cherry pie, from How to Cook Everything
This has been a busy year. I’ve made no progress on the remaining cookbooks from my collection, and I’ve done rather less original or interesting cooking in general than I’ve wanted to. There have been a lot of simple stir-fries and sandwiches, rather too much take-out, and more pizza than I should admit to. (Homemade pizza, at least, but not exactly health food.)
There are a few reasons. I’ve been working a lot. I will be taking four weeks of vacation starting later this month, during which I expect to cook a lot more (among other things; I have a writing project to work on most of my time), and so I haven’t really taken more than one or two days off since December. This sounded like a much better idea last fall, when I scheduled the four-week leave, than it did this April, when I found myself three writing projects deep and no leave time in sight. And work has been busy, as I’ve taken on some new projects, including several things that are new kinds of work for me. It’s all been very rewarding, and I am glad of what I’ve had a chance to do; but I’ve had an awful lot of evenings where I got home later than I meant to and was in more of a mood for take-out empanadas than for chopping and sauteeing something for myself. Normally I’d pick up the slack on the weekends, but I’ve also taken on a Saturday volunteer teaching project that’s extremely rewarding in its own right but doesn’t leave as much time for weekend grocery roundups and cooking ahead.
Still, I get the bug once in a while, especially when there’s a good call to action, and Shauna James Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef sent out a good one recently: a Pie Party. The idea is to make, photograph and post about pie in time to put up the posts and pictures on July 5. My pie isn’t gluten-free, but I don’t think that was a stipulation.
I got it into my head to make a cherry pie. I haven’t made a cherry pie before, unless perhaps I’ve made one with canned filling, though since it’s been at least 25 years since I’ve made pie with canned filling I kind of doubt that counts. I had seen that cherries had arrived in the Greenmarket near my work last Wednesday, though I didn’t buy any because I was going to be out right after work and didn’t want to haul them around. So yesterday I got up a bit earlier than I might have on a holiday and went to the Greenmarket at Union Square, which was mercifully quiet — usually the place is a mob scene — and found cherries as well as a few other goodies for the week. Once home, I skimmed through my cookbooks and settled on a straightforward recipe from How to Cook Everything, a longtime favorite.
I started with the crusts, so they’d have time to chill. I killed our food processor some time last year and haven’t had a chance to replace it, but the hand mixer has a little food processor attachment, and it’s just big enough to do one crust at a time, which is perfect; I’m not that great at evenly dividing a doubled amount. I whirred together flour, salt and sugar, then added butter and processed it briefly into coarse powder. I then turned the mixture into a bowl and added just enough ice water to form a ball (more or less), which I patted into a flat disk and wrapped in wax paper to chill, then did the whole thing again for the second crust.
Shauna talks in her blog about how people are often afraid of pie crust. I’m not, really, though I can see why people get intimidated. Things can go wrong. It takes practice to get the proportions exactly as you want them — and without practice it’s easy to forget that it’s probably still going to be good if things aren’t exactly as you intended. Then too, we’ve been exposed to a lot of really bad pie crusts, and we have conflicted expectations. It should be light and flaky, yes, but also rigid enough to hold a perfect wedge shape when you cut it? How does that work? No. The edges should be artfully crimped? If you like that sort of thing, sure, but the pie will still taste good if you’re a bit less picky about the shape of the crimping. Cooking is an ongoing practice, not a pass-fail exam, and unless you psych yourself out so badly that you can’t manage to do anything right you will still probably get a good result even if it isn’t picture-book perfect.
While the crust chilled I pitted the cherries. I don’t actually have a cherry pitter, and in fact have never used one. I started out by halving the cherries with a knife to pop out the pits, but then discovered by accident that if I just pressed gently on the bottom the pit would pop pretty easily out of the top without losing that pretty whole-cherry look. So I pitted and got pretty little cherries. This surprised me, which then struck me as odd. I thought, these look like cherries should look. And then I thought, of course they do, you nitwit, they’re cherries. They’re not cherry-flavored bits, or Cherry Brand Imitation Whatsit; they’re actual cherries.
I realized that while I’m not intimidated by cooking, I do get intimidated by food images. In one sense, by the good blog photography, such as you find in What Katie Ate; I can’t hope to match that level of exposure and staging, though I’m sure I could make good enough versions of the food if I gave the recipes a shot. But I also get cowed by the marketing images. I’ve gotten used to assuming that the pictures on the restaurant menus and advertising, and on the processed-food packages, are Platonic ideals of the food you might actually get. But there I was pitting cherries, and because they were cherries, they were turning out right. I was then reminded of a recent Mark Bittman column in which he talks about the advantages of cooking over eating out; he says, “When I cook, though, everything seems to go right.” The “though” is part of a comparison to dining out, which he considers a gamble; sometimes it’s satisfactory and sometimes it isn’t. And while I wouldn’t always say everything I cook goes right (I am still a bit haunted by that carrot cake), I can point to very few dishes I’ve cooked using real food and simple techniques that have truly disappointed me.
Before too long, I had a bowl full of pitted cherries, plus a spattered countertop and a mess in the sink. I wiped the counter right away to prevent staining but then returned to the pie filling, combining some sugar, cornstarch, almond flavoring and nutmeg, which I mixed with the cherries.
Then I rolled out the crusts, keeping the disks between waxed paper to avoid having to add more flour. I pressed the bottom crust into the pan, poured in the cherry filling, then rolled out the second crust and laid it over the pie. (I realized much later — like, after the pie was out of the oven — that I had forgotten to dot in a bit of butter before putting on the top crust, but the crusts were very buttery, so I crossed my fingers that would save things.) The pie went into the oven for 10 minutes at 450, then baked for 350 for another 50 minutes, and then I had to let it cool for a few hours.
So after dinner I whipped some cream, then sliced the pie and plated it. Nervously, I lifted the spoon. Would it taste good? Had I used enough sugar? Too much? Was the crust too tough? But it was great. The cherries were tart but balanced well with the sweet sauce and the rich crust. The crust was flaky, not tough or doughy, and it seemed to have lent butter enough to the filling after all. The cream was a nice complement as well. And the cherries were very pretty.
Verdict: Success. And that’s my contribution to the pie party: One cherry pie, not gluten-free and not perfect but darn good.