"When George was about 6 years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet. Of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond, and was constantly going about chopping everything that came in his way. One day . . . he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree. Confronted by his father the next day, the young lad bravely confessed, "I can't tell a lie, Pa, I did cut it with my hatchet.' "
So wrote one Mason Locke Weems, George Washington's first biographer, in 1800. Historical accuracy aside, thanks to Weems, America's first president will always be associated with cherries.
Cherries were popular in colonial times. They were used to make a beverage called ratafia -- sipped by diplomats to toast the ratification of treaties. Today, the United States grows more of these tiny fruits than any other country in the world. Much of the crop comes from Washington state, Oregon and California, but the cherry capital is Traverse City, Mich., on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.
"Our cool climate is ideal for growing cherries," explains Dr. Charles Kesner, director of the Horticultural Research Center for the University of Michigan. "The weather warms very slowly, which produces a firmer, sturdier cherry."
According to Dr. Kesner, there two basic types of cherries: sweet and tart. The former contain up to 20 percent sugar and are popular for eating. Tart cherries contain about 15 percent sugar and are generally used for cooking.
Sweet cherries include the large, sweet, maroon Bing cherry; the elongated Lambert, and the Royal Anne (also known as the Napoleon), a golden-skinned cherry with a red blush on one cheek. (The latter are the preferred fruit for making maraschino cherries.)
Tart cherries include the tart, red Montmorency cherry (which is native to France) and the Morella, a small cherry with clear, pleasantly tart juice. Tart cherries are used primarily for pies, jams, jellies, and canning.
In the 1970s, Michigan growers began experimenting with dried cherries. Business is booming at the Graceland Fruit Co. in Frankfort, Mich., where grower Don Nugent transforms tart Montmorency cherries into tidbits that make a wonderful substitute for raisins. "We don't use sulfur in our dried cherries, so you can use them in salads, stuffings, breakfast cereals, wild rice -- any dish in which you'd use raisins," says Mr. Nugent. Michigan dried cherries can be ordered by mail from American Spoon Foods. (A one-pound package costs $9.50, plus $5 for shipping and handling. Phone  222-5886.)
Cherries are a highly seasonal fruit: They appear at the beginning of June and are gone by mid-August.
Tart cherries are best for cooking, but sweet cherries can be used if you add lemon juice and reduce the amount of sugar called for in a recipe. A cherry pitter looks like a manual hole punch, and can be purchased at housewares departments and shops. Put the whole cherries in one end of the box-shaped device and pump the handle up and down: The pitted cherries emerge from the other side.
One pound of stemmed, unpitted cherries makes three cups. It takes 3 to 4 pounds of whole cherries to make 1 quart of stemmed, pitted fruit. Cherries can be preserved in a simple syrup (made by boiling 1- 1/2 cups sugar with 2 cups water).
Split, stemmed, pitted cherries can be dried in a low oven (130 degrees for 12 hours): Raisins never tasted so good!
Tart cherry soup
2 pounds fresh sour cherries
3 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 large cinnamon stick
10 cloves and 10 allspice berries, wrapped in cheesecloth
2 strips of lemon zest
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon arrowroot
1/2 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup dry red wine
Pit the cherries over a bowl, saving any juices. Combine the cherry juice with enough water to make 3 cups liquid and place in a saucepan with sugar and spices. Bring to a boil and add the cherries. Reduce the heat and simmer 8-10 minutes, or until the cherries are tender. Remove the cinnamon stick, spice bag and lemon peel.
Dissolve the arrowroot in 2 tablespoons cream, and stir this paste into the simmering cherries. Boil for 30 seconds. Stir in the cream and wine. Chill the soup to room temperature, then refrigerate till cold. The recipe can be prepared up to 24 hours ahead to this stage.
Serve Hungarian tart cherry soup in chilled glass bowls. If you like, garnish each bowl with rosettes of whipped cream or sour cream.
This next dish makes a refreshing change from the traditional duckling with orange. The duck can be roasted ahead of time and reheated.
' Roast duckling with cherries
2 4-5 pound ducklings (fresh if possible)
Salt and fresh black pepper
2 cinnamon sticks
FOR THE SAUCE:
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup port wine
1/4 cup white sugar
1/8 cup brown sugar
1 cup fresh orange juice
1 pound cherries pitted
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
The juice of 1 lemon and 1/4 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons kirsch
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Remove the giblets and wishbones from the ducks and any lumps of fat in the back. Drain off any liquid in the cavity and blot the ducks dry. Rub the skin with cut lemon and season the duck with salt and pepper, outside and in. Place a cinnamon stick and some strips of lemon zest inside each duck and truss. Prick the skin of the bird (but not the meat) with a fork to release the fat.
Set the ducks in a roasting pan on a rack, and roast at 425 degrees for 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees. Cut the ducks in half lengthwise, using a cleaver or poultry shears. Discard the fat from the roasting pan, replace the ducks, cut side down, and roast for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the skin is golden brown and crisp. Let cool. Note: At this point the meat should be tender enough to pull out the bones.
Meanwhile, prepare the sauce. Combine the vinegar, port and sugars in a saucepan and boil until reduced by half. Add the orange juice and boil until reduced by half again. Add the cherries, spices, lemon juice and zest, and kirsch, and gently simmer for 10 minutes or until the cherries are tender.
Place the duck halves on warm plates or a platter and spoon the cherries and sauce on top. Wild rice would be a good accompaniment; for a wine I suggest a Cote de Nuits.
It is important to use sour cherries -- if these are unavailable, double the amount of lemon juice and zest.
Sour cherry pie a Serves six to eight.
1 batch of your favorite pie dough (enough to make double crusted 8-inch pie)
3 cups fresh, pitted sour cherries
Approximately 1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons quick tapioca
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
2 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
The juice and grated zest of 1 lemon
Prepare the pie dough and chill for 30 minutes. Roll out 2/3 of the dough and use it to line an 8-inch pie pan.
Gently mix the cherries, sugar, tapioca, almond extract, lemon juice and zest in a large bowl. Spoon this filling into the crust. Brush the top edge of the bottom crust with milk. Roll out the remaining dough and use it to cover the pie, pressing the edges with your fingertips to join the top and bottom. Cut 5-6 slits in the top crust to allow the steam to escape. Brush the top crust with milk and sprinkle with sugar. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Bake the sour cherry pie for 35-45 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbly. Let cool slightly before slicing. Serve with vanilla ice cream.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure to meet Sophie Freud, granddaughter of Sigmund Freud and a professor at the Simmons College School of Social Work. Fruchtknoedeln, fruit dumplings, were a childhood treat when the Freuds lived in Vienna. The dough, which is made with potatoes, can be used with any stone fruit.
(Austrian cherry dumplings)
Serves six to eight.
1 pound fresh tart cherries
For the potato dough:
2-3 boiling potatoes (approximately 1 pound)
1/3 teaspoon salt
Approximately 3/4 cup flour, plus flour for your hands
To finish the dumplings:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
Pit the cherries, leaving them as whole as possible. Cook the potatoes in their skins in gently boiling water for 6 to 8 minutes, or until soft but not mushy. Refresh them under cold water, drain and cool.
Prepare the dough. Peel the potatoes and put through a ricer or finely grate. Beat the egg and salt in a bowl. Stir in the potato and enough flour to obtain a soft, malleable dough. (It should not be sticky.)
Cook a tiny piece of dough in boiling water -- if it falls apart, add more flour. Let the dough rest 15-20 minutes.
Pinch off 1-inch pieces of dough, flatten thinly ( 1/8 inch) with your thumb, and wrap them around the cherries. (If the dough sticks to your fingers, dip them in flour.) You should have between 20 and 24 dumplings. Bring 4 quarts water to a rolling boil. Drop the dumplings in the water, reduce the heat, and cook the dumplings at a gentle simmer for 5 minutes, or until they float to the surface. Remove them with a slotted spoon and drain. The recipe can be prepared up to 2 hours ahead to this stage.
Just before serving, melt the butter in a large frying pan over medium heat. Stir in the sugar and bread crumbs and cook until the latter begin to brown. Add the dumplings, shaking the pan to coat them with the crumb mixture. Cook the Kirschenknoedeln until thoroughly heated and serve at once.