prettiest scarlet sour cherries with a flakey crust made of lard. She’d cut a cursive monogram of a “B” on the top crust as a vent so everyone would know it was for me. The cherries themsleves were sour enough to bring tears to your eyes, and Grandma never over-sweetened them, so their burst of tart juice cut the richness of the crust perfectly.
When I was three or so, my Grandpa gave me a pair of sour cherry saplings as an early birthday present. I remember how I clapped my hands and danced around them with the watering can after Dad dug the holes, backfilled them with cow manure, also donated by Grandpa, and then set the root balls in, and hilled good dark earth over them. The first year they were planted, they bloomed like a shower of snow, and I was thrilled, but of course, everyone explained that they wouldn’t bear cherries that year.
Those saplings grew into shapely little trees, and I remember playing under their shade in the summer and thier blossoms in the spring. And the first year they bore fruit–I think I was six or seven, I was ecstatic, and raced into the kitchen to tell Mom that there were tiny green cherries on the trees.
She came out to see them and smiled, nodding at them.
Every day, I went out to check on them. I watered the trees when it was dry and patted their branches and petted the wee green fruits, watching them grow plump and shapely, my mouth watering in anticipation.
“She’s like a miser with those cherries,” Dad would laugh after I had dragged him out for the third time that week to look at them as they started to ripen. “I swear she has them counted.”
They were beautiful, that first crop of cherries.
One afternoon, I saw that some of the cherries were ripe on one side, and my Grandma told me on the phone that the next morning, the other side would be ripe, and I could taste them.
I could barely get to sleep that night, for the thought of those beautiful cherries, my cherries, my first crop of cherries off of my very own sour cherry trees would be waiting for me in the morning and I could finally taste them.
I set my heart on a breakfast of nothing but sour cherries and milk.
I did sleep, of course.
And woke up with the sun on a June morning to a sky bluer than a landlocked child’s dream of the ocean. I didn’t bother to put on clothes, I just tumbled out of bed in my pajamas and darted for the back door, my long hair a tumbled halo around my head, my bare feet chilled in the dewy grass, my faithful blonde and white border collie, Rufus, bounding by my side.
The sound of birdcalls was loud and raucus.
And it was coming from my cherry trees.
I raced toward the trees, joy and desire for gustatory satisfaction spurring my short legs to churn across the yard in a blur of purposeful motion. Rufus dashed back and forth and around me like a whirling dervish dog, her white-tipped tail wagging incessantly.
When I got to the trees, they erupted in a rush of wings, and birds of all shapes, colors and sizes burst from the leaves and flung themselves at the sky in a torrent of twitters, chirps and squawks. Cardinals, bluejays, starlings, chickadees, mockingbirds and sparrows all flew past me, their feathers stirring the still morning air into a froth of wind.
At first, I was thrilled to see so many birds, and I clapped my hands, jumping up and down.
Rufus, on the other hand, knew damned good and well those birds had been up to no good, so she set up a chorus of sharp barks, and dark snarls, her nose pointed to the sky.
Joy froze in my heart as I realized that all of the ripe cherries were gone, with only their stems and pits dangling from the branches to remind me that they had been there at all. Even the cherries that were half-ripe had been taken–or rather, the ripe parts had been pecked, leaving the unripe half still clinging to the pit, forlorn and ruined.
Tears stung my eyes, and I flung myself on the ground and wept, beating the earth with my fists and feet, as I howled, “You damned old birds! You ate my cherries, you bad, bad things! You bad, bad, mean damned old birds!”
Rufus whined and flung herself down beside me, her pink tongue lapping at my cheeks as she nuzzled at my face. I glanced up at her, and my last coherent words were, “You should go bite all those awful birds–they stole all our cherries.”
After that pronouncement, I hid my face in my hands and sobbed miserably.
Mom came running out, sloshing coffee down the front of her housecoat in her haste to see what had me screeching so hard; she probably thought that I had tried to climb the tree and had fallen and broken my head.
Our neighbor, a tiny white-haired lady named Mrs. Welch, came running out of her house next door, and she and Mom met next to the tree, and they picked me up out of the grass, where my rage had subsided into incoherent sobs and snorts.
“Did you fall, Sweetpea?” Mrs. Welch asked as I hiccuped and shook my head. “Did you hurt yourself?” Mom asked, twisting my arms and feet and legs this way and that to see if they were broken. “Can you move your fingers and toes?” I nodded and pointed at the tree, before dissolving into tears again. “Did you fall out of the tree?” Mom asked. “I told you not to climb it.”
Why are adults so damned dumb? Couldn’t they see what was wrong? Even as they fussed over me the starlings began flitting back to their posts at the top of the tree, and then the mockingbirds and bluejays. The brazen birds went back to gobbling down my precious cherries while these two crazy women clucked over me instead of helping me get those goddamned birds out of my tree!
Seeing those birds hopping around in my tree, rapaciously tearing into my fruit rekindled my rage, and it erupted into a wave of fury. Shaking off Mom and Mrs. Welch, I flung myself at the tree and began shaking the trunk with all of the strength in my body while I howled imprecations at the feathered interlopers above.
Rufus leapt into action and jumped at the tree, howling a war-cry, her ears down and her teeth bared.
“Get outta my tree you nasty thieving varmints, you!” I screamed. Most of the birds flew away, wisely avoiding the two-legged tempest below, but one bold bluejay refused to quit and cede me the field. He just screeched right back at me and continued gulping down cherries. Scooping up a rock, I took aim and was just about to bean that awful bird between the eyes, when Mom’s left hand intercepted my arm and her right hand smacked into my bottom.
“Young lady!” she shouted into my ear as the bluejay kept blithely eating, though he did punctuate his repast with a few loud imprecations of his own in my direction. My Mom, undeterred by my twisting and the bird’s screams, continued her tirade. “I better not ever catch you trying to throw a rock at a bird again.” Every other word was emphasized by a good whack on my backside. “Don’t you ever think to hurt a bird ever again, you hear me?”
Defeated, the rock dropped from my clutching fingers. That sassy bird kept up a steady stream of invective while I watched him eat every last one of the ripe cherries on that tree. “Damned bird,” I muttered under my breath, glaring up at it with the patented Look of Death.
Mrs. Welch petted my hair, but Mom gave me one more swat. “And stop cursing, you little shit. I have no idea where you learned to do that.”
I wisely kept my mouth shut; it wouldn’t do to blurt out in front of our nice lady neighbor that I learned all my cuss words from her and Dad and Gram and Pappa. I just nodded and agreed, and watched that damned bluejay fly off. “Fat old bird,” I muttered. “I hope you get a stomach ache.”
Mom snorted and stomped back toward the house. “You better come in and have breakfast,” she called back to me, but I shook my head. “Rufus and I are staying out here to scare the birds away,” I declared. “So I can eat the cherries that ripen tonight tomorrow morning.”
“Suit yourself,” Mom called over her shoulder as she went inside.
Mrs. Welch smiled and patted my head. “So, what are you going to do?” she asked.
“I’ll yell at them and shake the tree every time they land,” I declared, crossing my arms. I glanced down at Rufus, and reached out to scratch behind her ear. “And Rufus will bark at them.”
“Be careful with shaking the trees,” she warned me. “That might hurt them.”
I nodded. “I promise only to shake hard enough to scare them away, but not enough to hurt the trees. I wouldn’t want to do that.”
Smiling, Mrs. Welch turned to go into her kitchen. “Wait here. I might have something that can help.”
She was gone for a while, and while we waited, Rufus and I worked out that we’d pretend to be wild Indians and would give war whoops at the birds every time they tried to land. We may not be able to really take a tomahawk to the birds, but we could make it sound like we were going to.
Mrs. Welch came back with a basket over one arm and a stack of disposable aluminum pie pans in her other hand, while string dangled from her apron pocket. Taking out of the basket some heavy kitchen shears, she sat on the grass with me, and showed me how to cut stars and hearts and moon shapes out of the aluminum, and then she carefully used an awl to punch holes in them. I threaded string through them, and then she helped me hang them all over the trees. “Birds don’t always like shiny things, so this will help scare them,” she told me.
I nodded soberly, then told her how Rufus and I were going to make like we were wild Indians and whoop at them every time they flew near the trees. Mrs. Welch asked if our tribe could use another member, and after consulting with Rufus, we came to the consensus that our tribe could always use such an upstanding lady as Mrs. Welch among us.
So, every time a bird landed, Mrs. Welch helped me hoot and holler at it until it flew away, while Rufus danced a war dance and yipped and barked in her best impersonation of a coyote.
After we were tuckered out from all that war dancing, Mrs. Welch asked me if the tribe might be a bit hungry. I eyed that covered basket, as Mrs. Welch produced freshly baked biscuits and a thermos of milky coffee from its depths. A jelly jar and a spoon soon followed, and were duly set out on the napkin she spread out on the grass.
“Scaring birds is mighty hungry work,” she told me as she poured a small cup of warm, milky coffee for me. She spread some of her homemade blackberry jam on the biscuits and I giggled because I liked the way the seeds crunched under my teeth.
While we had breakfast, we gossipped about the neighbors’ dogs and cats and who had the best flower beds. Rufus was a very polite tribal member. She laid down beside me and waited until Mrs. Welch had spread jam on a biscuit and set it in front of her white paws, and patted her head and said, “That’s allright, it is for you,” before she picked it up daintily, then gobbled it down.
While Rufus was licking her lips, Inoticed that there were a lot less birds coming to eat the cherries.
After breakfast, Mrs. Welch went inside to watch her stories and have a nap, but Rufus and I stayed there all day. Mom brought me a grilled cheese sandwich and a thermos of cream of tomato soup for lunch, which Rufus and I shared after she went back inside to start cooking supper. We spent the rest of the afternoon whooping and barking at the dwindling number of birds who braved our antics to try and steal a few more cherries.
We would have eaten dinner outside, but Dad wouldn’t hear of it.
“Next year,” he promised me after Mom told him of my shameful behavior, “next year we’ll put a net over the trees to keep the birds out so you can get some cherries.”
“You mean, we could have put a net over it to save my cherries?” I asked, incredulous.
Boy are adults dim, I thought. Here we could have avoided this whole mess, and they didn’t even think about it. Gosh.
I told Grandma about it on the phone, just before bed. She told me to get up before the birds and go out and pick cherries before the sun was up.
Mom refused to set an alarm clock, since it was Dad’s day off, so I just told myself to wake up before the sun.
Which is what I did.
Dawn was grey and silent when I padded out of the back door, with Rufus galumphing at my heels. A damp mist wafted through the trees, half-obscuring the houses as we drifted across the wet grass. I carried a cereal bowl in one hand and a flashlight in the other. We dashed breathlessly to the cherry trees against the back fence; I clicked on the light and flashed it between the leaves.
Dangling like plump rubies before my eyes were ripe cherries. Stifling a chortle, I gave a wobbly victory dance before running to the back porch and dragging down my step stool. I climbed up and started picking them, dropping them with little ringing plunks into the bowl.
There weren’t all that many.
But I didn’t care.
There were some. And they were ripe, red, and juicy.
And they were mine.
I think that there was only a handful that I could get to before the birds woke up and decended upon the fruit-laden upper branches.
The trees were denuded of fruit by an hour after sunrise.
I took my meager harvest inside and waited until Mom got up at eight. I stared at the cherries while Rufus curled up at my feet and huffed a sigh before going to sleep.
After Mom got up, I asked if I could go see Mrs. Welch. Mom told me I could go so long as I came back when she called me for breakfast.
I dashed off, clutching the bowl of cherries to my breast.
By the time I got to Mrs. Welch’s door, and knocked, I was very impatient to try the cherries. My mouth watered in anticipation of the sensation of all of that delicious sour juice bursting on my tongue.
When she answered the door, the smell of freshly brewed coffee and baked biscuits swept over me, and I nearly swooned. “Come in, come in, Mrs. Welch said. “What do you have? Your first harvest?”
Nodding soberly, I set the cherries down on her little kitchen table. There really weren’t very many cherries in the bottom of the bowl–the birds didn’t leave me much more than a handful.
But they were mine.
And I was all set to share them with Mrs. Welch, who had helped me chase the birds away.
Mrs. Welch set the biscuits on the table and gave me another cup of coffee which was mostly warm milk with just enough coffee to color it and to make me feel grown up. “And you brought these over to share with me?” she asked, her bow-shaped mouth stretching in a smile.
I nodded. “Rufus doesn’t like cherries, and you helped scare the birds away.” I pushed the bowl over to her. “You have the first one.”
Mrs. Welch shook her head. “No, no–I’ve watched you watch those cherry trees for years. The first one should be yours.”
I grinned and picked up a cherry by the stem, then nudged the bowl towards her again. “We both eat one at the same time?”
Mrs. Welch’s smile deepened, and a dimple winked in her pink cheek. She plucked a cherry from the bowl with a graceful little hand and on the count of three, the two of us bit into the cherries at the same time.
Citrus-sour juice jetted into our mouths, and our eyes popped open at the intensity. The floral aftertaste of the cherry struck our tongues and we both grinned. “Now that’s a cherry!” Mrs. Welch exclaimed, giggling. “Sour cherries are the best fruit because they tickle your tongue.”
I nodded avidly, and spitting out the pit onto a paper napkin, took another cherry and bit into this one slowly, savoring the wild dance of flavors and textures in my mouth. “These are the best cherries ever,” I murmurred in agreement.
Mrs. Welch nodded, and smiled. “That’s because you put your heart into them,” she said. “Tending those trees, watering them, and keeping bugs away and scaring away the birds. That’s what makes these cherries the best I’ve ever tasted.”
We ate that first meager harvest together, Mrs. Welch and I, laughing and sipping coffee and nibbling biscuits.
My next birthday, Grandpa gifted me with some bird netting, which Dad and I installed the next spring after the flowers were spent, and that year we harvested enough cherries for Grandma to make more pies than I could eat, so she ended up canning cherries to make pie in the winter.
But no matter how many cherries there were, I always brought the very first handful to Mrs. Welch, and we shared them together, eating them out of hand, because she understood that sour cherries were better than the sweetest berries or the crispest apples.
They were the best because they were mine, and I grew them, and they made your tongue dance with wakefulness and joy.
This batch of cherries came from the Athens Farmer’s Market, of course. Morganna wanted them–and she had a choice between sweet or sour cherries, and not surprisingly, she chose sour. She didn’t eat many, though, so I had to do something with them. In preparation for baking with them, I picked up a little manual cherry pitter at Sur la Table on Tuesday when I was there to teach a class in Dim Sum. (I forgot to take pictures of all the goodies we made in class, too. I could kick myself.)
The pitter made short work of a pint of little sour cherries.
Then there was the problem of what to make with them. By the time I started baking last night it was ten o’clock, so I was pretty sure I didn’t want to take the time to make a wee tart in a tart pan. That would require pre-baking the shell, filling it, making a sugar glaze and and then baking it again.
I settled on my all-time favorite dessert, a galette. But sour cherries alone sounded boring, so instead, I paired them with almonds. Almonds and cherries are a classic combination; many German kuchen feature the kissing cousins of the fruit and nut world as main flavorings. I say kissing cousins because both almonds and cherries are stone fruits, part of the genus “Prunus,” which in turn, are part of the family, “Rosaceae.”
“Rosaceae?” As in rose, I bet you are wondering.
As in rose. Yes, in addition to rose, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries , apples, pears and quince, the family Rosaceae includes all the Prunus species–cherries, plums, apricots, peaches and almonds.
Which means, of course, that rosewater would be nice sneaked into a cherry tart some day.
But not last night–I had just made several desserts featuring a whiff of rosewater, and I didn’t want the flavor to get worn out.
So instead of grabbing for the rosewater, I picked up the almond extract, a heady flavoring that is made from bitter almonds. This, I used to flavor the pastry dough for
Cherry Almond Galette
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick chilled unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1 teaspoon almond extract
barely 1/3 cup ice water
1/4 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup dry, coarsely crushed vanilla or almond cookie crumbs
1 pint fresh sour cherries, washed and pitted
1 tablespoon raw sugar, or to taste
Preheat oven to 4oo degrees.
Mix dry ingredients in a bowl, then scatter cold butter cubes evenly over the surface of the flour. Cut in butter using whatever method you like, until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. (Usually, I use a pastry blender, but last night, I tried using my hands. For a wonder, this yielded as tender and flakey a crust as I usually get with the blender, in far less time and with less effort. I was very careful to only use my fingertips, so as to avoid melting the butter overmuch.)
Roll out the dough into a twelve-inch diameter circle, more or less.
Press the almonds into the surface of the pastry dough all over the surface except for a border about one and a half inches wide around the circumference. Sprinkle the cookie crumbs evenly over the almonds, then arrange the cherries in a single layer over the cookie crumbs and almonds. Sprinkle with one tablespoon (or more if you like your cherries a little sweeter than I do) of raw sugar, then fold and pleat the edge up over the cherries.
Transfer to a silpat-lined baking sheet (if you are afraid of moving the filled tart, then transfer the dough to the baking sheet first, and then fill and shape it–but if I can move it without destroying it, you probably can, too) and bake for thirty to forty five minutes. Check after twenty five minutes–if the cherries are starting to blacken, place a piece of foil over the galette, and keep baking in order to crisp up the crust.
It is best served warm, but even cold it makes a good breakfast, as Zak and I can attest to.
Especially with hot, strong black coffee.
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