Cherry pie is one of those crucial dishes in the Food Memory Hierarchy. It’s quintessentially summer, nostalgically American, but it’s also such a personal food. Maybe because of its carved-out, idolized spot in American summertimes, maybe because it starts as a shared touchstone that whips up images of picnics and cherry trees and bakers wearing gingham aprons, it’s also one of those dishes that we make our own—and that we do every time we put it on our own tables. We brandish brags of mom’s/dad’s/aunt’s/grandpa’s homemade cherry pie. We make another recipe, another meal, another memory.
It’s at the crux of more than a few food emotions and generally important life moments in our family. For sure, it’s one of Lee’s defining foods: A love that started with a gallon-sized bag of summer cherries from a sweet neighbor one hot, porch afternoon (face/arms/hands stained cherry red, before Lou could intervene), and ran all the way through to late nights walked for beloved bad diner-pie with Frank (grinning pie smiles and feeding quarters to the jukebox and tossing our shiniest pennies and wishes into the fountain), and still further to the never-ending best cherry pie searching that still hasn’t yielded anything beyond our own kitchen’s oven, no matter how many slices we encounter.
The thing about our cherry pie love, in all its boundless capacity, is that it’s so true, it has the ability to encompass: bad pie, diner pie, soggy pie, under AND overcooked pie, and even, when the need is strong, gloppy pie. A bite of any of these takes us back to nearing midnight twirling on the wobbly sparkle-red stools at the Dirty Diner (unofficial official name thanks to our friend Tom), to pitting cherries until full-on Cherry Hand status has been achieved and worn like a badge of honor (permanently? we wonder, as we approach day 3 of hand washing), to so many summer dinners and afternoons and mornings, and our neighbor’s front porch and the secret of freely downing as many cherries as you can stomach before your mom realizes you’ve turned yourself into a cherry dumpling.
And even so, even loving all the cherry pies in all the world, when we make our own, there are a few things we aim for, and a few things we avoid, for being true cherry pie lovers means that we also have a perfect pie that we carry around in our heads. Until cherry season rolls around. And then we carry it around in our stomachs. Our perfect cherry pie is fresh, both tart and bright, and sweet—though not heavily so. In short, it tastes like it’s packed with a thousand of the most cherry-ful cherries you’ve ever tasted, and anything added besides the star ingredient is just there to help it along and make it sing. The tricky thing about this? What it really means is starting with the best cherries you can get your hands on. If a cherry doesn’t taste good before you bake it up in a pie, it surely won’t taste good after, either. The good news: right now is prime cherry time, so if you have a look, you’re more than likely to find some seriously incredible fruit.
When you have a fruit pie, what you want is the fruit front and center. Its flavors should hit your palette clear as a bell and not be cluttered with too much sugar or thickeners. For this reason, we choose our ingredients and their quantities carefully. We use just enough sugar to help thicken the fruit juices and heighten the flavor, and we use a little flour instead of cornstarch as our main thickening agent. Cornstarch is one of the main culprits of those previously mentioned gloppy pies—the ones that are heavy and leave a coating on your tongue. We find that cornstarch only gets in the way of the fruit’s brightness, masking it so it’s never as fresh as we’d hoped. A little flour, on the other hand, keeps a fairly low profile and does the job as well as needed. Because it’s already in your pie dough, it blends right in flavor-wise, and because it doesn’t turn all the juices gluey, you actually get some juiciness in your pie, which is nice. It tastes and feels a lot more natural.
This particular cherry pie is downright refreshing—a word that you might not have previously linked to the words cherry pie. The lemon and lemon thyme give the cherries some lift and some extra tartness, but also something unexpected. The addition of an herb cuts through some of the cherry’s sweetness, balances it out beautifully, and gives it an extra kick of summer. We could go on and on about this pie (clearly), but we’re pretty sure we’d all rather be baking. So, we’ll leave you with this weird trailer for a film we’ve never heard of, but will definitely be watching (This review + Karen Black + Frances Fisher = Sold!): Can She Bake A Cherry Pie? Happy first week of summer!
* * * *
Cherry Pie with Lemon Thyme Makes one 9″ or 10″ pie
Notes: A cherry pitter is helpful but not necessary. It’s actually kind of fun to just get in there with your hands, but it is definitely messy. If you like, disposable gloves are the handiest way to prevent your fingers from turning cherry red. (Though some of us kind of like the souvenir of Cherry Hands.) If you can’t find lemon thyme, you can certainly use regular. Cherries can give up considerable juice when left to stand with lemon and sugar before baking, so for that reason we spooned the cherries into to pie crust and left some of the juice behind in the bowl. As delicious as it is, it can make your pie pretty soggy. Some people will add this remaining juice to a saucepan and reduce it to a thick syrup so they can add it to the pie. For us, that’s an extra step that’s not really necessary—and by now, you probably know how we feel about extra steps. After the pie has cooled, Lou likes to refrigerate it to let it firm up (making it easier to cut and serve), and because she likes cold pie. Lee sometimes likes to serve it still warm, though on an extra hot day, that may not sound so appealing. Either way, we like it with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream.
You’ll need: – 9″ or 10″ pie dish (9″ will give you a taller pie) – A cherry pitter (if you want)
– Pie dough for a double-crust pie: We doubled the recipe for the pie dough used in our Salted Pumpkin Pie, but used half light olive oil and half safflower oil instead of all olive oil.
– 3 pounds Bing cherries, pitted
– 2 tbs fresh lemon juice
– 1/2 cup granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling over the top (or use course sanding sugar for a crunchier, sparklier top)
– 2 tsp fresh lemon thyme leaves, stripped from stems and chopped finely
– 3 tbs all-purpose flour
– Pinch of kosher/sea salt
– 1 tbs unsalted butter
– Milk for brushing the top crust (to make any sprinkled sugar stick and help the dough turn golden brown)
* Preheat oven to 375° F.
* In a large bowl, add the thyme and sugar. Get all the good flavor out of the thyme and infuse the sugar with it by crushing the leaves into the sugar. You can use the back of a spoon or a muddler. You’ll be able to smell the thyme perfuming the granules as its oils are released.
* Add the cherries, lemon juice, flour and salt to the bowl. Toss everything together to mix. Let the cherries macerate while you make the pie dough.
* Divide your dough in half. Keeping one half covered, roll out the bottom crust and fit it into your pie dish.
* Roll out the remainder of the dough and cut into 6 approximately one-inch strips for the lattice top.
* Spoon the cherries into the bottom pie crust. If there is a ton of juice at the bottom, leave some in the bowl. Some juice is good, but too much will make your bottom crust really soggy and the pie messy. (See our notes)
* Cut the butter into small pieces and dot the cherries evenly with it.
* Brush the lattice (not the cherries) with a little milk and sprinkle the top with sugar.
* Place the pie on a baking sheet (we like to line ours with aluminum foil for easy clean-up) and bake about an hour until the juices are bubbling and your crust is golden. If your crust is browning too quickly, tent it with a piece of aluminum foil, making sure the ends are open with enough room for steam to escape.
* When done, remove to a rack and let cool. Refrigerate before serving if you like your pie cold, or serve warmed up/at room temperature.
© 2015 Lee and Lou Cook. All rights reserved