It’s time for graduation and cherries

Gail Alcon of Thomasville, on the ladder, and her father, Bobby Alcon of High Point made the journey to Cana to pick a few buckets of cherries.

Donald Ayers (rear) is flanked by his 7-year-old twin sons, Bowman Ayers (left) and Brady Ayers behind some of the last of this year’s cherry crop.

When the sound of “Pomp and Circumstance” begins to make itself heard at the beginning of each summer, it can only mean one thing. Well, it means two things. A new group of graduates is being released into the world and fresh cherries are ripening on the trees. Much as parents who watch a child walk across a stage or football field to take possession of that hard-earned sheepskin wonder where the time has flown and marvel at the brevity of youth, cherry lovers revel in the short, short cherry season and it’s ephemeral deliciousness.

Normally, the local cherry season is three weeks and one has to pay careful attention to the incoming graduation invitations so as not to miss it but this year it’s only two weeks and by the time the Class of 2015 has received their diplomas this weekend, it will all be over.

Donald Ayers, owner of Ayers Orchard in Cana, Virginia, lays the blame on the late winter cold for the short season. Ayers says, “The -6° temperatures in February didn’t help.” At the time, he thought that all of the cherries were killed in the bud. The trees flowered nicely but the pistils at the center of the blossoms were black. The pistils are where the cherries come from and Ayers feared the worst. But surprisingly, some of the younger trees were not affected and Ayers reported brightly, “It wasn’t nearly as bad as we had expected.” There were enough cherries for a short picking season which started June 1 and on Monday, Ayers expected the cherries to all be picked in the next day or so.

On Monday, there were still some people coming to the orchard to pick their own cherries. Gail Alcon of Thomasville and her father, Bobby Alcon of High Point made the journey to Cana to pick a few buckets of cherries. Gail Alcon took ladder duty while her dad was in charge of the low hanging fruit accessible from the ground. She confessed that she was not especially fond of ladders as she calmed her nerves by munching on a few of the ripe cherries surrounding her. “Ladders are not my favorite thing but you do what you have to do in service of the cherries.”

Donald Ayers is in his 40th season at his family’s century old orchard where he is the fourth generation to run the orchard. He says he’s thinking about retirement but there’s no one else to take over the orchard as his older children went to college and found careers in the city away from the farm.

He smiles and says, “You want your kids to do better than you did. I’ve farmed all my life.” Ayers does have 7-year-old twins, Bowman and Brady Ayers, who have not yet made a career choice. There could be a succession plan there. Bowman seemed happy to protect the last few unpicked trees from birds with his BB rifle.

With only a day or so left in the abbreviated cherry season, Ayers is already looking ahead to the next crop to come in, peaches. He already has a few early ripening white peaches on the table with the cherries and unlike the cherries, is expecting a good peach crop this year. He is excited about the peaches as he’s expecting the best crop in a few years. He says that by the beginning of July there will be a good supply of peaches with a new and different variety ripening every week until Labor Day.

That should keep Bowman and Brady busy until it’s time to go back to the second grade at St. Paul’s School and leave Donald Ayers on his own with the apples.

Ayers Orchard is located at 72 McAyers Road in Cana. Call first, at 276-755-4156, to see if there are any cherries left. Peaches will be available at the beginning of July at the Ayers’ apple shed at 6178 Wards Gap Road in Cana.

Cherry Almond Crumble

1 tbsp. brown sugar

1 tsp. cornstarch

1 1/2 lbs. fresh sweet cherries

For the topping:

3/4 cup all purpose flour

1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp. ground coriander

6 tbsp. (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1/4 cup chopped slivered almonds, lightly toasted

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Mix together the sugar and cornstarch and toss the cherries in to coat them evenly. Turn the cherries into a 9-inch pie plate or similar dish. In a medium sized bowl, mix together the flour, sugar and spices (use other spices such as clove or nutmeg if you prefer). With your fingertips or a pastry cutter, cut in the butter to make a fine crumble. Mix in the almonds, then spread the crumb topping over the cherries. Bake until the topping is golden brown and the juices thick and bubbly, about 45 minutes. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Fresh cherry and dark chocolate chunk scones

3 1/4 cups flour

2 tbsp. granulated sugar

2 1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. salt

3/4 cups cold butter, cut into pieces

1 cup buttermilk

2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups fresh cherries, pitted and chopped

6 ounces dark chocolate, chopped

melted butter for brushing

Preheat oven to 425°F. In large bowl, combine flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and powder. Using your fingers, a fork or a pastry blender, cut in butter until it forms coarse crumbs. Stir in buttermilk and vanilla, then fold in chocolate and cherries. Stir with a spoon until a dough forms, using your hands to bring it together. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead gently, adding a bit more flour if sticky. Divide in half and pat into 7 inch round circles. Brush each dough round with melted butter. Cut into 6 or 8 wedges, or use a biscuit cutter to make smaller rounds. Bake for 12-14 minutes (wedges) or 9-11 minutes (rounds). Top with fresh cherry glaze.

Fresh Cherry Glaze

1 cup fresh cherries, pitted and chopped

2 tsp. water

1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups of powdered sugar

Add cherries and water to the bowl of a food processor, blending until smooth (or almost smooth). Transfer puree to a large bowl, add in vanilla, then stir in powdered sugar. The amount of sugar you need to add is highly dependent on how juicy your cherries are. Ideally, you want a runny glaze. If the glaze seems too runny, add more sugar, whisking continuously until smooth. If it seems too thick, add in more water one tiny drop at a time, whisking constantly. Drizzle on top of scones while warm, and grate additional chocolate on top if desired.

Ricotta cherry cheesecake glasses

For 8 individual glasses/servings

1 pound fresh cherries

2 tbsp. granulated brown sugar

3.5 oz chocolate wafers

1 cup ricotta, chilled

1 cup heavy whipped cream, chilled

2 tbsp. or more powdered sugar, to taste

½ tsp. vanilla extract

Finely grated zest and the juice of one lemon, optional

Place a medium-sized bowl, glass or metal, in the refrigerator along with the beaters of a hand mixer to chill for at least 10 minutes. Rinse the cherries; remove and discard the stems and pit. Slice each cherry in half and place in a saucepan with the 2 tablespoons brown sugar. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Place the cookies in a large plastic sandwich or freezer bag and, using a rolling pin, crush. Place the heavy whipping cream in the chilled bowl and attach the chilled beaters to the hand mixer. Whip the cream until soft peaks form; sift the sugar onto the cream and continue beating until stiff peaks hold. Beat in the ricotta cheese about a third at a time until thick and creamy. Beat in the vanilla and then taste, adding more powdered sugar to taste. Keep in mind that the whipped cream will be eaten with the cooked cherries and cookies so you may not want the cream too sweet. Place about ¾ inch of crushed cookies in the bottom of each serving glass. Top with about ¾ inch or so of cooked cherries allowing for a little of the juice to soak down into the cookie crumbs. Spoon or pipe the Whipped Ricotta Cream on top of the cherries to fill the glass, or as much or as little as desired, depending upon the height and size of your glasses. Again, you can decide how much of each to add to the glass. If there are cooked cherries left over or if you make more, place a teaspoonful on top of the cream before serving.

Black Forest Icebox Cookies

3 tbsp. sugar

4 tsp. cornstarch

Pinch salt

3/4 cup fresh or frozen pitted tart cherries, thawed and coarsely chopped

3/4 cup cherry juice blend

1-1/2 tsp. lemon juice

1 to 2 drops red food coloring, optional

1/2 cup Mascarpone cheese

1 tbsp. confectioners’ sugar

1 tsp. cherry brandy

1 package (9 ounces) chocolate wafers

1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips

1/4 cup heavy whipping cream

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, cornstarch and salt. Add the cherries, juice blend and lemon juice. Bring to a boil; cook and stir for 2 minutes or until thickened. Remove from the heat and stir in food coloring if desired. Cool to room temperature. In a small bowl, combine the Mascarpone cheese, confectioners’ sugar and brandy. Spread about 1 teaspoon cheese mixture onto 20 wafers; top with 2 teaspoons cherry mixture and remaining wafers. Place on a waxed paper-lined baking pan. Place chocolate chips in a small bowl. In a small saucepan, bring cream just to a boil. Pour over chips; whisk until smooth. Drizzle over cookies. Cover and refrigerate cookies for up to 4 hours before serving.

Grilled Chicken & Fresh Cherry Salsa

1-1/2lb cherries, pitted and roughly chopped

1/2 cup minced red onion

2 tbsp. lemon juice

2 tbsp. chopped fresh basil

1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

2 tsp. honey

1/4 tsp. salt

4 chicken breasts, pounded to uniform thickness

extra virgin olive oil

salt & pepper

Combine cherries, red onion, lemon juice, basil, balsamic vinegar, honey, and salt in a bowl. Place into the refrigerator while you grill the chicken. Brush both sides of the chicken breasts with oil then season liberally with salt and pepper. Grill over medium-high heat for 4 minutes a side, or until cooked all the way through. Let rest for 5 minutes before topping with fresh cherry salsa.