Cafe Pasqual’s Sour Cherry Pie delivers summer in a bite.

IN THE COOLER CLIMES of our fruit-laden state, cherry season strikes in June. That’s when the fruits burst forth in orchards and backyards, inspiring everyone to climb a ladder to reach the tasty crop—and when kitchen shops struggle to keep up with the demand for handheld pitters. 

The short season—usually just three to four weeks in New Mexico—has foodies staining their fingers with the sweet and tart juice as they gobble them up by the handful. Loaded with nutrients and vitamins—including vitamins C, A, and K, plus potassium, magnesium, and calcium—they are low in calories and high in fiber and melatonin (which can help you sleep). 

As kids, we dug into a hot fudge sundae by first devouring the neon-red maraschino that topped it. Savvy adult manhattan drinkers know that the best garnish is Luxardo cherries from Italy. From George Washington’s fabled chopped-down cherry tree to the big blush of cherry blossoms each spring in Washington, D.C., these small stone fruits are married to our popular culture. They even made their way into the American songbook in 1931, when Ethel Merman implored a country in the throes of the Great Depression to not take life so seriously, because, after all, “Life is just a bowl of cherries.” 

Belonging to the genus Prunus, which also includes plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots, and almonds, the cherry arrived in America in the early 1600s, brought to the colonies by European settlers. At the same time, Spanish travelers along the Camino Real carried a wide variety of fruit to new homes in places like Mexico City and Santa Fe. Historical records state that cherries were found in New Mexico as early as 1630. One can assume birds added their cultivating skills, too. 

Today, cherries are most often found in the higher elevations of southern New Mexico and amid the cooler temps of the north. Sweet cherries to look for include Bing, Rainier, Lambert, Whitegold, Stella, Blackgold, and Lapins. If you prefer the heartier sour variety, Montmorency, Balaton, and Danube do well in the north. 

This summer, why not pack the kids in the car and turn them into cherry harvesters? Nichols Ranch and Orchards, in La Luz, near Alamogordo, offers U-pick options. Don’t miss the Nichols Ranch Cherry Festival, June 19–20, with food stalls, music, samples, competitions (pit spitting?), and local arts and crafts. 

Preserving the bounty is relatively easy. Bake them into pies or can and freeze them. The sturdy structure of the fruit helps cherries keep their shape, flavor, and texture. 

To freeze, simply wash, pit, and scatter on a parchment-lined sheet pan and freeze until firm. Transfer to a freezer bag and, during a hot summer day, eat right from the bag like a mini popsicle or plop them into a smoothie. To can either quickly cooked or raw cherries, place them in jars with either light or heavy syrup, depending on what you intend to use them for later in the year. For a light syrup, simmer 2 cups of sugar with 4 cups of water until sugar is dissolved. Heavy syrup is made the same way with equal parts sugar to water. 

Cherries quickly soften into a jam when you cook them with sugar, lemon juice, and pectin. Some cooks sneak in a shot of kirsch (a clear brandy) or even gin, amaretto, or whiskey—but not too much or you overpower the flavor. Both the jam and the canned cherries must be cooked in a water bath to safely seal the jars. 

Cherry-infused drinks, especially cider, have become popular here. If you head to the Cherry Festival, stop by the Old Apple Farm, nine miles east in Mountain Park, for some tasty juice. For cider that packs a punch, look for Sandia Black Cherry Hard Cider, made by the Craftroom, in Albuquerque, and available in grocery stores statewide. 

From desserts to barbecue, the following recipes are perfect for cherries right off the tree—the best fruit forward, if you will. 

BOWLS OF CHERRIES

The Nichols Ranch Cherry Festival is scheduled for June 19–20. For up-to-date details, call 575-430-7953 or check out the ranch’s Facebook


Cherry Chipotle Barbecue Sauce

Tangy Cherry-Chipotle Barbecue Sauce

Makes about 4½ cups 

To tame the heat, adjust the cayenne and chipotles. If you prefer a smooth sauce, purée in a blender with an additional
½ cup of water. 

2 cups finely chopped onions
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar 
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cup ketchup
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup cider vinegar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
4 canned chipotles or to taste (including adobo sauce)
½ cup molasses
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
1½ cups water
3 cups pitted cherries, fresh or frozen (thawed), halved

Makes about 4½ cups


INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Place onions in a medium saucepan and sauté over medium heat until they begin to brown. Lower the heat and add balsamic vinegar and brown sugar, stirring until the onions are well coated. Allow to simmer on low for 10 minutes. 

  2. Whisk in remaining ingredients and cook over medium heat for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Sauce will thicken slightly. Store in refrigerator for up to 7 days. 

  3. Serve with roasted pork or chicken or brush on ribs as they grill. 

Cafe Pasqual's Sour Cherry Pie

Cafe Pasqual’s Sour Cherry Pie

Makes one 10-inch pie 

Katharine Kagel, the chef and owner of Cafe Pasqual’s, in Santa Fe, shares her recipe for a classic cherry pie filling. She uses an all-butter crust. Use your own favorite recipe for making two 10-inch crusts. 

3½ pounds sour cherries, pitted
1½ cups sugar
½ cup cornstarch
¼ cup cold water, plus 1 tablespoon, divided
½ teaspoon almond extract
Zest of 2 lemons
Two 10-inch pie crusts
1 egg 

Makes one 10-inch pie


INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 375°. Place cherries and sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stir to combine, and bring to a boil.

  2. In a separate small bowl, mix cornstarch and ¼ cup water, and stir to form a smooth paste. 

  3. Stir cornstarch mixture, almond extract, and lemon zest into cherries and cook until thickened, about 5 minutes.

  4. Take one crust out of the refrigerator (after chilling for 30 minutes if you made your own) and let sit at room temperature for 10 minutes to soften a bit. Roll the crust into a 12-inch circle about ⅛ inch thick. 

  5. Fit dough into the bottom of the pie dish and decoratively crimp edges. Line the shell with a piece of crumpled parchment paper or foil, then fill the pie shell with a layer of dried beans, raw rice, or other pie weights. Bake for about 15 minutes or just until crust starts to brown. 

  6. While crust is baking, whisk together the egg and a tablespoon of water in a small bowl to make an egg wash. Remove crust from the oven, take pie weights out, and brush the egg wash mixture all over crust (this will seal it, preventing the wet filling from making it soggy). Bake without weights for another 8–10 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack. 

  7. Pour filling into the pie shell. Use the second crust to create a lattice over the filling, pinching at the edges, and bake on rack in the lower third of the oven for 45–50 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Cover outer edges of crust with foil if crust browns too quickly. 

Cherry Pastelitos with Bizcochito Crust

This recipe creates a hand pie, or empanada. Many New Mexicans make a simpler version by dividing the dough in half and rolling each half into 1/8-inch-thick sheets. Spread filling on the bottom sheet and place second sheet on top. Gently press the edges together, brush with egg wash, sprinkle with cinnamon sugar, and bake as directed below. Allow to cool before cutting into squares. 

PASTRY

1½ cups plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon aniseed
¾ cup unsalted butter (1½ sticks), cold
6 tablespoons ice water, approximately
4½ teaspoons brandy  

FILLING

3 cups fresh or frozen cherries, pitted
½ cup brown sugar
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon, plus 1 teaspoon, divided  
⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon almond extract 
1 tablespoon sugar
1 large egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon cold water
Powdered sugar, for garnish  

Serves 12


PASTRY INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Combine flour, salt, cinnamon, and aniseed in a large bowl.

  2. Using a cheese grater, grate the butter over the flour mixture. With your hands, work butter into flour until dough is in pea-size pieces.

  3. Add water and brandy and toss dough until it sticks together, being careful not to break butter into smaller pieces while blending in the water. 

  4. Turn onto lightly floured board and knead until dough just comes together. Wrap in plastic wrap, flatten into a disc, and refrigerate for 30 minutes or until firm and ready to roll. 


FILLING INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Preheat the oven to 375°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. 

  2. Stir together the cherries, brown sugar, ¾ teaspoon cinnamon, nutmeg, and almond extract in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn to medium low and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

  3. Roll the dough out to ⅛ inch thick and cut circles with a 4-inch cookie cutter or glass, making each cut as close as possible to the next. (Scraps may be re-rolled and cut.) 

  4. Working with one piece of dough at a time and using a pastry brush, brush a ¼-inch border of egg wash around the perimeter of the dough. Spoon 2 tablespoons of cherries (about 6 halves)—leaving behind most of the juice—on one half of each circle, then fold it over into a half moon. Do not overfill. Crimp the edges tightly with a fork dipped in flour, to seal. Juice may be reserved as a sauce. 

  5. Repeat the process until all of the dough has been used. 

  6. Mix remaining teaspoon of cinnamon with sugar in a small bowl. Brush each pastry lightly with remaining egg wash and sprinkle lightly with cinnamon sugar.

  7. Bake about 20–22 minutes, until lightly browned. Allow to cool before removing them from the baking sheet. Garnish with light dusting of powdered sugar.