Home Sweet Home with a Rainier Cherry-Almond Gratin

Rainier Cherry-Almond Gratin 

Being asked by well-meaning strangers where home is for me is one of the more difficult questions I regularly encounter. Having spent good portions of my life living in places as diverse as Spain, California, New Orleans, Ireland and Germany, it’s sometimes hard for me to pin down that elusive concept of ‘home’ others bandy about so freely. I can easily tell people where I was born, where I’ve studied, where I lived then and where I live now, but home? It’s hard to say. If home is where the heart is, my home is obviously in Scotland at the present. However, if home is the place where you feel most peaceful, content and connected with the world, the place you feel you would rather be most any time of the year and the place whose produce you would be happy eating each and every day of your life to the exclusion of all else, then without a doubt I am a Pacific Northwesterner through and through.

Of course it helps that this is where my family still lives, so coming back to Washington year after year gives me a sense of continuity and belonging I don’t have anywhere else. Since I first left home eleven years ago to become an exchange student it’s become a place synonymous with rest, relaxation and escape from the rigors of ‘real life’, wherever that real life may be taking place. But sometimes the depth of my attachment to the Northwest surprises even me. Year after year I feel a tension building up the longer I am away, a tension that reaches its crescendo as my parents relate the improving weather of spring and tales of the first flowers and strawberries, a tension which miraculously melts into relief the moment I step off the plane into the warm Northwest sunshine and realize not too much has changed in my absence. I find myself relieved that the landscape is still so beautiful and the summer still so benign, relieved that Seattle is still so exciting and the view I wake up to still so awe-inspiring. And of course I’m relieved that the same cornucopia of beautiful ingredients are still coming into their fullness year after year just as I arrive for my visit.

I took the ferry into Seattle yesterday in order to go to the Pike Place Market, a place you should never ever visit on a summer weekend but on a weekday is just possible if you’ve learned the technique of navigating around the tourist roadblocks. I specifically wanted to go yesterday because of a new attraction at the market on Wednesdays: organic produce. In addition to all of the market’s usual sellers, a special section has been set up in the open air along Pike Place, where sellers from all corners of Washington come once a week to sell their organic bounty. The prices are great, the selection impressive, and the quality and freshness impeccable. I had picked up a bagful of zucchini blossoms, a couple pounds of assorted heirloom plums, juicy apricots and salad greens, when I stumbled upon two things that sweetened my homecoming. The first was organic Red Haven peaches from Rama Farm in Bridgeport. Let me tell you something – if you live in or near Seattle, run, don’t walk, to the market next Wednesday – I don’t care if you have to take the day off work to do it – and buy these peaches. They are the best peaches I have ever eaten, hands down. Eating the first one as I ambled along the waterfront, juice gushing down my chin and all over my shirt, I could barely keep my eyes focused ahead of me, such was the tendency for them to roll back into my head in ecstasy. Before I knew it I had eaten half my purchase, so I hiked back up to the market to buy some more before it closed (and unsuccessfully begged Rick, the friendly peach-seller, to consider shipping to Scotland while I was at it). I briefly considered doing something blog-worthy with those peaches, but could think of nothing that would do them more justice than eating them exactly as they are.

My second find, which did produce something blog-worthy, was cherries – oodles and oodles of Rainier cherries, to be exact. I had not really planned to do anything else with cherries this year, especially as I’ve already given you these two cherry recipes already and the supply seemed to be drying up in Scotland as I left. But upon seeing that my absolute favorite – the locally-grown blushing yellow-and-pink Rainier (which I love for being sweet and tart and chock full of what I consider quintessential cherry flavor) – is at the peak of its season right now, I couldn’t resist carting enough home to put some to good use (good use of course being something besides popping them into my mouth). In fact, I ended up making something (from The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells which I recently borrowed from the Edinburgh public library) that was so good, I would have gladly rescinded every cherry recipe I’ve published thus far in order to have this one alone catch your attention. Heidi did a great post on the same recipe a couple of months ago, but I simply couldn’t not share my version ot it too. In fact, I like it so much I’ve made it twice already, and those who know me well can vouch for the infrequency of that. It’s also great because, unlike those heaven-sent peaches, just about any cherry you can get your hands on will work fine for this. Though of course I’m partial to those pinky-sweet Rainiers, if for no other reason than just because they remind me I’m home.

Cherry-Almond Gratin
Source: The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells
Serves: 6
Note: I imagine that you could substitute any number of fruits for the cherries here, particularly apricots, peaches, nectarines, figs or berries. Just adjust the sugar and lemon juice accordingly.

2 pounds/1 kg fresh cherries, rinsed, stemmed and pitted
juice of one large lemon
4 tablespoons sugar, or to taste (adjust for sweetness of your cherries, but avoid over-sweetening as topping is quite sweet)
1 cup/125 grams finely ground almonds
8 tablespoons/125 grams unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons heavy or double cream
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup/120 grams powdered/icing sugar, unsifted
Several drops of almond extract (to taste)
Powdered/icing sugar for dusting the gratin

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C.

Butter a medium ceramic or glass baking dish and set aside.

In a heavy-bottomed pot c
ombine the cherries, lemon juice, and sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring regularly, for 15-20 minutes, until the cherries are starting to fall apart and the liquid has thickened. Transfer the cherries to the prepared baking dish and allow to cool.

Prepare the almond cream: whisk together the almonds and butter until smooth. Add the eggs, cream, salt and powdered sugar and whisk until thick, smooth, and well blended. Add the almond extract, mixing to blend. Spoon the cream over the cooled cherries in the baking dish.

Place the baking dish in the center of the oven and bake until the gratin is a deep golden brown, about 20 minutes. Remove to a wire rack to cool.

Dust the gratin lightly with powdered sugar and serve in wedges, warm or at room temperature. This dessert is best served a few hours after it is prepared.