Today’s Recipes: Sour Cherry Cranberry Pie and Perfect Pie Crust.
I know, I know, posting a recipe for cherry pie in the middle of winter seems crazy, but because it is made with jarred cherries you can have a taste of summer any time of the year! Full of cherry flavor that we all love, I have added some dried cranberries to take tame some of the sweetness. This is an amazing pie, one that always gets rave reviews and requests.
Years ago I took a cooking class from a wonderful local pastry chef, Gayle Ortiz of Gayle’s Bakery and Rosticceria in Capitola, on the California Coast just south of San Francisco. Her bakery, in business over 25 years, started in an 800-square-foot shop and has grown into an institution in the Bay Area. If you are anywhere near the area, you owe it to yourself to stop in and experience her magic for yourself!
In the cooking class Gayle was talking about using canned cherries vs. fresh cherries. She asked us who thought fresh cherries made the best pies. Of course nearly everyone raised their hand. Then she told us that she only uses jarred cherries! We were flabbergasted, but it makes sense because she runs a commercial bakery. How else would she be able to offer her pies in massive quantities. She explained that although fresh cherries are wonderful to eat, because most of the ones available at stores and farmer’s markets are sweet cherries, they are far too sweet for pies. What you want are sour cherries. I know, counterintuitive, but true. Sour cherries offset the sugar in the filling and are what give you that puckery bite in really good pies.
If you can find them, the cherries you want are called Morello or Montmorency and are usually found in Michigan in the United States, as well as in Canada and France. Occasionally some farmers have transplanted trees and you can find some in farmer’s markets, but that is the rare exception. Named for the Montmorency valley in France, they are large, light red fruits, and the most popular for use in pies, jams, and preserves. Fresh sour cherries have nearly six times the Vitamin A as fresh sweet cherries. Trader Joe’s sells the dried variety, which are wonderful for snacking and could be used in place of the cranberries in this recipe.
Luckily for those of us who don’t live in Michigan, many shops carry jarred cherries all year long. Surprisingly, the ones you want to look for come from Eastern European countries. The brand I use (found at my local Whole Foods store) comes from Bulgaria. They come in a clear, dark red liquid which gives you a the beautiful deep color in your filling. Do not use the “cherry pie filling” that comes in cans if you can avoid it. It is far too sweet and will not produce the kind of pie you remember from your childhood.
If it is summertime and fresh cherries are available, you will have to pit them all by hand and remove all the stems. This is fun but can be tedious and is extremely messy. Do it in a deep sink and wear clothes you don’t mind ruining. Cherry juice is nearly impossible to get out unless you can bleach the material – wear white! You can buy cherry juice and use that in place of the drained juice called for in my recipe. The filling will need to cook a bit longer to fully cook the raw cherries, but I’m sure it will be outstanding.
This truly a Blue Ribbon recipe. I worked for about 3 months perfecting my recipe and technique before submitting this pie to our local county fair for competition. I won my first blue ribbon with it and I’m nearly guaranteed to win a blue ribbon whenever I enter it. Because you pre-thicken the filling it is virtually foolproof!! And so simple, anyone can make it!
I use cornstarch to thicken the filling, but if you are one of those who wants a non-cloudy filling, King Arthur sells a wonderful product called Instant Clear Gel, which is ranked the top pie filling thickener by Cook’s Illustrated. An 8-ounce bag is enough for about 6 pies and at less than $5 is reasonable when you want perfect pies. It produces the same effects with a crystal clarity that really lets the beauty of the color shine.
There are just a few components to a good pie … the right pan to bake it in, a properly thickened filling, and a flaky golden crust. Yes, it can be a bit tricky, but if you take it slowly, read through the recipe a few times so you’re comfortable with it, it will be fine.
Let’s talk about the essential tools. Do yourself a favor and buy a glass pie dish by Pyrex. Glass is a great heat conductor and you can see when the bottom crust is done! Kind of a no-brainer, but I never owned one until I started competing in pie baking contests where they are required. Now I don’t bake in anything else.
The second thing you must have is a good rolling pin, the bigger the better. A large pin has weight that does half the work for you and actually makes rolling out dough easier. There are several different kinds out there, but I like the old-fashioned ball-bearing kind. This is one baking item that I recommend you buy in a store and not online (even though I get a small bonus if you do, LOL.) You want to feel the heft of it and, holding the pin by one handle, spin it with your other hand. It should spin freely with no hesitation or sticking. If it doesn’t spin freely, try another until you find one that does. The ball bearings can get out of alignment and that makes rolling a real chore!
Some people swear by a rolling cloth, but I find that working on a large Silpat works perfectly and allows me to easily pick up and discard the excess flour when I’m done. Another trick of professional bakers is to have a bench scraper handy. You use it to keep dough from sticking on your board and it helps clean up when you’re done. When working with a large piece of dough, a long off-set spatula or a large dough lifter can be helpful too.
People will tell you not to use too much flour when you are rolling out your dough. In general I agree, but in practical application, using more flour makes working with dough easier (especially when you are first learning to make pies). To offset the use of excess flour, buy a pastry brush and label it “Dry.” Use it only for brushing off excess flour from your doughs. You’ll never have to wash it, just brush the flour out of it and store it in a drawer. By removing the excess flour, you can avoid toughening the dough.
When you’re making the dough, use enough water so that the dough holds together easily. If it is really dry and crumbly, it may come together when it is resting in the refrigerator, but often it is still dry when you try to roll it out. I say an extra tablespoon or two will help more than hinder you.
If fluting the edge of a pie is difficult for you (and anyone with long nails knows what I’m talking about!) you can use the tines of a fork to press a nice design onto the edge, or you can make a braid out of extra dough and lay that around the edge. Don’t stress over it, find something that’s easy for you to do and go with it. A rustic look is beautiful!
Try making your pie dough from scratch (my recipe is a good one) but if you are quaking in your shoes and threatening to pass out at the mere thought of making your own, you can find decent pie dough in the freezer section of many stores. This is different than puff pastry which won’t work for pies. A health food store or Whole Foods will often carry brands that are well made without all the preservatives and hydrogenated products often found in processed foods.
And once your pie is baked and cooled, use a pie server to get the pieces out. I have used everything imaginable including knife blades, but this tool is designed specifically for this purpose and will make it simple. I have several (I love pies, LOL), a couple different sizes for serving in the kitchen, and then a fancier one for use at the table.
- If desired, the cranberries may be left out. If you don’t use them, reduce sugar by about 1/4 cup. Bake as directed above.
- The fruit filling can be made ahead. Refrigerate until needed, and then reheat before filling the crust. Finish baking as directed above.
- With the added cranberries, this is an excellent pie for the holidays. You can also serve it for Valentine’s Day or the Fourth of July.
- If you want a lattice top, I suggest you cut the strips and assemble it on your cutting board. Then pick it up gently, setting it on top of the filling. Press and crimp the edges as usual. If I don’t do this, I invariably mess up the pattern on at least one strip.
I hope you love this pie as much as my family and I do. Perhaps you can make one for Washington’s Birthday in February. It is the perfect dessert and you can brag about it without “telling a lie”! Happy Baking!
- 1 large egg
- 2 tbsp milk
- 1 (9-inch) double crust pie dough recipe, chilled
- Light or dark rum, optional
- 2 cups dried cranberries
- 3 (24-oz) jars sour cherries in juice, well drained, juices reserved
- 1 cup sugar
- 4 tbsp cornstarch
- 1 tbsp all-purpose flour
- Pinch of salt
- 1/2 tsp vanilla
- 1 to 2 tsp fresh lemon juice, to taste
- Demerara sugar or other coarse sugar
- Move oven rack to the lowest level and place a baking sheet lined with foil on it. Preheat oven to 400°F.
- In a small bowl, beat egg and milk together until smooth to make an egg glaze. Set aside.
- Roll out chilled dough and line a pie plate with bottom crust, leaving a 1-inch overhang of dough. Cut the strips for the lattice topping, or roll out second crust. Brush bottom of crust lightly with some of the egg wash. Set aside and leave to rest for 30 minutes while you make the filling.
- To plump the cranberries, place them in a small saucepan. Cover with dark or light rum (or plain water) and bring to a simmer. Don’t worry the rum flavor will dissipate during baking. Take off the heat and allow them to steep in the hot liquid for 15 minutes. Drain. Set aside.
- In a strainer set above a large bowl, drain the cherries, reserving the juice.
- Place 1 cup of the cherry juice in a medium nonstick saucepan (remaining juice may be used for another use). Add the sugar, cornstarch, flour, salt, vanilla, and lemon juice. Stir well to dissolve sugars and cornstarch. Stirring constantly, bring to a simmer over medium heat. When thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, remove from the heat.
- Add drained cherries and cranberries. Toss to combine. Allow filling to cool slightly then very gently pour into pie shell, slightly mounding the fruit in the center. You don’t have to use it all. If you overfill the crust it will bubble out and leave a huge mess, making the pie difficult to cut and serve. If you have extra filling, make a mini pie with some leftover pie dough or use over ice cream.
- Working quickly, brush the overhanging dough of the bottom crust with water. Assemble the lattice strips or second crust over the filling. Trim the ends of the strips and press to seal with the bottom crust. Roll the dough under and flute as desired. Brush the top with the egg glaze. Sprinkle with the Demerara sugar. If using a full upper crust, snip 4 to 6 small holes to vent the steam. Decorate with extra pastry pieces if desired.
- Place the pie on the hot baking sheet, on the lowest rack in the preheated 400°F oven. Bake for 20 minutes, then decrease the oven to 350°F, move the pie to the center rack, spinning the baking sheet and continue baking for 40 minutes to 1 hour, or until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbling. It is best if it is bubbling all the way to the center. If the top crust browns before the bottom crust, gently tent the top of the pie with tin foil and continue baking, checking often.
- Remove the pie from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool. Don’t cut until it has rested at least 1 hour, allowing the fruit to reabsorb the juices and the filling to thicken again.
- This pie is best served at room temperature 2 to 3 hours after it is baked. It keeps well, covered, in the refrigerator, for 2 to 3 days.
- Yield: One 9- or 10-inch pie
- 4-1/2 cups sifted, all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp sugar
- 12 oz (3 sticks) cold, unsalted butter, cut into pieces (or 70% butter to 30% leaf lard or all vegetable shortening (8.5 oz to 3.5 oz)
- 1/2 cup water with ice cubes added (strain out ice just before using)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract (for fruit pies) or almond extract (for nut pies)
- 2 tsp red wine vinegar
- To use a Mixer: Mix the flour, salt, and sugar in a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment for 1 minute. Add the butter and mix just until you have a crumbly, sandy mixture. You should still be able to see large sized pieces of butter. You can also use a food processor with the steel blade. It will only take a few pulses.
- Mix the water, extract, and vinegar together. With the mixer running at medium speed, drizzle in the water/vinegar mixture and mix just until a ball forms. You should still see medium bits of butter. (Note: Some days I have to add more water to make the dough come together).
- Divide dough in half, form into flat disks, and wrap with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes. (Dough may be frozen and used later, let thaw in refrigerator overnight before rolling out.) Allow dough to warm up a few minutes before rolling.
- To use a Food Processor: Mix dry ingredients in food processor. Add all of shortening or lard and half of butter. Pulse until fine. Add remaining butter and pulse 3 times. Add water all at once and process only until incorporated. There should still be large pieces of butter scattered throughout the dough. Roll in plastic and rest 30 minutes in the refrigerator. Remove from the refrigerator and let warm up 10 minutes before rolling out on a well-floured board.
- Sprinkle a little flour on top of the dough and rub some flour on your rolling pin. Start rolling outward from the center in quick, light strokes. Don’t worry if the edges split a bit, concentrate on getting a good circle going from the center. Lift up and rotate dough 1/4-turn every minute or so to help ensure even rolling and to avoid sticking. The dough should feel smooth and soft. If it gets sticky, sprinkle on a little more flour, but don’t use too much. If the dough gets warm or limp, put it back in the refrigerator for 15 minutes to firm the butter up. Keep rolling until the circle is at least 2-inches larger than your pan – about 15-inches for a 9-inch pie pan.
- Very gently roll the dough loosely onto your rolling pin and unroll into pie plate, easing it into the corners (don’t stretch it!). Trim the excess dough to 1-inch beyond the edge of the pan. If making a single crust pie, flute edges by folding overhang until it is even with the edge of the pan. Chill crust 20 minutes before filling.
- Yield: Two 9-inch piecrusts or 1 (9-inch) double crust pie
- If you are making a two-crust pie, don’t trim edges of bottom crust; roll out top and ease over filling, pressing top and bottom crusts together at the edges. Trim and flute. With the tips of sharp scissors or a knife, cut 4 to 5 vents in top of crust.