Thursday, June 12, 2008

How to Bake a Cherry Pie

I’m waiting for a freshly baked cherry pie to cool down. Since the pie is far too hot for me to slice into, I might as well write about it. The fragrance is heavenly…I’m not up to the challenge of describing that aroma, but there’s still plenty to say.

First of all, this cherry pie did not come from the supermarket. If the people that sell Mrs. So-and-So’s Apple Cobbler and Such-and-Such Farms Blueberry Pie were counting on shoppers like me, they’d be out of business in no time. Sure, they offer convenience. And that’s fine if you’re willing to settle for crusts that resemble greasy cardboard and fillings that are nothing more than gelatinous corn-syrupy goo.

If that’s what you’re going to get, I say "why bother?" And I don’t.

As I looked through pie recipes today, I found plenty that called for canned filling. If that’s what you’re going to get, I say again, "why bother?" In some ways, it makes even less sense than the pre-formed frozen stuff…you get the quality of store-bought AND the hassle of home-made. The worst of both worlds!

A real pie begins with fresh fruit: in this case, cherries from a couple of trees I planted fifteen years ago, trees I had pulled up from the edge of a pasture on Cullowhee Mountain Road. They call them "May Cherries" because they bear early. The blooms are gorgeous, as you might expect, and the fruit even more so, less hidden by foliage than most other cherries I’m familiar with.

My schedule is too busy for baking pies, the way I bake pies, but when those trees are full of cherries, what else can I do?

When I stopped by the store to pick up a carton of the requisite Breyers Vanilla, I’ll admit that I was tempted to grab a frozen pie crust, too. Just to make life simpler. But those cherries! I knew they deserved a better destination than frozen pie crust.

I got home, set out the butter, and rounded up the flour, the vanilla, the sugar, the salt and the arrowroot powder. That’s a short list. There’s nothing much to this pie-making business, right? Wrong!

If you’re working with fresh fruit, there’s no point in being hurried. Remember now, pitting cherries means pitting them one at a time. I so vaguely remember having a cherry pitter, that I must be imagining it, but that’s alright. A cheap vegetable peeler works fine. The pointed tip is perfect for digging into the cherries and neatly removing the pits. One at a time. But that’s OK. It gives me a good excuse to sit on the porch overlooking the garden and listen to the birds sing.

At this point, I might as well go ahead and transcribe the recipe, for my own future reference if for no other reason. That’s the handy thing about a blog. It can serve as a personal notebook of useful information, regardless of whether anyone else reads it or not. Anytime I need to refer to the recipes for Mayonnaise Biscuits or the wildly decadent Gulahiyi German Chocolate Cake, they’re as close as the blog.

The recipe for the double crust is basic:

2 cups all-purpose flour - unbleached White Lily with a bit of King Arthur whole wheat thrown in for good measure
½ teaspoon salt
2/3 cup of butter
6 tablespoons ice-cold water

You know the drill. If you don’t have a kitchen assistant, then get good at multi-tasking. This is the point in the process where my kitchen gets wrecked. But it is worth it, I remind myself.

Before you forget, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Here’s the recipe for the filling:

I take a great big bowl of pitted cherries. The recipe I’m using calls for four cups of fruit, but I’m not measuring. I must have a lot more than four cups of cherries. "Enough to fill a pie" is what I’d call it.

I stir just shy of one cup of sugar into the fruit. The recipe calls for more, but this is why I bake fresh fruit pies – to taste the fruit. I expect it will be plenty sweet enough. If you want to taste sweetness instead of fruit, stick with Aunt What-Have-You’s Frozen Cherry Pie. Lousy crust, corn syrup, and all.

Add a couple of dashes of vanilla flavoring, maybe a ½ teaspoon, maybe more.

[Update - I'm still learning. You can disregard the two paragraphs that follow. Forget cornstarch. Forget arrowroot. Forget flour. Forget simmering the juice. Simply stir together the cherries...four cups or so...along with one cup or so of sugar, and one-fourth of a cup of minute tapioca. Let that sit for 15 minutes and it will be ready to put into the pie shell. Tapioca will do a beautiful job of thickening the fruit filling.]
Then drain off the cherry juice to a sauce pan, mix in two or three tablespoons of flour and one tablespoon of arrowroot powder, which thickens at a lower temperature than flour or cornstarch. I don’t know. Maybe you should go with flour only, or arrowroot only. But my cooking philosophy is "why use just one ingredient, when you can use two or more?"

In any event, after you resolve that dilemma, heat up the liquid, stirring constantly (as if anyone can ever stir constantly – I have a pie crust to roll out, Sir, so I’ll stir when I can). Once it bubbles and starts to thicken (and scorch on the bottom of the pan) remove from heat.

With the bottom crust in the pie pan, scoop the drained cherries into the shell, then pour the thickened juice over the fruit. Put a few dabs of butter around the top.

Then top it off with the second crust. If you want to get cute with it, you can do the lattice-top crust. Why not? Go for it! (I didn’t.)

Pop it in the oven. After a few minutes, when the aroma starts to waft through the house, take it out of the oven and cover the edge of the pie crust with foil, to prevent it from over-cooking.

Return it to the oven and let it cook until the crust is, of course, golden brown. That should be a total baking time of 50 – 55 minutes in a 400 degree oven.

Remove the pie from the oven and place it on a rack to cool.

Think how it is going to taste with a little Breyers Vanilla melting over the top.

Now then, my freshly baked cherry pie is almost cool enough to slice, and I’ve almost run out of things to say. I could check back in and try to describe how it tastes, but I’m not up to that challenge. You’ll have to find a more gifted writer than this one.

Suffice it to say, I won’t be disappointed. In another month or so, it’ll be time for the real harbinger of summer goodness – fresh blackberry pie. And in another month after that, wild blueberry pie.

Bon appetit, y’all!


Anonymous said...

I'll be right over for a slice of pie!

GULAHIYI said...

Better's going FAST! :-0

Anonymous said...

I'm waiting for a pie to cool as well! I have been experimenting with thickeners and was just about to give arrowroot a try the next time around, and read your blog. You recommend minute tapioca. I am having trouble with the tapioca because the little beads don't seem to want to dissolve. Any suggestions?

GULAHIYI said...

I never had used the tapioca before this year, but have followed the package instructions (mix with fruit and sugar and then let it sit for 15 minutes) and been pleased with the results.

From what I've read (and experience also suggests) the tricky thing about arrowroot is that it loses its thickening ability if it is boiled or overheated for too long.