I needed to make a pie. The farmer’s market was in full swing. The 4th of July was upon us. If I followed the saying “as American as apple pie,” well… I would be out of luck. You see, this is the Midwest. Apples are still tiny little hard things dangling from craggy branches. Cherries. Cherries are in season. And yes, I could go to the grocery store and find some sad apples that were trucked in from thousands of miles away, but I would rather support my local farmer, and notably cherries are red, and the word “red” is even in our national anthem. Need I say more? Why yes, yes I do.
There once was a time in our history where the government actually encouraged people to grow their own food for the greater good of the whole country. Victory Gardens from WWI and WWII. Yes, of course, agribusiness was made very nervous by these, and reportedly they did actually produce as much as the commercial farms when they were in full swing, so they were nervous with good reason. But not so much today. Today agribusiness is definitely at the fore, and it’s not all bad, but I am always disturbed by the lack of variety that is presented to us. Nature is far more a cacophony of choice than the local produce section would have us believe. How many of you knew there are multiple types of strawberries? The only place I have ever seen a differentiation in strawberries is at the farmer’s market, where they are more than happy to tell me about the different varieties and flavor differences. In the produce section? Not so much.
Which brings me back to cherries. American cherries, in season, from local farms. Sweet, delicious cherries, which have come into season. They sit, glistening in the sunlight, tempting you in with the promise of their succulent juices. Pale yellow Rainiers, with faint blushes hugging their curves. Deep succulent Bings, winking from their piles, coyly suggesting that you to come and spend a little time on the dark side. And then… the sour cherries. There they sit, radiant and unapologetic, the harlots of the cherry table (if their color is any indication.) If you try one, your eyes will open wide as it grabs your tongue and smacks the inside of your mouth with it. A flavor as aggressive as the stereotypical American tourist, marching loudly into a foreign country, bedecked in socks and sandals, asking in a loud, slow voice “Where are the bathrooms?”
Sour cherries are something generally only found at farmer’s markets. You might be able to find them frozen in some supermarkets, or you could always find a can of those gloopy sad things labeled “cherry pie filling.” But you would be doing a disservice to the sour cherry. This definitely takes work, hard work and determination. Having made many an apple pie, I can tell you that prepping for a cherry pie definitely takes more work. But that is what makes it great. And how many of those phrases have you heard when hearing about the American spirit? So go find those sour cherries. Spend the time pitting them (although if you can, I would suggest finding multiple cherry pitters and luring a few people in to help. It should be easy, just tell them there will be pie.) Take the few extra minutes to make your own dough, which is always more delicious, and free of bizarre chemicals and preservatives, and never as terrifying as people seem to think. Add some cornmeal to it, a very American food. Assemble this glorious pie, being thankful we live in a country where there is access to such a thing as these sour cherries, and raise a fork to all the pies that have come before.
Cherries Are More Patriotic Than Apples Pie
(based on the Michael Ruhlman ratio idea, so it is weight-based. If you do not have a kitchen scale, the cup measurements are approximated.)
10 oz. (a scant 2 1/2 c.) Unbleached all-purpose flour
2 oz. (a scant 1/2 c.) medium grind cornmeal
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. sugar
8 oz. (2 sticks, you know you love it) of cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
4 oz. ice water
Combine flour, cornmeal, salt and sugar in a bowl. Add in the butter. Using two knives or a pastry blender (or your hands, but remember you need to keep this as cold as possible), cut in the butter until it is in about pea-sized chunks. I usually like to stick the bowl in the freezer for ten minutes after this to make sure the butter stays super cold. That is the key to a flaky crust. Add in almost all of the ice water, tossing with a fork. Dough can be somewhat temperamental in how much water goes in, and it’s usually based on the humidity of that particular day. When the dough holds together when you squish it in your hands, you are pretty much good to go. Form it into one mass, adding a hair more water if it’s too dry, or flour if it’s too wet, until you have a cohesive ball of dough. Do this as quickly as possible. Next comes the fun part, because you get to sound all fancy and French, because you are about to do… fraissage!!! Place the ball of dough on a lightly floured counter, and using the heel of your hand, hit the top of the ball of dough and smoosh it out and away from you on the counter, like you are trying to spread it. This is not a glutinous dough like bread or pasta, it will not be stretchy, and you don’t want it to be. Scoop the dough you just smooshed out on the counter back into the ball, rotate it 90 degrees, and do it again. Repeat a few times. Use a dough scraper if you need to. Try to avoid using any more flour, but you can sprinkle some if things are really out of control sticky. Make sure to warble in French while you are doing, a la Madame Child. Divide into two balls, gently pat each ball into a nice fat disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and put in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
5 c. pitted sour cherries (about 1 1/2 quarts)
(I should point out here that you can likely only buy the cherries by the entire quart, so pit them all and you will have some left over. Spread them out on a sheet of wax paper on a baking tray, then slide into the freezer for a couple of hours, then move to a plastic bag, so you can add them to… other baked goods, maybe a little jam, maybe some ice cream, anything… they are too good to waste. Also, you will need a cherry/olive pitter. This is not optional, unless you are awesome and can just flip out the seeds with the end of a knife. Better yet, get multiple pitters and bribe people with the promise of pie, because this will take a long, long time solo. Still worth it.)
5 Tbsp. cornstarch
3/4 c. sugar (note: this still makes a pretty tart pie, not the syrupy sweet thing I’m sure Special Agent Cooper had on Twin Peaks. Add more if you like, but don’t drown it.)
generous pinch salt
1/4 tsp. almond extract
Combine ingredients in a large bowl, mix very thoroughly, let sit for at least 15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400. Grab a 9″ pie plate (or 8″, it’s fine.) Remove the pie dough from the refrigerator. Roll out one large disc, big enough to flop into the pie plate with at least 1″ excess all around. If you roll too thin and tear, do not panic. Grab a little scrap from the edge and patch it. No one will ever know. Flop this into the pie plate, gently pressing it in, and roll out the other bit of dough into a disc large enough to cover the pie plate. Cut a star in the top, if desired, or you could always cut it into strips for a classic criss cross top. Pour the cherry filling into the waiting bottom pie crust (I put all the juice that has emerged in, it might not be the most advisable, but I hate to waste it.) Put your top crust on. If you cut a star in the top, or just have a flat disc, cut a few more slits in the top. Pies need it! Crimp the edge and trim off any excess. (Do NOT throw away the excess… my Grandma always taught me to save it, roll it out again, sprinkle with some cinnamon and sugar, and bake for 15 minutes or so with the pie. No sense in wasting luscious pie dough, and you deserve a treat after pitting all those cherries!) If you want to make it extra golden, brush lightly with an egg wash (1 egg whisked with 1 Tbsp. cold water).
Place the pie on a cookie sheet to catch drips, then place that on the middle rack in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes. Turn the oven down to 350. Check on your crust along the edges. If it is looking too brown, cover just the edges with tin foil or a pie crust protector (a handy little ring that covers only the outer edge of the crust to prevent burning and possibly the best thing ever when it comes to pie baking). Bake for another 30 minutes. It will be done when the filling is bubbly in the middle. Remove from oven and place on a cooling rack, and let set for at least an hour, if not more. Serve to friends and time how long it takes to decimate the entire thing (hint: it will be fast.)