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Double up on cherries in these tender muffins

Recipe: Ricotta the secret ingredient to these baked treats

Cherry season is worth celebrating with these tender, not-too-sweet muffins.

Cherry season is worth celebrating with these tender, not-too-sweet muffins. Kathy Morrison

Cherries and a lemon
Enjoy fresh cherry season while it lasts.

I had occasion this past week to drive east on Highway 26 from Stockton, through the town of Linden. Cherry orchards line many sections of the road, and the trees right now are heavily bejeweled with red fruit. Yes, I had to make something this week with cherries.

The recipe here is my adaptation of a longtime favorite by Mollie Katzen, appearing in her cookbook "Sunlight Cafe," which I was given in 2002. She has several recipes that include ricotta. The muffin recipe page in my copy is covered with scrawled notes, as I played with the basic ingredients. (My wildest variation to date used currants soaked in creme de cassis.)

I usually make the muffins with dried cherries, but of course wanted to use chopped fresh ones this time. But I'm often disappointed by the diluted flavor of baked cherries, and was determined to boost it. That's why chopped dried cherries are included, plumped a bit in the milk that is part of the recipe.

I was out of buttermilk, which I prefer, but milk plus lemon juice works just as well in this recipe, which already calls for lemon juice and lemon zest. (Do remember to zest the lemon before juicing it.)

My adaptations include more ricotta and less milk (or buttermilk) than Katzen calls for, and the minimum amount of sugar. Don't skimp on the zest or the vanilla -- they give the muffin depth.

A note on the ricotta: Look for the whole-milk kind that has just 4 ingredients. Other types, including that made with "part skim" milk, include gummy stabilizers. 

Want to turn this cute muffin into dessert? Toss in some mini chocolate chips, which play well with cherries.

The recipe makes a bit too much batter for 12 muffins, so I put the rest in a mini muffin pan, but if you prefer, make four more regular-size ones in a second pan.

Double-cherry ricotta muffins

Makes 12 regular and 8 small, or 16 regular muffins

Ingredients:

A generous 1/2 pound of fresh red cherries (about 24) before pitting

2 tablespoons chopped dried cherries

Cherry mess
This is not a homicide scene. Just pitting and
chopping cherries.

3/4 cup buttermilk OR enough lowfat milk plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice to make 3/4 cup liquid total

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1/2 cup granulated sugar 

1-1/4 cup whole milk ricotta cheese

2 large eggs

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 tablespoons melted unsalted butter OR neutral vegetable oil

Instructions:

Chopped cherries and muffin batter
Gently stir the chopped fresh cherries
into the muffin batter.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare muffin tin(s) by lightly greasing the cups with nonstick spray.

De-stem, pit and roughly chop the fresh cherries to make about 1-1/2 cups total. Set aside.

Put the buttermilk (or the milk plus lemon juice) in a 2-cup glass measuring cup or similar-size bowl. Stir in the dried cherries, and set aside (let the milk sour).

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, lemon zest and sugar.

In a medium bowl, stir together the ricotta and the buttermilk (or soured milk) along with the dried cherries that have been soaking. One at a time, beat in the eggs until well combined. Stir in the lemon juice and the vanilla.

Pour the ricotta mixture into the bowl with the flour mixture, add the melted butter or oil, and with a spatula stir the batter together until all the dry ingredients are incorporated.

Now gently stir in the chopped fresh cherries.

Fill the muffin cups evenly; the regular size cups can be filled to the top, but there will still likely be more batter after 12 are filled. Either use a second regular tin or a mini muffin tin,  greased, for the remaining batter. After all the batter is distributed, put 1 to 2 tablespoons of water in the bottom of any empty cups to keep the pan from warping.

Bake the regular size muffins 25 to 30 minutes, until light brown on top. The mini muffins will take about 20 minutes.

Cool the muffins for about 10 minutes before removing from pans. I find the flavor is best when the muffins are served at room temperature.

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Garden Checklist for week of June 23

Get to work in the mornings while it’s still cool.

* Irrigate early in the day; your plants will appreciate it.

* Generally, tomatoes need deep watering two to three times a week, but don't let them dry out completely. That can encourage blossom-end rot.

* Let the grass grow longer. Set the mower blades high to reduce stress on your lawn during summer heat. To cut down on evaporation, water your lawn deeply during the early hours of the morning, between 2 and 8 a.m.

* Tie up vines and stake tall plants such as gladiolus and lilies. That gives their heavy flowers some support.

* Dig and divide crowded bulbs after the tops have died down.

* Feed summer flowers with a slow-release fertilizer.

* Mulch, mulch, mulch! This “blanket” keeps moisture in the soil longer and helps your plants cope during hot weather.

* Avoid pot “hot feet.” Place a 1-inch-thick board under container plants sitting on pavement. This little cushion helps insulate them from radiated heat.

* Thin grapes on the vine for bigger, better clusters later this summer.

* Cut back fruit-bearing canes on berries.

* Feed camellias, azaleas and other acid-loving plants. Mulch to conserve moisture and reduce heat stress.

* Cut back Shasta daisies after flowering to encourage a second bloom in the fall.

* Trim off dead flowers from rose bushes to keep them blooming through the summer. Roses also benefit from deep watering and feeding now. A top dressing of aged compost will keep them happy. It feeds as well as keeps roots moist.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushier plants with many more flowers in September.

* From seed, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, melons, squash and sunflowers.

* Plant basil to go with your tomatoes. 

* Transplant summer annuals such as petunias, marigolds and zinnias.

* It’s also a good time to transplant perennial flowers including astilbe, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis, dahlias, rudbeckia, salvia and verbena.

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