A Bowl of Cherries

By Diane Hollister.

Photos from Goschenhoppen Historians Pennsylvania Dutch Foodways Project, 2008 (unless otherwise noted).

I don’t know about you, but in the middle of cold weather, I’m often thinking of warm summer days, my flowerbeds, my gardens, and being outdoors. I drool over garden catalogs and treasure my canned and frozen goodies. But there’s nothing like the fruit fresh from the patch. Give me berries of any kind, and I’m a happy Pennsylvania German girl.

I love the blossoms in spring. And then, it seems as if almost overnight, the trees are setting fruit. And…it’s time for cherries. Buckets and buckets of them. Baked cherry pudding. Sour cherry pie. Cherry fritters. Cherry custard. Dried cherries. Sweet cherries, still warm from the sun, exploding in your mouth in a burst of flavor…just a little juice running down your chin.

Are you hungry yet?

Seeds were saved from year to year for planting in the PA German garden and orchard. Small cloth bags or even specialized wooden chests with numerous small drawers were used to keep the seeds dry and carefully sorted. Seeds were also ordered from professional botanists such as John Bartram (1699–1777), who shipped seeds and plant specimens from his gardens along the west bank of the Schuylkill River near Philadelphia to clients across the United States and in England. In 1802, nurseryman Bernard McMahon (1775–1816) of Philadelphia published one of the first seed catalogue in the United States, which listed 720 varieties of “Garden Grass, Herb, Flower, Tree & Shrub-Seeds, Flower Roots, Etc.” for sale.

Among those were cherries. Cherries were brought to America by ship with early settlers in the 1600s. By the twentieth century, author Cornelius Weygandt wrote in The Dutch Country: “The reasons for the ubiquity of cherry pie in Pennsylvania Dutchland never became more apparent to me until May of nineteen thirty-seven. Then I made a trip through Montgomery and Berks and Schuykill Counties, and beyond and home by way of southern Lycoming and Union and Snyder, Dauphin and Lancaster and Chester. At no time, when I was in farm land through these five hundred miles of Pennsylvania, was I out of sight of a cherry tree in blow (bloom). There was hardly a house noticed on the two days’ journey but had at least pie cherry at the back door. Many had three or four about…and more than few a long fence row of pie cherries.”

It’s a classic American fruit; there is a cherry “pye” recipe in The Lady’s, Housewife’s and Cookmaid’s Assistant: Of the Art of Cookery (1769) by E. Taylor. History saved Martha Washington’s cherry preserve recipe. In my own mid-1800’s cookbook, I read about how women used quills to extract the pits before baking cherries in pies! We’ll skip the “cherry bounce” for now (you can research that on your own), but let’s explore some delicious ways to use those cherries.

Cherry Recipes

How about a cobbler? You’ll be wanting some big dark red types of cherries for this! I don’t suggest using sour cherries. You can also use frozen cherries, but keep in mind they will release more liquid. (Take it from me; if you’re going to use the frozen ones, be sure to add some extra tapioca starch to soak up that liquid. Place a pizza pan or cookie sheet under your cobbler as it bakes, to minimize the oven clean up.)

Cherry Cobbler
Mennonite Community Cookbook, p. 315

¼ c. shortening
1 c. sugar
1 egg
1 ½ c. flour
½ t. salt
2 t. baking powder
1 T. tapioca
1 T. lemon juice
2 T. butter
1/3 c. milk
2 c. cherries, seeded

Sift flour and measure. Sift flour, baking powder, salt and sugar together. Cut shortening into dry ingredients. Beat egg and add milk. Combine with flour mixture. Stir until flour is damp.
Pour cherries into a greased shallow baking dish. Sprinkle with tapioca, add lemon juice and butter. Drop batter in 6 mounds on top of cherries.
Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. Serve warm with milk or cream.
Makes 6 servings.

Or, you can try a cherry pudding. I’ve seen multiple variations of this, with all the ingredients pretty much the same thing. Hubby says the more cherries, the better.

Cherry Pudding
½ cup sugar
¼ cup butter
2 tsp. baking powder
2½ cups flour
1 cup milk
1 cup cherries, pitted
1 egg

Cream together the butter and sugar and add the egg then beat well. Sift the flour and baking powder and add alternately with the milk. Blend well, flour the cherries and stir in. Pour batter into a baking dish. Bake for a half-hour at 350 degrees. Top with whipped cream or regular cream. Don’t worry about leftovers.

An Old Steamed Cherry Pudding Recipe
Goschenhoppen Festival Cookbook

6 T. butter
¾ c. sugar
2 eggs
2 ¼ c. flour
1 t. baking soda
1 t. cream of tartar
¼ t. salt
½ c. milk
2 cups cherries

Grease mold. Grease lid too. Place on rack with water half way on mold. Fill mold with batter and simmer 2 hours. Let stand 10 minutes before turning out. Serve a bowl sprinkled with sugar and cold milk. It was awfully good and was our whole meal.

How about cherry fritters?

Sour Cherry Fritters
Topped with powdered sugar – excellent.
1 cup flour, sifted
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. sugar
2 eggs, separated
3 Tbsp. water
1 cup pitted sour cherries

Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Combine the beaten egg yolks with water and mix with dry ingredients until smooth. Fold in the stiffly beaten egg whites and add the cherries. Drop by spoonfuls into hot fat and 2-5 minutes or until browned. Drain on absorbent paper and serve with powdered sugar.

Cherry fritters. Photo by Alice Wolfgang.

Drying Cherries

Like your PA German ancestors, you can also dry cherries. You are probably more familiar with schnitz (dried apples), but many other fruits were also dried and saved. Goschenhoppen historian Nancy Roan has noted that some historians feel that dried cherries were once utilized for pie at funeral meals (now call raisin pie is called “funeral pie”. Dried cherries are a tasty, portable and healthy snack. They can also be used in baked goods, as a salad topping, and in compotes. Whether you choose to dry, freeze or can them, keep in mind that the more flavorful the fresh cherries you start out with, the more delicious the dehydrated version will be.

Once they are pitted (with your quills or the more modern pitters or a straw or whatever), they are ready to dry. Set the dehydrator’s temperature to 165 F/74 C. Some dehydrators don’t go this high: if that’s the case with yours, use the highest temperature you can. Dry the cherries at this temperature for 2 to 3 hours. Lower the temperature to 135 F/57 C and dry the cherries for an additional 10-20 hours, depending on the size of the cherries. The cherries should feel totally dry to the touch, but still, leathery and somewhat pliable. Be sure they are cool and dry before storing them.

Ground Cherries

If you need yet more options, there is one kind of cherry we haven’t talked about yet. Have you ever heard of ground cherries? Yuddekasche (a PA Dutch nickname for this fruit) are native to South America actually, and produce small, round fruits in paper husks similar to a tomatillo. They taste kind of like cherry tomatoes injected with mango or pineapple juice and look like a yellow pearl encased in a miniature paper lantern. But they are not Chinese lantern plants which are toxic. They are nicknamed ‘husk tomatoes.’

Along the lines of ‘waste not, want not,” Pennsylvania Dutch communities used ground cherries frequently in jams, pies, sauces, and other dishes. They prefer sun and well drained sandy soil and store well in their husks for up to 3 months. They are ripe when the berries turn from green to golden and the husks brown; they often fall off the plant. Once husked, they will last in the refrigerator for about one week. The Pennsylvania Dutch historically pulled entire plants up by the roots and hung them in their homes as a winter food source.

Ground Cherry Pie
2 ½ cups ground cherries
½ cup packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons water
1 (9 inch) pie shell
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons white sugar
2 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C).
Wash ground cherries and place in unbaked pie shell. Mix brown sugar and 1 tablespoon flour and sprinkle over cherries. Sprinkle water over top. Mix together 3 tablespoons flour and 3 tablespoons sugar. Cut butter in until crumbly. Top cherry mixture with crumbs.
Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, reduce temperature to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C) and continue to bake for 25 minutes.

Ground cherry pie

Sour Cherries

And we can’t forget the sour cherry pies….

Sour Cherry Pie
Source: Mary at the Farm, and Book of Recipes Compiled during Her Visit among the Pennsylvania Germans by Edith M. Thomas, 1915, p. 386

One quart of cherries, ½ cup of flour for juicy sour cherries, (scant measure of flour), 1½ cups sugar.

Pit the cherries, saving cherry juice. Mix together sugar and flour and place about ⅓ of this on a pie-tin lined with pastry. Fill with cherries and juice and sprinkle remaining sugar and flour over. Bake with an upper crust, having vents cut in to allow steam to escape.

And if that’s all too much work, you can just enjoy a bowl of cherries, freshly washed and waiting for you to bite into the juicy goodness.

Diane (Burkhardt) Hollister, of Topsham Maine, is a Berks County native.

3 thoughts on “A Bowl of Cherries

  1. So glad to see the quote from Cornelius Weygandt. He is one of my all time favorite authors.
    I picked my sour cherries last week and froze them. I think I’ll check to see if there are any left, I’d love to try the fritter recipe. Thanks for the recipes.


  2. This article brings back childhood memories of picking (and eating way too many) cherries at my uncle’s home. I love cherries of all kinds, especially baked into a treat.


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