While I've got a decent cooking repertoire under my belt and can usually figure out something to make with most ingredients, sometimes I pull out my cookbooks to find a new recipe or to get ideas for using a less familiar flavor.
As I've noted before, cherries have never really been a part of my culinary experience, so when My Fabulous Aunt brought me a few cups of tart cherries, I was at a loss. Sweet cherries from the farmers' market? Sure, I'll dry those or turn them into jam. But tart? Hmmmmm...
One of the cookbooks I pulled out was my grandmother's copy of our family cookbook (an intriguing, nostalgia-filled record not only of our family's specialties and the usual offerings at the annual reunion but also of the changes in American cooking from the early part of the 20th century through the 1970s), and though I couldn't find a recipe that used cherries in the book itself, my grandmother had stashed a pile of recipes, clippings, letters, and such between the pages. Among those scraps, I found her recipe for cherry-almond bars. Success!
Of course, reading over the recipe, I could see right away that I wouldn't be following it to the letter. I didn't really want to add coconut, and I certainly wasn't going to add red food coloring! Besides, I was craving chocolate, and that always tends to lead me toward good ideas.
So, I drained the cherries and added local honey and a few drops of almond extract, stirring it all together. I probably should have cooked the cherries down for a bit, just to blend the flavors more and to thicken the fruit, but it worked well using my shortcut.
Then I made a chocolate shortbread base, patting most of the dough into the baking pan and saving the rest for on top:
After baking the shortbread for a few minutes, I let it cool before adding the cherries. I also worked some chopped almonds into the remaining dough for an extra little crunchy texture in the crumble topping.
When I finished assembling the dessert, I put it in to bake for half an hour and waited for my loft to fill with a tantalizing fragrance. And when I pulled out the pan...
The cherries remained rather tart and puckered my mouth a good deal, but the sweet rich chocolate base and the crunchy almonds provided a satisfying contrast. (NOTE: I took these in to work the next day, and they were a huge hit!)
Obviously, it's not quite the same as chocolate-covered cherries as desserts go. But I think you might find they're even better.
I have no idea where my grandmother got this recipe originally. (I'm assuming it's not an original recipe, as I don't remember her being very creative in the kitchen. Competent, yes, but not really inventive.) Feel free to tinker with the filling: the original recipe called for canned cherries, with the cherry juice thickened with cornstarch and sugar before adding the fruit, but you could also cook the fruit and add a smidgen of flour along with the sweetener. Normally I cut bar cookies into small squares, but I just knew these needed to be cut voluptuously large. Why not? How often do you cook with fresh cherries?
3 c fresh cherries, pitted
1/4 to 1/2 c honey (or other sweetener; to taste, really)
1/4 tsp almond extract
1 c unbleached flour
1 c whole wheat pastry flour or spelt flour
1/4 c cocoa
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 c sugar (I used cane juice crystals)
1 c unsalted butter, softened
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/2 c slivered almonds, chopped
Mash cherries and combine with honey and almond extract. (If desired, simmer over low heat for about 15-20 minutes, until thicker.) Set aside.
Preheat oven to 400 F. Sift or whisk together flours, cocoa, salt, baking powder, and sugar. Cut in butter and almond extract with pastry blender until mixture forms coarse crumbs. Reserving 1/2 c dough in the bowl, spread the rest in a 9 x 13" baking pan, pressing the crumbs into a smooth base. Bake shortbread for 10 minutes; remove from oven and set aside to cool.
Reduce oven heat to 350 F. Spread cherries over cooled shortbread. Mix chopped almonds into remaining dough and sprinkle mixture over cherries. Bake 25 to 30 minutes. Allow to cool before cutting into bars.
Makes 12 big bars or 24 squares