It’s cherry season in my part of the world, which means, much like rhubarb season, that it’s time to make lots of delicious pie. It’s also about that time when the novelty of summer wears off, and the prospect of many long, hot, humid days ahead is enough to make you want to hide in an air conditioned room for a week. (Well, at least if you’re a great big grump about the heat like me.) But finding a great local place to pick your own fruit is a great way to actually get out there and enjoy the summer while it lasts. Last weekend, the Mister and I set out for a morning of not-so-hard labor weaving among the happy, sun-dappled trees to select just the right cherries for a delicious lattice-crust cherry pie.
Before I share the recipe, first I have a story for you. It’s three parts Tale of Woe, one part Note of Caution. I’d been looking forward to cherry picking for ages, and after a horrible week that included learning I would soon be out of a job, I was ready to get out there and do something fun. Unfortunately, the weather has been so strange this year that their sweet cherries did not fare well, and all they had for the picking this year were sour cherries. Still, I had psyched myself up for making many, many pies.
When Saturday morning rolled around, the Mister and I woke up bright and early and headed out to Walker’s Fruit Farm, about an hour’s drive away. On our arrival, we grabbed a couple of buckets and went out into the orchard. Other folks were taking it all pretty seriously, setting themselves to the task of methodically stripping ripe cherries from a couple of trees they’d clearly marked as their own territory. The Mister and I wandered around, enjoying the view, taking a few cherries from here, a few from there, selecting the ones that struck our fancy. Our buckets weren’t nearly as full, but we had a good time.
The orchard even had a pitting service! Anyone who bakes with or jams cherries will tell you that pitting is… well, the pits. My aunt (she of the pear pie recipe) recommended this particular place with free pitting as the major selling point. We waited in line, they sent our little bucket of cherries through the machine, and a few minutes later, all seven pounds of them were pit-free! Buoyed by the prospect of fuss-free pie ahead, we climbed back into the car and made way for home.
About halfway back to town, we heard the tell-tale thump of a flat tire. Shit. We pulled over to the side of the highway, and much to my dismay, the front passenger tire was so flat it was practically melted to the pavement. We excavated the spare from under the pile of crap in my trunk to discover that it was out of air. Double shit. We had to wait for a tow truck to come pick us up, then wait for Mr. Tire to replace both front tires. (Apparently if you don’t ever bother fixing your car’s poor alignment, you won’t be able to replace just one front tire. Triple shit.) Eventually, we made it home in one piece.
The cherries, however, did not survive. Alas! After two and a half pitless hours of soaking in their own juices in the hot backseat of my car, they were brown, shriveled, and sad. I ended up dumping all seven pounds of what were once gorgeous, plump, ripe, red sour cherries and making a run to Wegman’s the next day so I could satisfy my pie fix. Later, I discovered that my cookbook warns in its “pointers for success” section that:
Sour cherries start to deteriorate very quickly after picking, especially if the stems have been removed. They freeze magnificently, however, but should be prepared for freezing and frozen as soon as possible for the best quality. To freeze cherries for future pies, pie them, saving all the juices, add 1/4 cup sugar for each 3 1/2 cups of cherries, and freeze in glass canning jars or heavy storage containers.
-Rose Levy Beranbaum, The Pie and Pastry Bible 1998
Oh, suuuuuure, she tells me this now. Let this be a lesson to you all. If you de-stem and pit sour cherries, you’d better take care of that action as soon as possible. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a sad, brown mess that’s useless in helping you make the absolutely delicious recipe below.
1+ pie crust (more than one, less than two) to fit a 9-inch pie pan
1/2 – 2/3 cup sugar
2 1/2 tbsp cornstarch
a pinch of salt
3 1/2 cups pitted cherries
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 tbsp lemon zest
1 egg yolk
1 tsp heavy cream
Before you get started, you’ll want to prepare your dough at least half an hour in advance. As I’ve said in some of my previous pie posts, my favorite pie crust recipe is the flaky cream cheese crust from The Pie and Pastry Bible, but you can just use your favorite.
Start off by pitting your cherries. I find it extremely handy to have someone handsome around the house who feels sorry for your earlier Tale of Woe and pits them all for you. That’s really the easiest way. The second easiest way is to pick up a cheap cherry or olive pitter. (I have this one, and it works just fine.) Otherwise, you’re scrounging around with a bobby pin, and really, the novelty of that wears off after the first two or three. As you’re pitting, you’ll want to try to save the juices if you can. Put the pitted cherries in a medium-sized bowl.
Wegman’s didn’t have any sour cherries, so I ended up with the large, sweet ones. This means that I used less sugar than most traditional cherry pie recipes call for. With sour cherries, I’d recommend somewhere between 3/4 cup and 1 1/4 cup of sugar, depending on how sweet you like your pie. Additionally, the pie probably would have served a little bit better if I’d cut the cherries in half. They were a little bit on the big side. Sour cherries are smaller, so if you end up with those, you should be good to go as-is. I’d also cut out the lemon and go strictly with the cherry juice if you use sour cherries to keep it from being too tart.
Sift together the sugar, cornstarch, and salt, and pour them over the cherries. Stir in the almond extract, lemon juice, and juice from the cherries. You probably shouldn’t use too much more than 1/4 plus a tablespoon or so of liquid, so if there’s a lot of cherry juice, use your judgment on how sweet you want to make it and either don’t use some of the cherry juice or reduce the amount of lemon juice. Sprinkle in the lemon zest, and let it macerate* for at least fifteen minutes but no more than two hours.
Grease a 9-inch pie plate and put down the bottom crust. Pour the cherry mixture into the crust, and lay down the lattice crust for the top. Crimp the edges together all around the edge so that the top and bottom crusts hold together. In a small bowl, gently beat the egg and heavy cream together and brush it over the pastry generously. Cover the edges of the pie with aluminum foil and place on a baking sheet to catch any drips. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for 25-35 minutes, or until the filling is bubbling thickly.
Here comes the hardest part. You have to let the pie cool on a wire rack for at least THREE HOURS so it’s not runny when you slice it. (You can see from my photo how runny and bubbly it is when you first take it out of the oven. It will set; you just have to give it time.) I know it’s tough, but you can do it. Serve warm or cold with vanilla ice cream. Yum!
*Persephone Mag vocab of the day: Macerate is the pie-related baking equivalent of marinate. It’s that phase of a fruit pie where you let everything sit in a bowl so the juices can stew for a bit.