I’m happy to report a successful Third Official Dessert of the Year: on the last day of March we had (trumpets, please!) Sour Cherry Pie, which is a family favorite. Every year in June we know it’s time to call Hick’s Orchard in Granville, New York and find out if the cherries are ready for picking. This tradition began on a Father’s Day weekend many years ago when we were driving around with my husband’s parents, and we stopped in to the orchard on a whim. We picked a flat of the luscious red fruit and when I got home I found a recipe for cherry pie in my ever-reliable, broken-spined Joy of Cooking. We have been utterly obsessed with sour cherries ever since.
They’re a funny thing to be obsessed with, since there’s not all that much you can actually do with sour cherries. You can make a kick-ass pie, and you can make the Best Jam Ever, and… that seems to be it. That really is enough, though. In fact, every year we seem to get greedier, bringing home yet another flat piled high with the sweet-sour smelling orbs that require pitting immediately, because within hours they will begin to age, wrinkle, and develop icky brown-beige spots. Thus, cherry picking is an all-day event: picking is easy, pitting is hard. Well, not hard, but long, boring, and sticky,-juice-running-down-your-forearms-annoying, when you get right down to it.
Of course they make gadgets to make the job easier, which don’t. Over the years we’ve tried them all and reverted every time to the good old thumbnail technique… remember Jack Horner sticking in his thumb and pulling out a plum? It’s kind of like that, and repeat, four thousand times.
In order to minimize mess I cover the dining room table with garbage bags and clean dish rags. Every pitter gets a station at the table and a handy supply of paper towels with which to combat Sticky Elbow Syndrome. Both of our girls usually are enthused for about the first twenty minutes, at which point they wander off and find something less mind-numbing to do. Sometimes my mom is up and we’ll chat while we pit; other times I’ve sat and pitted by myself in a Zen-like, semi-comatose state until I felt encased in juice much the way I imagine a mosquito trapped in sap must feel. (My husband Steve counts himself among the champion cherry pickers of the universe, picking one whole flat for every handful the rest of us generate, and thus rationalizes his hasty escape when I start pulling out the colanders and plastic bags.)
Doesn’t matter. We all know the end result will be worth it. I carefully wash and measure out five cups of fruit per Ziploc bag and off they go to the deep freeze, until the time comes to make a pie or perhaps a nice batch of sour-sweet jam. Right now I’d guess we have about nine pies worth of cherries in our stand-up freezer, or as Steve would say, “Not enough!”
So I knew a cherry pie would be high on the family list of “Desert Island Desserts.”After having chocolate cupcakes in January, followed by chocolate mousse in February, I felt it was high time to demonstrate that dessert can exist perfectly well without chocolate, thank you.
After my pie-making hiatus, I was delighted to haul out my familiar marble rolling pin and board, drain the rich red juice from the thawed fruit, and measure out the (gasp!) sugar. Making the pie felt like greeting a dear friend I haven’t seen in so long, but who hasn’t changed a bit. Mix fruit with sugar, add ice water to Cuisinart, roll out dough, butter the pie pan. If I have time I always prefer to make a fancy lattice-top, because it seems appropriate to the specialness of the dessert. I usually swear under my breath later when I realize I put one of the dough-strips “over” when it was supposed to go “under” or vice versa, even though I’m certainly the only one who will ever notice.
This time, however, everything worked out just right: the lattice was perfect, I remembered to add the butter dots and brush with milk just before baking, and for once I even put on the “crust-protector” ring before the outer crust (which, being slightly higher, tends to brown much faster) was already irredeemably over-done.
Do I sound obsessed yet? Yes, I do love cherry pie. But I have to admit that it wouldn’t be quite the same if we hadn’t picked the fruit as a family one sunny day in June, or if I hadn’t made it so many times before, always endeavoring to make it just a little more pretty- just a little more perfect- just because. There is no doubt that for me it is a labor of love.
So often we who bake express our love for our families in the form of butter and flour and… yes… sugar. We served the pie after dinner that night still just slightly warm and topped with a scoop of silky Wilcox vanilla ice cream. After weeks of No Added Sugar the blast of FRUIT with SUGAR and PASTRY- whoa! It was complete sensory overload. And it was delicious. The sugar went immediately to my head and made my brain feel like it was buzzing for about a half an hour. But above all it was special.
I put down my fork and felt happy, a little high, and utterly satisfied. “Now I am good.” I said to no one in particular, “Now I can go another month.”
(Full disclosure note: with half a pie left, we most certainly did NOT throw it away. I’d sooner put my knitting in the blender. We finished it the next day, cold from the fridge, which is, believe it or not, even better than having it warm.)