photo by Anthony Palatta
Now that summer is in full swing, cherries are hitting their peak, inviting thoughts of homemade cherry pie.
A few summers ago, I dutifully went to the market, picked out a bag of burgundy-colored ripe cherries, and then went home to pick out the pits with my brand-new cherry-pitter.
A few hours later, after carefully following a recipe from the book 500 Pies, (generally a wonderful resource, by the way) I ended up with a watery cherry pie.
I was telling my mother about this, and she laughed knowingly. The best way to make cherry pie, she told me, was to use cherries from a can.
What?! When could canned fruit ever surpass the "real" thing?
Answer: when it comes to cherry pie.
I'm not talking about canned pre-made pie filling here, pumped with chemicals, with a flavor that's slightly-metallic as well as cloyingly sweet. I'm talking plain tart pitted cherries packed in water and nothing else. And as it turns out, after talking with some professional chefs and doing some Internet digging, I've found that several experts are on Mom's side. With just about every other fruit: go fresh. With cherries: get out your can openers.
My mother's recipe for cherry pie filling couldn't be simpler. Especially because canned cherries are already pitted! Select a 16-ounce can of cherries, making sure you have the unadulterated, unsweetened, un-anything'd kind (though once I made a mistake and got a can of sweetened cherries and the recipe worked).
You want to see the word "tart" on the can somewhere. I have also found these cherries in a jar at Whole Foods, and they were great.
(A friend of mine who went to a natural cooking school suggests using fresh cherries, which have sat in sugar overnight, and then marinated in a cornstarch slurry. But then, of course, you have to pit your own cherries.)
Empty your can into a medium saucepan, water and all. You want to have a bit over 2 cups, but my mother says the exact amount isn't that important. If you have less, you'll simply have a thinner layer of filling in your pie. You can add a 1/4 cup of water if you want to increase the volume.
Mix in 3/4 to 1 cup of sugar to taste, a 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon, and a 1/4 cup of flour. I've been known to thrown in a pinch of salt as well. Next, stir the mixture over medium heat until it thickens to the texture of pie filling. If you want it thicker, you can sprinkle in more flour, a teaspoon or so at a time.
Take the mixture off the stove and let it cool while you roll out your pie crust, which you've prepared the night before and left in the fridge to chill. You might have made it weeks before, frozen it, and then defrosted it the night before you baked.
My mother makes a classic all-shortening crust with Crisco, which I find impossible to roll out. Instead I use a crust from a book called The Thanksgiving Table by Diane Morgan, from a recipe for a delicious cranberry-blueberry pie. It calls for a mix of shortening, butter, and sour cream (!) in addition to the usual flour, salt, sugar, and ice water. You can find the exact instructions in the book, which is well-worth the price for those of you who are crust-challenged. (It also has a terrific stuffing recipe!)
Preheat your oven to 375. After lining a nine-inch pie plate with the bottom layer of crust and filling it with the cherry mixture, a traditionalist would top the pie with a lattice-crust. I've done this before and found it a complete pain.
It's much easier, and cuter, to get out your cookie cutters and cut out crust shapes to lay on top. Little cherry shapes would be cute. My mother's 1950s Betty Crocker cookbook suggests a circle of hatchets for George Washington's birthday. You could do stars, or even stars and stripes together for a July 4th picnic. Recently, I went for little flowers and overlapped them to make sure to get a nice crust-to-filling ratio. I also coated the top crust with milk and sprinkled it with sugar to get a nice browning.
Bake for about 50 minutes, until the crust is a deep golden-brown and the filling is bubbling.
For such a simple construction method, the pie yields some impressive results. The sweet and sour tang of the filling, plus the hint of cinnamon, match well with the doughy crust, which also has extra depth thanks to the sour cream.