Sunday, October 7, 2007

Husk Cherries: A Love Story

Husk cherries stole my heart this summer. They rustle in your hand, weighing nothing and smelling of dust. It seems impossible that inside each paper lantern can hide one single golden berry. They're the humble Cinderella of the farmer's market, for sure.

I walked by them for weeks, achingly curious about what wonderful delight could go for $5 a half
pint, until I finally caught one of the farms offering samples. I hovered nearby, pretending to inspect a box of bean varietals while sneaking covert glances at the farmer's demonstration of the proper way to husk these cherries. He grasped the fruit by the stem and gently pinched the shell until the berry popped out the bottom. Denuded berries were passed and sampled. The reaction from the crowd was mixed. A few "mmm..."s and some "Huh"s. One or two folks paused dramatically before saying "Now that's different" and wandering off. My heart fluttered. Could my summer crush really be a bust? When the group departed, I sidled in and casually picked up one of the remaining samples.

"Ever had a husk cherry before?" The farmer asked.
"Me? Um..." (As a chronic know-it-all, my first instinct is always to feign experience.) "Well, actually no."
"Oh great!" He said with real enthusiasm, "You'll love these!"

And without further ado, he popped a marble-sized berry into my open palm.
I looked at it dubiously. It was yellow-orange (I'd been expecting red). I could see thin veins running just underneath the taut skin. I gingerly lifted my hand, rolled the berry into my mouth, and bit down. The skin broke without any resistance and my mouth was filled with the subtle, caramelized flavor of just-baked cinnamon bread. I kid you not. I thought immediately of bread. And my second thought was, "Omigod, omigod, omigod, what can I DO with this fruit?"

I've seen them called husk cherries, ground cherries, husk tomatoes, and cape gooseberries (though I think the last one is actually a different variety). These guys are indeed cousins to the similar-looking tomatillo, as well as to tomatoes and wild tobacco. The taste is described as vanilla pineapple, which I was able to agree with upon extensive further sampling and a gentle "down, boy" to my baker proclivities. I would also add "honey" to that description. They range in size from pea-sized to plump marbles like the one I first sampled. In my research, I also discovered that this plant is in the "endangered" section of the Slow Food USA Ark--Rock on, Boston-area farmers! I also found evidence that this would make an excellent container plant. I happen to have several containers and a "warm but not too sunny" back porch....see where I'm going with this? (Yup, already planning next summer's garden and it's not even November yet. This is going to be a long winter.)

So what CAN you do with a handful of husk cherries? The flavor is so subtle that it can get easily overwhelmed by other fruits, so they're perhaps best as solo-players in a green salad, thrown into a fruit-mix or paired with a subtle-yet-tart fruit. They're high in pectin, so if you can afford it or steal enough from friends with CSA's, you can make some very lovely jam. One site I found
recommended dipping them in chocolate, which immediately sent my salivary glands into over-production. Personally? I couldn't let go of that first baked-bread taste and have had visions of tartlettes dancing in my head.

Actually, I can't
claim that I actually set out to bake a tart. A few weeks ago I was setting out to bake a plum tart for a friend who had just returned from a jaunt in La Jolie France. I had just admitted to myself that I didn't have as many plums in my fridge as I thought when my friend walked in with a bag of husk cherries to share. I looked at my handful of plums. I looked at the bag of husk cherries. A little niggle in my brain reminded me of some candied ginger I'd been saving for a special occasion. Brilliance ensued. And here is the recette, in honor of my friend the Tart Savior:

Rebekah's Plum and Husk Cherry Tart

Pate Brisee:
1 1/2 c. flour

3/4 tsp salt

9 TBS cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1" p
4-5 TBS ice water

I'll do a longer tutorial on how to make classic pate brisee later on, but here's a basic method:

Combine the flour and salt on your counter top. Use a pastry scraper to cut in the butter
until you get pea-sized chunks of butter (you can use the tips of your fingers to break the butter, too, but be careful that the butter doesn't get too warm). Add the water one tablespoon at a time and use just the tips of your fingers to incorporate it into the dough. When you can squeeze the dough in your hand and it doesn't fall apart, stop adding water. Gather it into a ball pat it into a thick disk. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour.

Plum and Husk Cherry Filling:
~10 oz of tart golden plums (weighed un-cut with the stone in), cut into slices

1 pint husk cherries, husks removed

1/2 c. candied ginger

1/2 c. sugar

zest of 1/2 lemon

zest of 1 orange

1 tsp vanilla

1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
2 TBS flour

Combine all ingredients. Cover and set aside while preparing the dough. (The liqui
d in the plums will dissolve the sugar to make a thick paste. At this point, you can taste a bit and adjust the flavorings to your liking.)

Preheat ov
en to 375-degrees.

Roll the dough out into a rough, 10" circle of even thickness. Lift the dough frequently as you roll and flip it over to make sure it doesn't stick to the co
unter. Use a light dusting of flour if things start to get sticky. This is a rustic tart, so the exact size of the crust doesn't need to be exact. Transfer the crust onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Pour the filling into the center of the pie crust and spread it to within 4-5 inches of the edge of the crust.

Looking at the crust as the face of the clock, fold the lip of the dough over the filling at 12:00. Next fold the lip over at roughly 2:00.
Then at 4:00. Then at 6:00. Then at 8:00. At 10:00, fold the lip over but then unfold the 12:00 fold partway to tuck the 10:00 fold under so that all the layers fall in the same direction. Brush the top with egg or milk thinned with a little water.

Bake for about 40-50 minutes, until the crust is a deep golden brown. Let c
ool for about 15 minutes before serving. Sprinkle the top of the tart with Demara sugar (or the spiced gold sugar mix from THIS place) just before serving. Enjoy!

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