When I began teaching cooking classes at The Community Mercantile several years ago, there was a woman working there as a class host and assistant who eventually became a dear friend. Because of the shifting seasons of life, she is no longer working there...and I miss her a great deal. A seasoned cook in her own right, she made a wonderful assistant, always willing to tackle even the most unfamiliar tasks. And no matter what kind of day I had had as I prepared for the class, she was always able to make me laugh and put me at my ease.
We don't see each other nearly as often as I would like now. Occasionally when she knows that I will be in town teaching a class, she will appear at the classroom door to say hello. Because she embodies the generosity that marks those who truly love to cook, frequently she brings something to share with me—eggs from her hens, freshly pressed cider, or the incomparable sour cherries that grow on her cherry trees.
Sour cherries have a very short season. They are also highly perishable—beginning to rot almost as soon as they are picked. Even at my farmers' market, I am disappointed with the quality of the sour cherries that I have found. It seems you must have your own tree—or a good friend with a tree. This past summer when my friend stopped by with her cherries, I think she had made the trip into town just to bring them to me. They had been picked that morning and they were beautiful.
I'm not sure there is a better way to adequately express thanks for such a special gift than to enjoy it as it was meant to be enjoyed. So I went home and made a sour cherry pie the next day. In years past my friend's cherries have made their way into summer fruit crisps (my favorite is with apricots), mini turnovers and sour cherry preserves. One year I used the preserved cherries the following Christmas to make a Cherry-Chocolate Trifle for my family's Christmas dinner. And I always pit and freeze a large quantity of them, knowing that I will find ways to enjoy them throughout the coming year. Because of their brilliant red color, I tend to think of using them most often at Christmas and Valentine's Day. This year, as we approached Valentine's Day, I thought I would use some of them to make a kuchen.
I don't speak German, but apparently kuchen is simply the German word for cake. In America, a kuchen is a specific kind of coffee cake. Made in the style of a German or Austrian breakfast pastry, a kuchen is a fresh fruit-filled cake that is frequently topped with a streusel. To me, it could be compared to a fruit and streusel tart made with a cake-like crust. Some definitions state that the cake portion should be yeast-raised, but recipes that use a simple butter cake as the base are common.
My kuchen is modeled after a coffee cake that my mother made when I was growing up. Her recipe was from a Minnesota-based regional cookbook and unfortunately called for canned cherry pie filling. Everyone in my family has always liked this cake, so when it began to fall to me to make our family's traditional Christmas coffee cake, I decided to create my own scratch version. After fixing the filling, I have continued to tinker with the rest of the cake over the years—adjusting the cake itself, then the streusel, and finally the size and shape of the pan—until the cake became what it is today....a Sour Cherry & Almond Kuchen.
I am sure that this cake would be good made with other kinds of fruit fillings. But I am partial to the cherry version...and I think I have just enough cherries left in my freezer to make one more before the winter is over.
1 1/3 c. all purpose flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/3 c. (5 T. plus 1 t.) unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 c. granulated sugar
1/2 t. vanilla
1/4 t. almond extract
1 large egg
1/3 c. milk
1 recipe sour cherry topping (see below)
1 recipe almond streusel (see below)
Preheat an oven to 350º F. Butter a 10- by 2-inch round cake pan, line with a round of parchment and butter the parchment. Flour the pan. Set aside.
Combine the first three ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
Sprinkle the streusel topping evenly over the top of the cake.
Bake until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 35 to 40 minutes.
Cool the cake in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes. Loosen the sides of the cake by running a thin knife around the edge of the pan. Turn the cake out of the pan onto a plate or a rack. Remove the parchment round and flip the cake back onto a serving plate (or wire rack).
Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 8 to 10
Sour Cherry Topping:
10 oz. pitted frozen sour cherries, (2 heaped cups)—see note for using fresh cherries
1/2 c. sugar
1 T. plus 1/2 t. cornstarch
a pinch of salt
1/8 t. almond extract
(Sour Cherry Topping adapted from The Pie and Pastry Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum)
3 T. unsalted butter
1/3 c. sliced almonds, lightly toasted and cooled