Sour Cherry Pie

Did you know about sour cherries? I didn’t before this trip. My experience of cherries growing up was of maraschino’s from a jar, which I hated. Since living in England I have become addicted to sweet cherries, dark purple bursts in the high summer. But it turns out people are OBSESSED with sour cherries. So obsessed that they get up at ridiculous-o-clock to pick them off the trees themselves. The things you learn whilst interning with food people.

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So it happens that one morning (very very early), a few weeks ago, I joined the tribe of people who get up at ridiculous-o-clock to travel to a cherry orchard just outside of Hudson so I could participate in this whole sour cherry picking debacle.

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It was still cool (and all of half 7) when we arrived at the orchard. We had brought a box for filling with cherries and were told unceremoniously by the assistant that if we filled the box we would not be able to lift it. We had no plans to do such a thing but she marked out what she thought was 20 pounds in case we got carried away (we did), gave us a cart to set the box on, and buckets to wrap around our waists. We looked super stylish.

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We wandered down to the far end of the orchard, selected a tree and started picking. It’s surprisingly therapeutic, picking cherries. There was just the sounds of birds, some cars whizzing by on the road, and the occasional bee. Eventually the orchard filled with other voices.

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We were all done in a half hour. Three people can pick a lot of cherries in that time. We ended up with 34 pounds altogether and a box that was almost to heavy to lift.

Of course, if you pick 34 pounds of sour cherries, you have to do something with them. A neighbouring picker gave us a verbal recipe for a cherry liqueur – you fill a large jar with cherries and sugar, stacked in several layers, and then add in a grain alcohol. You leave it in a dark place for several months and then drink it neat in the dark days of December. Sadly I leave in six days so such a recipe will have to be stored for future use. Instead we made pie. Sour cherry pie.

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This recipe is a combination of two separate recipes. The pie crust is adapted from a recipe given to me by Kate Lebo, a pie-maker I met briefly – you can find the original in her book. She uses a lard and butter combination for the crust but I prefer all-butter crusts so I have changed it slightly. The filling comes from Molly O’Neill’s book, One Big Table. The truth is, pie filling is fairly interpretive. You need to taste and season it according to what you want. So I didn’t use nutmeg or kirsch and probably used less sugar as I like things fairly tart. I also used loads of lemon and, for once, almond extract. (It turns out it does have a place in the kitchen after all…)

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We made three of these to feed thirty people at one of the Food Media Bootcamp dinners a few weeks ago. The chef of the night, Ian Knauer, suggested serving the pie with salted heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks. It turns out he is on to something and I am now totally stealing that for fruit desserts forever and ever. (Thanks Ian!)

Sour Cherry Pie
Adapted from A Commonplace Book of Pie and One Big Table

For the double crust:
2 1/2 cups plain flour
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 tsp salt
16 tbsp butter, cold, cubed (240g)
ice water

For the filling:
5 cups pitted sour cherries
5 tbsp plain flour
2 tbsp lemon juice
zest of half a lemon
1 tsp almond extract
3/4 cup caster sugar (you can add up to 1 cup)
1 tsp Kirsch (optional)
1 1/2 tsp butter

Egg wash:
1 egg
2 tbsp water

To make the crust, rub the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the ice water slowly, mixing with your hands until the dough comes together. (You only need as much water as the dough will accept.)

On a lightly floured surface, turn out the dough and knead until smooth. It is very buttery so this will not take long (and be careful not to over-knead!)

Divide the dough in half and flatten into discs and refrigerate for at least an hour. If you’ve got time, make the dough the night before.

Preheat the oven to 180C.

Remove one disc from the fridge and roll the dough into a circle. (You want the crust reasonably thin so it does not get soggy in the oven but not so thin that it breaks on you.) Line a pie dish, making sure there is about 1cm overhanging the edge.

Whisk the egg and water together. Turn the overhanging dough up onto the edge of the pie dish and crimp it using your thumb on one hand and thumb and forefinger on the other.

Comine all filling ingredients, except the butter, in a large bowl. Taste! (Change the seasoning as you see fit, adding in extra sugar or some more lemon juice.)

Place the filling into the pie dish and dot with the butter.

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Roll the second disk into a circle. Cut strips, about 1cm thick.

Lattice the top of the pie crust, hooking the top of the strip into the inside of the pie, and weaving the strips like a basket. Egg wash the lattice.

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Bake for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until golden and bubbling.