Monday, August 12, 2013

Potentially Poisonous Desserts

Last month, I made the sweet cherry and almond galette from the Smitten Kitchen cookbook. It looked like the crime scene of a grisly cherry mass murder but tasted like heavenly choirs of angels (metaphorically speaking, as I have never tasted singing angels).

I continued the cherry binge last week with a clafoutis from Joy of Cooking. Fail. The top collapsed, the bottom was spongy, the cherries mushy, the batter bland. My heart goes out to those poor cherries, which suffered such a terrible culinary fate.

Thankfully, my other recent cherry kitchen experiment was an all-around success. Amaury and I made a guignolet kirsch—that's GEE-nyo-lay KEERSH, hard 'g', for you non-francophones—in July and have been happily sipping the results ever since. 

The recipe is pretty simple but does involve a modicum of patience, as the flavors need to schmooze for a few days to properly develop. The end product is a sweet, lusciously smooth drink best poured cold into small glasses.

One of the ingredients in a guignolet kirsch is, unsurprisingly, kirsch (also called kirschwasser). This cherry brandy doesn't run cheap, so you could try leaving it out if your pocketbook can't stretch that far; sweet cherry-infused red wine should be pretty tasty on its own. Cookbook author extraordinaire David Lebovitz calls kirsch one of his essential baking ingredients, though, so maybe it's worth the splurge. You decide.

The original recipe called for the cherries to be pitted beforehand, but we left them in. Cherry pits impart a subtle almond flavor. They also contain, as you may have heard, cyanide. OH NOES! Poison, right?

Actually, cyanide is found naturally in a number of foods, including almonds, stone fruit pits (including cherries, peaches, apricots, and plums), cassava, soybeans, spinach, lima beans, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, bamboo shoots, and grains like sorghum, maize, and millet. Your body quickly metabolizes cyanide into thiocyanate, which is then excreted in your urine. So calm down. Unless you subsist entirely on these foods, you should be safe. Eat a balanced diet and all that. And don't smoke. Cyanide is one of the many, many toxic components of cigarette smoke.

Some plants and animals use cyanide compounds to defend themselves. Witness the yellow-spotted millipede (Harpaphe haydeniana), which secretes hydrogen cyanide when threatened. To humans, the gas is mostly harmless and smells a bit like almonds, but it can kill insects and small mammals.

A yellow-spotted millipede wending its way through camp in Butano State Park in the California Bay Area

Guignolet kirsch recipe behind the cut...

Guignolet Kirsch
Recipe adapted ever so slightly from Leite's Culinaria 

Note: We originally made a half recipe, but even that has somehow lasted least two weeks in the fridge. I found it a bit too sweet—which, for me, is really saying something—so I plan to try dialing back the sugar to a generous 1 cup next time.

1 lb cherries, stems removed, pits left in
750 ml light red wine, e.g. pinot noir or Côtes du Rhône. Don't go super cheap here, but don't shell out for a premium vintage either
1 1/2 cups sugar (or less… see note)
6 Tbsp kirsch

1.   Bring everything but the kirsch to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Immediately reduce heat to low—you don't want to burn off all the precious alcohol—and simmer for 5 min. Remove from heat.

2.   When cool, add the kirsch. Transfer all that goodness into a pitcher or wide-mouthed jar and cover tightly. 

3.   Let sit on the counter or in the fridge for two days (we went for the fridge so we could enjoy it immediately when the waiting period was over!).

4.   Strain the liquid into a clean bottle. Reserve the cherries to top other desserts like, mmm, that chocolate cake you made the other night.

5.   Pour cold guignolet into small glasses and make a toast to fresh summer fruits. Repeat within reason.

P.S. If you want the cherry almond galette recipe, you're going to have to go out and buy the Smitten Kitchen cookbook (which has quickly become one of my faves). Author Deb does have another cherry almond dessert on her site that you could try, though. I haven't tested that one… yet.

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