Last summer a reader asked me if she could substitute Morello cherries for canned cherry pie filling to make my Easy Cherry Crisp. I had never tried making a pie or crisp with Morello cherries but told her that I thought it would be worth trying. To my surprise I was right. The dark red Morello cherries produce an attractive and delicious crisp.
Morello is actually the name of one of two groups of sour cherries. The other group is named Amarelle. Food historians generally agree that Roman soldiers carried these sour cherries from trees growing along the Black Sea and planted the seeds throughout Europe. Both groups contain varieties that are prized by cooks. For Americans, the most famous Amarelle cherry is the Montmorency tart cherry. Today, farmers in Door County, Wisconsin, produce millions of tons of Montmorency cherries used to make pies, jams and wine.
The most common Morello varieties are Hungarian or English Morello cherries. The Morello is a dark red cherry with a red flesh and juice unlike the bright red Montmorency cherry with its clear juice. Morello cherries are the dominant kind grown in Hungary, and the Balaton cherry variety from Hungary is now commercially cultivated in Michigan. English Morello cherry trees are popular in the United States with varieties such as the Kansas Sweet and Northstar.
Growing up in Wisconsin, I am more familiar with the Montmorency cherry, which probably explains why I think it is the best choice for cherry pie or crisp. I was brought up by a mother who used “pie cherries” from Door County for her cherry pies. I didn’t even know what Morello cherries were until sometime after I started college.
However, I now know that Morello cherries produce pies and crisps just as good as those made with those little red jewels that I still think of as pie cherries. One advantage of Morello cherries is that they are usually a little less expensive than their Montmorency cousins and have become fairly common in major markets, so you can save money on some delicious desserts.
Here is the way to make a beautiful and tasty cherry crisp with Morello cherries.
For the crust:
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 cup old fashioned oatmeal
1 cup + 2 T all-purpose flour
12 T salted butter (1 1/2 sticks)
For the filling:
1 jar of Morello cherries (about 24 oz.)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 T cornstarch
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. butter
1/4 tsp. almond extract
Preheat the oven to 375º.
Use a fork to blend the sugar, flour and oatmeal together in a mixing bowl. Chop the butter into a half inch dice and cut it into the oatmeal mixture with the fork or a pastry blender. When all the dry ingredients have been worked into the butter, you should have dough with crumbs the size of peas with a few larger clumps.
Put half of the dough into a nine inch pie plate and press it with your fingers to make a bottom crust. Bake the crust on a center shelf in the oven for twelve to fourteen minutes until it just starts to brown on the edges. Take the crust from the oven to cool for about fifteen minutes.
Make the filling while the bottom crust is baking.
Drain the cherry juice into a two quart saucepan. Blend the granulated sugar with the cornstarch and stir these two ingredients into the juice. Set the pan over moderate heat and stir the mixture until the juice has turned clear and thickened. Stir in the lemon juice, butter and almond extract, then add the cherries. Stir and cook the filling until it bubbles.
Remove the pan from the heat and allow the filling to cool to a warm room temperature. Spoon the filling evenly over the crust. Use a fork to break up the remaining oatmeal dough as you sprinkle it over the filling. Put the pie plate on a center shelf in the oven and bake the crisp for fifteen to seventeen minutes until the topping is lightly browned.
Cool on a rack and serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
NOTES: Crisp is best when served slightly warm. Put each serving into the microwave for a few seconds before adding the scoop of ice cream.
If you are using unsalted butter, stir a quarter teaspoon of salt into the dry ingredients before cutting in the butter. Add a tiny pinch of salt to the filling if you use unsalted butter in it as well.
I have started softening the butter before cutting it into the oatmeal mixture, which works okay for me.