When I saw California cherries had shown up at the grocery store I immediately grabbed a bag. A big bag. A very big bag. I bought a lot of cherries. I laid awake in the dark twilight of later that night, staring up at the ceiling fan above my bed, its blades spinning and chain making that almost inaudible, but still undeniably irritating, jingle. Those rotating blades and rhythmic clanking of the chain hypnotized me. Suddenly, I felt like I was falling—like a really lame remake of Vertigo. There was something so hypnotic about it.
I woke up the next morning, and went out to buy more cherries.
I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in Michigan, where something like 70% of the country’s tart cherry supply comes from (primarily in part thanks to Traverse City), so between the cherry festivals, U-Pick cherry fields and orchards, and various PR blasts about our booming cherry industry, I’ve had a run-in or two with them.
Those tart cherries are excellent for pies or jams—anything that has them melting into copious amounts of sugar to balance their sharp edge—while the sweeter ones were good enough to eat on their own. I remember one of the first times (or first times that I remember, at least) that we bought sweet cherries from the orchard down the street (from their country store, before it was sold and made into a chain pharmacy); little golden orbs with a little blushing rouge on their cheeks. Fumbling with the pits was a frustrating novelty, but worth every aggravation.
It might be a little early still for Michigan cherries, but California cherries are known for their early arrival. By the time I finished pitting my trove of cherries, I looked at the pile of glossy, ruby gems and asked myself “what the hell am I going to do with all of these?” I’m not one for cherry pie, and these are far too sweet for that anyway, and I think I’ll be pushed out of the house if I put one more jar of pickled or preserved anything to stock. Surely I’ll freeze some, but what to do with the rest? Then I thought about the cherry blossom trees that line the streets of Wooster Street in the Wooster Square neighborhood of New Haven. Those pale pink flowers dotting the branches, and subsequently the streets, are a sight to be seen in the early wake of spring. They may not actually bear fruit, but nevertheless… Only when I went to write this did it hit me that I missed the annual Cherry Blossom Festival hosted in the square—missed it by a long shot, too. At least I have the Wooster Square Blossom Blog’s photos to enjoy it vicariously (it’s already in my phone for next year).
Anyway, with New Haven’s own Little Italy in mind, I thought about the combination of cherries and almonds. I can’t help but pair almonds with fruits or desserts—like the Rhubarb-Almond Crumble—because the rich nuttiness of sweet almonds has a lingering hit of their bitter counterparts, which compliment the fresh and fruity tastes of so many fruits. With cherries there’s an even more definitive link with Benzaldehyde; the compound is found in both almonds and the pits of cherries and is actually used as a synthetic flavoring for both. For this recipe, rather than using flaked almonds or almond meal, I went with a stronger almond tasting ingredient: almond paste. It’s easy enough to make your own, grinding blanch raw almonds with sugar and egg whites into a paste, but I just assume use the store-bought stuff. I know it’s not an exclusively Italian ingredient—and no matter; this isn’t really an Italian recipe—but the connotation and connection for me lies in that it’s flavor reminds me so much of amaretto liqueur, which also makes a small appearance.
Whether you can get your hands on early season California cherries, or the later season crop (Michigan, right?) this bundt cake is not only charming, but tastes so great you won’t find it hard to justify running out for more cherries (and I won’t feel alone for doing it either!).
Preheat the oven to 350° (or 325° if the Bundt pan has a darker interior).
Roughly chop or tear the almond paste into a food processor and pulse a few times to break it up into slightly smaller bits—about 5 – 6 pulses. Sprinkle in the sugar, and pulse until the almond paste is totally finely ground into the sugar.
Sift together the baking soda, baking powder, salt, and all but a heaped spoonful of the flour (about 2 tablespoons, more or less) into a large measuring bowl and set aside.
In a stand-up mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and shortening together just to combine—about 15 seconds—and then add in the golden, almond-perfumed sugar. Beat on medium speed for exactly 3 minutes until it’s a pale, almost ivory white, and fluffy. Scrape down the sides and bottom with a rubber spatula.
Turn the mixer down to medium-low, and add the eggs one at a time, allowing each one to incorporate almost completely before adding the next. In total, this whole process should take just about 30 seconds—you don’t want to beat the eggs too much because it can incorporate too much air, which could cause the cake to rise dramatically when baking (and, in turn, fall dramatically when cooling) or create air pockets in the cake, causing it to bake unevenly. Scrape the sides and bottom down again.
Once all the eggs are in, splash in the vanilla and, with the mixer on low, add a third of the dry mix. Let it mix in almost completely before adding a third of the sour cream. Allow the sour cream to incorporate before repeating the process twice more, using up all the dry mix and sour cream.
Toss the pitted and quartered cherries with the reserved heaping spoonful of flour in a bowl until the glistening crimson of the cherries is matted with white. Fold these into the batter with a rubber spatula with as quickly and with as little stirring as possible as not to toughen the cake, being sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl while you do.
Grease the pan with butter and dust with a little flour, knocking out all the excess. Add the batter into the pan, and smoothing out the top with the spatula. Don’t be alarmed—it is a very thick batter.
Bake for 45 – 55 minutes, until cooked through (a tooth pick should come out clean). If you’re using a pan with a dark interior keep a close watch on the cake—you’ll want to take it out closer to the 40 – 50 minute mark. Once it comes out of the oven it will continue to cook in the pan, even more so with a darker pan, so if the cake is removed when it’s perfectly baked it will dry out as it cools. For me and my darker pan, 45 - 50 minutes is the magic number here; I lightly touch the surface with my finger and it feels like it could use another 5 minutes, and that’s when I know it’s time to come out.
Allow it cool outside of the oven for about 15-20 minutes before inverting onto a wire cooling wrack. Let the cake cool completely—at least an hour—before adding any glaze/icing.
Top with some reserved cherries and/or slivered almonds as you see fit. This cake is best enjoyed within 2 – 3 days and stored at room temperature (and because there’s no milk in the glaze, it doesn’t need to be refrigerated).
To make the glazes:
To make the glazes, whisk the sifted powdered sugar with their respective liquids until you have a smooth glaze. For the amaretto glaze, whisk the sifted powdered sugar, amaretto, vanilla extract, and melted butter to combine before adding just enough water to make it a thick, but still pourable, glaze. If you’re unsure, spoon a little over a portion of the cake to make sure it’s thick enough to stick—if it’s too thin just add a little more powdered sugar. To make the cherry glaze, similarly add cherry juice to the powdered sugar until you have a smooth glaze—this one can be slightly thinner. You can spoon, pour, or pipe—anyway you like.
If you want little bits of cherries to run throughout the cake, chop them a bit smaller—let’s say into eighths, roughly, rather than quartering them—and then toss with flour. I prefer to keep them quartered; it means you get big pops of juicy cherries rather than the cake being flecked with little specks of fruit.
Don't feel inclined to make both glazes, though they're both so good. One will do if you like.