By SHANNON WATKINS
About two years ago, I lost my job. I’d had it for seven and a half years and loathed it. I wasn’t suited for it and its particular conditions were depressing and demoralizing, but I was getting paid well and felt like I couldn’t afford to leave.
Then the choice was made for me. I was freaked out, sure; where would the money come from? But I also felt an incredible sense of freedom and lightness and possibility opening up. Spring had just settled itself in firmly and it’s hard to feel despair when the world is so warm and green.
One of the first things that restored a sense of purpose to my life was hitting the farmers’ markets. I’d wanted to before. I’d also wanted to make a cherry pie from scratch, but it didn’t happen. Now, however, I rose early on a Saturday—not something I’m known for—and headed out.
And there, at the farmers’ market, were container after container of big red cherries, almost ripe enough to burst. It sounds odd to say this about fruit, no matter how fresh, but my heart swelled a little when I found them. Somehow, looking at them, I knew everything would work out OK, because I would make it OK.
So I got them home and pulled out the pie recipe from Saveur magazine I had waiting and, as always, made some small changes. I did a lot of cooking that summer, and no matter how tight money was, I never regretted a cent I paid for anything at a farmers’ market. Every trip I made brought back that upwelling of hope and happiness, and with good reason: almost every trip resulted in a pie.
The crust is tangy and a little different; I don’t use it for anything but filled fruit pies, which it’s ideally suited to. You can cheat and use those rolled-up circles of dough from the frozen foods section if you must, but this is worth the effort.
2 cups plus 3 Tbsp. all-purpose or pastry flour
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. baking powder
8 Tbsp. cream cheese (half an 8 oz. block) softened to room temperature
12 Tbsp. cold butter, cut into pieces
1 Tbsp. cider vinegar
1 teacup of cold water with ice cubes
Whisk flour, salt and baking powder together in a large bowl. Plop in the cream cheese and work it into the flour with your fingers; it will smell indefinably tantalizing and the flour will be like coarse cornmeal when it’s worked all the way in. With a pastry blender or a knife, cut in the butter until some is worked in and the rest is in flecks, from the size of about peppercorns to the size of about peas. This will happen naturally, although if you do it with a knife (or two, which is slightly faster) your arm will feel like it’s about to fall off.
Pour in the vinegar and mix in slightly. Then use a tablespoon to sprinkle over 2-3 spoonfuls of ice water (it HAS to be iced; cold tap water won’t do it right). Work this quickly and lightly but thoroughly into the dough—overhandling will make the crust tough. If it needs more water, sprinkle in it a tiny, tiny bit at a time.
Once your dough has incorporated, sprinkle flour on a flat clean surface and roll it gently into two balls, one slightly larger than the other. Pat them into thick disks and wrap in plastic. Leave them in the fridge to firm up for about an hour.
The filling can be made ahead of the crust, which I usually do, but whatever order you do it in, it’ll be a thousand times better than anything canned. You can use sour cherries or sweet ones, depending on your tastes and what’s available, but buy them fresh from the farmers’ market, no matter how expensive. Supermarket cherries are tough and mealy and scant of flavor.
Also, I won’t lie to you, pitting cherries is a pain. It’s worth it to get a cherry pitter (sometimes sold as an olive pitter), a handheld device that makes the job go faster, although you can push the pits out with a chopstick. Either way, I’ll admit I’ve found that sometimes you’ll pop out a plug of flesh and not realize the stone is still intact, which means there might be a “lucky” cherry or two lurking in your pie. Warn anyone you don’t want to see making an unscheduled trip to the dentist.
Oh, and no matter how cautious you are, you will wind up sprayed with cherry gore. Dress accordingly.
1½ lbs. cherries, pitted and stemmed
¾ cup plus 2 Tbsp sugar
7½ tsp. cornstarch
juice of half about half a lemon, lightly squeezed, if your cherries aren’t tart enough to suit you
1/8 – ¼ tsp almond extract
Stir dry ingredients together in a large bowl, then stir in the cherries, lemon juice and extract. Cover and set aside to macerate for at least 10 minutes and up to 3 hours.
When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 425F, then line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and put it on the oven’s middle rack. This will help bake the bottom of the crust, so you avoid that unpleasant, undercooked gumminess. Also some of the filling’s juices will likely seep over and burn to lava; foil means you won’t have to spend an afternoon cursing and hacking away to scrape it off your cookie sheet.
Get out the dough, flour your flat surface again, and roll out the larger disk of dough to about an 11-inch round. Line a 9-inch deep-dish pie pan with it, trim the edges so there’s a little overhang, and pour the cherry filling inside it. You can dot the filling with little cubes of butter at this point, though I confess I forget it about half the time and it doesn’t hurt anything.
Roll out the second disk to a 10-inch circle, and cut into fat (1½” or so) strips, and weave a lattice over the filling with it, and if you just panicked reading that, you can always reroll it into one disk, flop the whole uncut thing on top, poke a few holes in it with a knife, and people will still love the results. Anyone who complains that you didn’t make a perfect over-under basketweave can go to the store and buy some picture-perfect cardboard-crusted monstrosity full of artificially flavored goo.
Once you have the crust laid out and trimmed and crimped or fluted at the edges to your satisfaction, an unnecessary but nice fillip is to use an egg yolk or a little cream (or mix them together) and brush it all over the exposed surface of the crust, then sprinkle it with sugar. It’ll make the finished product even more appealing, glossy and golden as it will be.
Put it on your cookie sheet and bake for 40-50 minutes. Pull out and realize that it will take longer to cool than the earth did when it first formed. Wait as patiently as you can for it your pie to be ready to eat.
If you’re like me, the crust will have buckled or flopped inward and outward at different points along the edge, and look like you must have gotten three sheets to the wind before you decided to bake. Nobody of any consequence will mind.
You can make this for someone you love, which they ought to recognize for the grand gesture it is, but there’s nothing quite like making one for yourself, even when you share it. The satisfaction of a challenging task completed could make you feel that even the uncertainty of the future is something to relish, adventurously, one forkful at a time.