Let me start by saying this: I went to great lengths to make this pie and I took a few casualties along the way (namely, John.)
I first tasted fresh sour cherries in the summer of 2002 when I lived just outside of Ithaca, NY. Before then, I’d only known sour cherries in the canned form, and what I knew of them, I didn’t much care for. So the fresh version, well, it kind of rocked my world.
Upstate New York is cherry Mecca, but I haven’t had much luck finding sour cherries in and around Boston. A couple of summers ago, prompted by a serious hankering for some cherry pie, I even called around about a dozen area farms to ask after what seemed like New England’s forbidden fruit, and much to my disappointment, I was told that sour cherries don’t really grow in New England, save for a few trees way out in Western Massachusetts along the New York border. Just this week, I located a farm with PYO sour cherries, a mere 2 hours outside of Boston (practically in NY), and promising pie euphoria, I had all but convinced John that this would be worth the four hour round trip.
Until (insert dramatic cello instrumental here) last week I got an email from Cora saying that she read my clafoutis recipe and that I am gravely mistaken about the non-existence of sour cherries in New England. She knew of a few trees and infact she had been picking from two trees in Dorchester, only about 15 minutes from my house, just this week. Wha-wha-wha-what??
This Sunday, off we went. After a grueling P90x workout (Don’t ask. Grueling as it may be, P90x ain’t got nothing on the challenge that was to be this pie.), we packed up our ladder and headed to the Shirley Eustis house in Dorchester. We arrived in the heat of the afternoon, me dressed practically in flip flops and a skirt, to scope out the trees. Cherries! Real live sour cherries growing on trees and free for the picking!
Only one problem: the trees are barren on all of the low branches – picked over with a fine tooth comb – the only cherries that remain are perilously high. Way, way, way beyond the reach of our ladder, we have no choice but to climb the trees themselves and then bend the branches awkwardly to reach the fruit. It’s looking like death by cherries for a while, but we persevere. We climb, we hold, we shake, we bend, we pick, we fill, we tumble, we get up, and bottom line, a few hot hours later, we have just barely enough cherries to make a pie.
We return home bruised, battered, and scratched, but successful. Then comes the pitting of this bounty. No cherry pitter here, we do these babies all by hand. By far the juiciest cherries I have ever known, their juice dribbles down our arms, leaks across our counter, and turns our finger tips to prunes. But oh the smell – the juice-laden jewels smell like the quintessential cherry; cherry essence distilled and right here in my kitchen.
Monday morning, I start in on the pie. First, I reduce the cherries stovetop to take care of some of that liquid, then I sweeten, thicken, chill, and bake the whole thing into a flakey butter crust. Pie is the perfect place to show off summer fruit, and this pie’s no different – just the cherries and the crust: tart-sweet, buttery-crisp bliss, I forget everything we went through on the first magical bite. I wish you all much better luck finding sour cherries, and Boston folks, if you do find ‘em, please let me know. And to those of you who live in sour cherry producing parts of the world: count yourself lucky and be sure you eat some pie this summer. Makes 1 10 inch pie, enough to serve 8.
For the Cherry Filling
2 ½ lb/ 1160g fresh sour cherries, pitted
¾ c/ 175g granulated sugar, plus more as needed
¼ tsp salt
2-3 tbsp cornstarch
2 tbsp frangelico
Combine the cherries, the sugar (start with ¾ cup), and the salt in a medium sauce pan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and, depending on the juiciness of your cherries, let the liquid reduce a bit. My cherries were the juiciest I’ve ever seen, so I boiled the mixture a good 5-7 minutes to blow off a little steam. Not all sour cherries are equal, so at this point, taste for sweetness and add more sugar, 1 tbsp at a time, as needed. (I added an additional 3 tbsp.) More sugar will mean more juice (sugar liquefies as it melts and also brings out the juice in the fruit), so again you may need to further reduce the juice here. Throughout this process, just go with your gut – do you like a juicier or a drier pie? Sweeter or more tart? Me personally, I like tarter and more juicy, but there’s no wrong way to do it.
Once you achieve a cherry mixture sweetened and reduced to your liking, reduce the heat to medium-low and place 2 tbsp of cornstarch in a small bowl. Scoop a bit of the cherry juice into the cornstarch and mix thoroughly so no lumps remain and you have a thin paste. Mix this into your cherries and let the mixture return to a boil. Again, use your judgment: if you need more thickener, add another 1 tbsp of cornstarch using the same method. (With my crazy juicy cherries, I added another 1 tbsp of cornstarch and still had plenty of juice.)
Next, remove the mixture from the heat, mix in the frangelico, and transfer it to a wide bowl or sheet pan. Chill in the refrigerator or freezer until completely cold – about 1 hour in the freezer or 2-3 in the fridge.
For the Flakey Pie Crust and Assembly
3c/ 454g all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp granulated sugar
1c + 5 tbsp/ 300g unsalted butter
2/3 c/ 150g very very cold water
1 egg yolk
course sugar for sprinkling
See HERE for tips on making flakey crusts.
Place the flour, salt, and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Roughly cut in the butter using a pastry cutter or two knives. You want the mixture to be crumbly with visible pieces of large butter showing. Alternatively, place the flour, salt, sugar, and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer and, using the paddle attachment, mix until the butter is broken and the mixture looks crumbly with large pieces of butter still visible. Slowly drizzle the water into the flour mixture. Mix until the dough comes together in a shaggy ball. You may not need all the water*, so go slow. Dump out the dough on the counter and form it into two rounds. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate 1 hour.
Once chilled, remove one disc of pie dough from the fridge and, on a lightly floured work surface, roll into a circle approximately 12-14 inches in diameter. Carefully arrange the pie dough in the bottom of a 10 inch pie plate.** Pour the prepared and chilled cherry filling into the crust and set aside in the refrigerator. Remove the second disc of pie dough from the fridge and roll it to a circle approximately 12 inches in diameter. At this point, you may either cut the pie dough into strips for lattice or just use it whole as a solid top crust. Either way, remove the bottom crust from the refrigerator and top with the 2nd crust. Trim around the edge of the pie, leaving about an inch and a half of overhang. Roll the overhang tightly into the pie so that it sits on the outer edge of the pie plate, and then decoratively crimp the edge. If you chose a solid top crust, cut a few slits in the top of the pie to allow steam to escape.
Whisk the egg yolk with a little cold water in a small bowl and, using pastry brush, gently brush the top of the pie. Sprinkle with the course sugar and bake for approximately 1 and ½ hours until golden brown and bubbly. Remove from the oven and cool at least 2 hours before cutting and serving (to allow the filling to set.)
*Flour loses its moisture as it ages, so depending on how long your flour’s been sitting in your pantry or on your grocer’s shelf, it will absorb more or less water. Also, the more the butter is worked into the flour, the less water the flour will absorb because the butter coats the flour and prevents it from absorbing water.
**Many cherry pie recipes call for blind baking the bottom crust to ensure it’s nicely crisp. I usually find this step unnecessary when using a cooked cherry filling because you’ve already reduced the liquid in the cherries. However, in my case, my cherries were so insanely juicy that, even cooked down in advance, they rendered the bottom curst not quite as crisp as I would prefer. So, depending on the amount of juice in your cherries, you may want to blind bake the bottom crust at this point by trimming it to fit the pan, lining it with parchment paper and pie weights or dried bean, and baking for 20-30 minutes at 350 degrees. I also find using a thinner, ideally metal, pie tin helps the bottom crust crisp. I doubly jinxed myself by baking an already juice-heavy pie in a thick vintage ceramic pie plate.