Cherry Picking.

Chef Boger is obsessed.

Our executive pastry chef has an affinity for Michigan cherries and everyone knows it. She eats them, she bakes with them, she researches cherry varieties in her spare time. She once owned her own cafe/bake shop called The Cherry Bucket. Need I say more? So when Chef suggests adding cherries to a recipe no one is surprised – but everyone is delighted.

Perfect now if you can get them fresh, or just as good when baked if you use frozen. If you can get them already pitted, even better (or scroll down for my favorite cherry pitting method). They’re the perfect foil for creamy vanilla cheesecake batter. Don’t believe me? Try the recipe below and you shall.

If not, I know a certain chef that would like to have a word with you.

Eli’s Mini Cherry Cheesecakes:
Pre-heat oven to 270º F. Grease 12 ceramic ramekins or 12 cavities of a medium muffin pan.
Make the crust, make the batter, make the cherries, assemble and bake. Several steps, but it’s worth it.

1. Crust:
1 ½ cups vanilla cookies, ground (grind in food processor or place in a plastic zip top bag and beat with a rolling pin, meat tenderizer or heavy saucepan. Very therapeutic).
½ cup powdered sugar
¾ cup melted butter 

Mix all ingredients in medium bowl using your fingertips until mixture is well moistened. Add 1 heaping tablespoon of crust mixture to each ramekin or muffin cavity and press down to make a nice, even layer on the bottom only. Set aside.

2. Batter:
16 oz cream cheese, softened
4 oz cultured sour cream
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 ½  Tablespoon flour
Pinch of salt (optional)
Zest from 1 lemon (or to taste)
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In an electric mixer, cream together cream cheese, sugar, flour, salt and lemon zest. Mix on medium speed until ingredients are incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Slowly add egg yolks, sour cream and vanilla, mixing on low speed. Set aside.

3. Cherry topping:
1 lb. tart cherries, pitted (thaw if frozen)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 tbsp. corn starch
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (optional)

Add all ingredients to a cool medium saucepan and toss with your hands until combined. Place pan onto stovetop and heat at medium-high heat, stirring gently, until mixture begins to boil and thickens. Set aside and allow to cool.

4. Assemble:
Deposit about 1/3 cup cheesecake batter into each ramekin or muffin pan cavity.  Add 1 tablespoon cherry mixture to the top of each (see photo, left).  Bake at 270º F for 15 minutes (target internal temperature is 150º F). Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature.

Once cakes have cooled, freeze cakes in pan for 4 hours. Remove cakes from ramekin or muffin pan while still frozen. For muffin pan, run a sharp knife around the edge of each cheesecake; gently pop out cheesecake using the knife as a lever. Since cakes are frozen, minimal damage to the side of the cake should occur. To remove cake from ramekin, dip bottom of ramekin in very hot water for 10 seconds; invert the ramekin onto one hand and gently tap the edges with the other hand until cake is released. Put cheesecakes into the refrigerator until you’re ready to serve.

Serve with additional cooked cherry mixture on the side, if desired.

Cherry pitting made easy:
Place fresh cherries into a bowl of ice water (keeping them ice cold, but not frozen, makes it easier to remove the pit). Grab a cherry and press one end of a plastic drinking straw right through the center. The pit should come out the other end, leaving behind as much delicious cherry flesh as humanly possible. Repeat with all cherries. Reaching into the bowl of ice water may give you an ice cream headache, so it helps to keep a towel and a bowl of lukewarm water nearby to thaw your hands from time to time.

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