When I think of the following words – fragrance, evanescence, and seasonality – I think of the many special teas sold fresh, capturing their season, but I also think of fresh cherries whose season seems so short that if you blink you miss it. So in celebration of cherries’ fleeting moment on the produce stage, I have created a cherry-based dessert to honor the highly seasonal Japanese cherry blossom tea.
Mind you, cherry blossom tea – called sakuracha – is actually made from salted cherry blossoms that come from a very different kind of cherry tree, one that produces no fruit. The ritual of making the beverage involves rinsing off the salt and then infusing hot water with the blossoms. There is no actual tea in the drink, although to make matters even more confusing, some Japanese tea vendors do, in fact, use sencha as a base and scatter dried cherry blossoms throughout the tea, a beverage far more accessible to the Western palate.
For my concoction, I, too, use sencha in an homage to late spring, but instead of using cherry blossoms, which actually have very little fragrance (and probably are past their moment by now), I use the fruit of a different kind of cherry tree. The dessert is easy and quick to make; the only onerous part involves pitting the cherries, a task best done with a coverall apron, unless you wish to have cherry juice stains all over your best shirt.
In this creamy fruit and tea gratin, the green tea flavors the cream with its grassy, gently sweet character, and the cherries, pitted and halved, are submerged under liquid custard that is baked and then caramelized. Here’s a bit of crème brûlée-like heaven in a shallow dish (you might wish to use ovenproof tea bowls as the appropriate vessels for the dessert to underscore the Asian correlative here).
Cherry-Sencha Crème Brûlée
1 lb. fresh cherries (the darkest, sweetest, plumpest ones you can find)
1-1/2 cups (12 ounces) whole milk
2 T. sencha (make sure it’s fresh and fragrant)
1 cup (8 ounces) heavy cream
5 egg yolks from large eggs (generous 3 ounces)
Generous ½ cup (approximately 4 ounces) granulated sugar
Additional sugar, as needed, used to caramelized the tops of the finished custards before serving
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
- Pit the cherries, halve them, and divide them among 6 ovenproof 1-1/2”-deep dishes, each with a 6-8 ounce capacity.
- Bring milk and tea to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes.
- Remove from the heat and let stand for 5 minutes more.
- Pass the mixture through a fine meshed sieve into a heatproof bowl and then transfer to a heavy saucepan. Add the heavy cream and return just to a boil.
- Whisk the egg yolks and first quantity of sugar together until the mixture is light in color.
- Temper the heated milk and cream mixture into the egg mixture and pour an equal amount over the cherries in each baking dish.
- Carefully place the baking dishes into a baking pan. Add just enough hot water to reach halfway up the sides of the molds. Bake for about 30 minutes or just until the custard sets. Don’t overbake.
- Remove carefully from the oven. Allow to cool to room temperature. When cooled, the molds should be covered and placed in the refrigerator to chill. The dessert may be made up to this point early in the day on which you wish to serve it.
- Just before serving, sprinkle the second quantity of sugar, as needed, evenly over the tops of each dessert. Using a kitchen torch, carefully and evenly apply the flame to melt the sugar and serve immediately.