Cherry thumbprints

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Life is, as they say, a bowl of cherries.

That’s the optimist’s view, of course, the idea being that there’s nothing better, nothing more appealing, nothing, well, happier than a generous — and in the most optimistic view, bottomless — bowl of big, red, juicy, bursting-with-flavor cherries.

Implicit in the wonder of that bowl, at this point in the season, is the promise of the simple, exuberant pleasure of the coming parade of stone fruit. That, to a food lover, is the best thing about summer.

Lucky for us, most of the country’s sweet cherries are grown in the West. At my house, we can’t wait until the big, voluptuous berries of late May and early June appear, so we snatch up the smaller, tangy early varieties, such as Brooks, that are available early on. They’re hastily washed and thrown into a bowl on the kitchen counter. Within hours, a cool couple of pounds are greedily devoured as family members grab handfuls each time they pass.

Soon, and with a giddy sense of decadence, I pay luxury-tax prices for the first creamy yellow Rainiers. No regrets — each cherry is a satisfying mini-mouthful of firm, tart-sweet fruit.

Although no farmers market has them all, several cherry varieties grown by Fresno-area producers appear throughout the season, from large, succulent, maroon Garnets, which show up in mid-May, to blushing Rainiers by the end of May to deep burgundy Bings during California’s peak-season month of June. For you-pick fans, cherry farmers in Leona Valley near Palmdale open their orchards beginning June 4 for harvesting of varieties including Bing, Rainier, Tartarian, Burlap, Stella, Van and others (call [661] 266-7116 for information).

As the local season wanes, Bings and Lamberts from Oregon and Washington will be in the supermarkets into July and even August.

After a few weeks, the first headlong rush to simply gobble up fruit subsides and I remember that other juicy stone-fruit delights await — apricots, peaches, plums. So maybe I can slow down and set aside a few cherries to cook with. Properly set off with sugar and a little judicious pastry-making, cherries can not only retain flavor and shape but also deepen in intensity, mellowing and softening.

These three simple recipes preserve the integrity of the fresh fruit while offering adventures in texture and flavor combinations.

Pastry chef Kim Boyce’s quick cherry preserves are made in small amounts — one-half pound of cherries to yield one-half cup preserves — for spooning over ice cream or a piece of cheesecake. Her method keeps cherry halves intact in a reduced syrup with a bright cherry taste, and the small-quantity recipe means you’ll spend only a few minutes pitting and preparing the fruit.

The preserves are also an ingredient in Boyce’s cherry thumbprint cookies, soft and golden, each with a generous dollop of cherry in the middle.

Cherries are the traditional fruit used in clafouti, the French country dessert originally from the Limousin region. Easier to make and less fussy than a pie or tart, the clafouti is made by pouring batter over fresh fruit and baking. It’s served hot from the oven, or at least warm, as a sweet finish to a family dinner. Variations are made using other fruits, such as plum or blackberry, but cherry clafouti is the classic. We turned to Julia Child for her wonderfully simple recipe.

If you still have a few cherries left at the end of the season — after eating so many out of hand that you’re ready for apricots or peaches — you might do as Boyce does and make a cherry cordial. She fills a sterilized jar with about one-half pound (1 1/4 cups) cherries, pours in enough amaretto to cover the fruit and adds up to 1 tablespoon sugar. Then she covers the cordial and stores it in a dark place for at least three months, preferably a year.

By which time cherries will be back in season again.

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