In late winter, when my husband and I start to plan our annual trip back to his homeland of Hungary, I think of the table we always set under the pear tree, fashioned on the fly one year from the generous woodpile by the barn. It’s laid with homemade caraway-and-poppy speckled breads, butter from the Bakony, Trappist cheeses and heady paprika-laced sausage. My eye travels down the table in my mind and there I see them, clear as day, heaps of plump, glimmering sour cherries, or meggy, pyramiding inside our favorite white bowls. And it’s decided. We will go in July. Sour cherry season.
It’s not that I’ve always been crazy about sour cherries. To be honest, I don’t have the patience for pitting them–smashing their seeds through their flesh one by one as their juices fly across the front of every white shirt I seem to own. No. I’m a committed cook and gardener, but I’m lazy about these sorts of details. In fact, I once convinced guests that it was charming to be served a claufoutis with half pitted and half whole cherries, stems and all, sticking out of the top to pluck out and eat, bursting with warmth, before I scooped the tender custard onto their plates. It really was beautiful, and it definitely scored a point for interactive dining.
But on this trip, more than any other, I couldn’t get enough. It’s as if the subtle pucker got into my blood. I found my spoon diving for the fleshy jewels floating in the ruby-stained fruit soup that starts so many of our summer meals. I became greedy for their toothsome give in the center of the strudel at our favorite bakery in Zirc, smothered in a dense flood of poppy seeds. You’d have thought we were addicts–Hubby, our babe and I, walking around with tiny black poppies stuck to the corners of our mouth, with the tune of tart cherries still playing on our tongues.
In July, in Hungary, for a few fleeting weeks, sour cherries are everywhere. Except when they are not. Like much of central Europe, Hungary had a late frost. One of those frosts that nips all the cherries in the bud, quite literally, leaving whole fields and farms void of the fruit come summer. This, I learned, when I arrived back in the states, happened here too. Michigan and New York both suffered. And so here we all are, left only to love and embrace, as I learned to (with no regret!) sour cherries in a jar. To my surprise, I found them still singing of their notorious tang. Still resistant to the tooth. Seductively swimming in their own crimson juice. And already pitted! It seems these were made just for me.
On our simple, quiet mornings in Hungary, when we have leftover bread, often laced with whole grains, sesame and poppy, we slice it thick, sop it up in the milk of the Bakony cows mixed with fresh eggs from our hens. We bake it on cast iron, serve it with spoonfuls of the creamy local yogurt, bathed in sour cherries and their juices. And when we miss Hungary, as we almost certainly do from time to time for the rest of the year, far, far beyond sour cherry season, this is what we’ll make.
fresh, jarred or frozen, plus their juices
Beat the eggs, milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and salt together until well combined and pour into a shallow dish.
Heat the oven to 325°F. Meanwhile, preheat a non-stick griddle or cast-iron pan over medium-low heat (or 300 degrees on an electric griddle). Brush lightly with butter and heat until shimmering. Dip each piece of bread into the milk mixture and let is soak in the mixture about 45 seconds. Flip and repeat until the bread has thoroughly soaked the milk mixture. Remove with a slotted spatula to let additional mixture drip off.
Place the bread on the hot griddle and cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Flip and bake until golden, about 2 minutes more. Transfer to the oven and cook until tender and custardy on the inside, about 5 minutes more. Butter the hot French toast and serve dolloped with yogurt. Spoon the sour cherries and juices over the top. Dust generously with powdered sugar and serve warm.
You can find jarred sour cherries at various places online, but Sarah reccommends Otto’s,which, FYI SoCal people, is in Burbank so you can visit in person!
Food photography and styling by Sarah Copeland