The first cherry of the season is always the best. Although I know what a cherry tastes like, I'm still always a little pleasantly surprised when I first bite into one after months of going without. But I don't eat just any cherry. I want a cherry that is firm to the touch, the skin taut with its underlying juices, and deep deep red. Keep those mushy cherries away from me. I want no part of them.
In college, I once got through an especially yawn-inspiring section of Herodatus’ The Histories by treating myself to one sweet cherry for each page I read. I remember sitting on the worn plaid couch in my apartment with a big bowl of Bing’s next to me. I read as quickly as I could, anxiously looking forward to devouring my reward after consuming a page of boring Greek history. I remember nothing of the reading assignment, but will forever savor the memory of those enticingly ripe cherries.
Yet as much as I love simply eating a large bowl of cherries (sans Herodatus, please), I also love to cook with this versatile fruit, especially when I can get them fresh. Usually I make a pie or tart, but this year -- with drizzly and cold weather more like November than May -- I was in the mood for a hot cup of tea and some cake.
Following is my recipe for Cherry Almond Tea Cake. Made with a healthy portion of almond paste, butter and a smattering of buttermilk it has a rich nutty flavor that underscores the tart sweetness of those gorgeous sun-kissed cherries now available in markets everywhere.
Cherry Almond Tea Cake
Makes: One cake
1 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 pound almond paste (at room temperature)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 sticks butter (at room temperature)
1 tsp vanilla
4 eggs (at room temperature)
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 cup pitted cherries cut in half
1. Preheat oven to 350 (or 325 if using a convection oven). You should also butter a 10-inch tart pan or baking dish for later use now.
2. Mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
3. Crumble almond paste into small pieces and place in a separate mixing bowl (use your stand mixer bowl, if you have one) along with the sugar and combine. Then cream the butter into the almond paste and sugar mixture for 2-3 minutes with your mixer on medium high.
4. Add your eggs, one at a time, to your almond paste/butter mixture and cream until smooth.
5. Add in your vanilla and buttermilk until everything is fully incorporated.
6. Gently fold in your flour mixture in batches, being sure not to over mix. When adding the last batch of flour, also add in the cherries and fold everything together.
7. Pour the batter into your prepared baking dish, using a spatula to gently flatten the top and then bake for 1 hour in a regular oven or 40-45 minutes in a convection oven.
8. When you can cleanly pull a toothpick from the cake, remove it from the oven and let cool. Top servings with powdered sugar.
Note: Almond paste is made of ground almonds and sugar. It's available in most high-end grocery stores and bake shops. It should not be confused with marzipan, however, which usually contains more sugar and so could throw off the recipe a bit.