Cherry pie from scratch
I’m the kind of cook who sees no contradition between a love of the home-made and a love of expedient shortcuts. I’d rather spend an hour making an excellent risotto with boxed stock from the supermarket than spend an entire weekend simmering, straining and clarifying soup bones and trimmings for a measely quart of home-made.
Or pie: While I’m perfectly capable of making a tender, flaky crust from scratch – hell, I learned it at my mother’s knee – I also think frozen supermarket pie crusts are one of the small miracles of modern life; they let me throw together a tasty pie or quiche on a whim, or on a busy evening, without dragging out the flour and fat and rolling pins.
So I’m here to tell you: If you want to make this pie with a refrigerator-case crust-inna-box, you go right ahead. The food police won’t show up on your door, and whoever you’re feeding likely won’t know the difference if you don’t tell them.
ON THE OTHER HAND … this from-scratch crust, which I’ve made several times without failure, is good. Really, really good. Good enough to be more than just a container for the tart, juicy local pie cherries I got this week; I crisped up the trimmings with a light sprinkle of sugar and can’t stop nibbling them.
What makes it good – what makes any pie crust good – is the combination of a light hand and nice, cold fat – in this case, pure lard and high-quality unsalted butter. Trust me, pie crust is not the place to cut corners on fat. Yeah, you can make a pie crust with Crisco or vegetable oil (or even olive oil). But it will never be as shatteringly crisp and flaky and flavorful as one made from honest-to-god animal fat. And while I’ve tried a crust that purported to be fat-free, it was also free of flavor and texture; it might as well have been cardboard. If you absolutely cannot have fat, then skip the crust, bake the filling in a naked pie pan and call it a baked fruit compote.
I happen to have a quantity of first-rate leaf lard (the delicate white fat from around a hog’s kidneys) in the freezer, frozen in half-cup portions. I will admit to having gone all pioneer woman this spring: I bought five pounds of fat from Heritage Farms Northwest, cut it into chunks and simmered it all one afternoon in my stock pot to render out the pure lard, just to see if I could. You don’t have to go that far; rendered, packaged lard is available in most supermarkets in the cooler where they keep the butter. Try it, either alone or in combination with butter. You won’t believe how much better your pie crusts taste.
Why is that? Well, for one thing, lard is all fat, unlike butter, which has a fairly high water content; an all-butter crust will taste great, but it will probably be tough, too, unless you go for a pate brisee-style short crust where the fat is more evenly blended into the flour.
As the sainted Harold McGee explains it:
“The methods for making American-style pie dough produce a crust that is both tender and flaky. They disperse some of the fat evenly into the dough, separating small particles from each other, and some coarsely, separating different layers of the dough from each other … the dough is rested in the refrigerator to rechill the fat and let the water become more evenly distributed, and then is rolled out. The rolling stretches the dough and thus develops some gluten, and flattens the fat chunks into thin sheets. The combination creates the layered texture … In the oven, the sheets of fat, trapped air and steam from the dough water … all help to separate the dough into layers and give it a flaky texture.”
– Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking
The way my mom (and her mom, and generations of moms before them) achieved this was to use her fingertips to rub about half of the fat into the flour, and then two dinner knives to cut the rest into the mixture in pea-sized chunks. But mom was baking in a world without food processors. I use mine to achieve the same ends – and better, really, because the fat doesn’t get melted by the heat of my hands – by pulsing in half the butter and lard until the mixture resembles fine corn meal, then adding the rest and pulsing just a few times to chop the fat into pea-sized chunks.
Here’s the pie I’m feeding my friends this afternoon. I rose early yesterday to make the crust before the house got hot, then spent a pleasant half-hour on the shady front porch pitting cherries with my cheap little mechanical pitter; everything went into the fridge, and then I baked the pie early this morning. The crust is based on a recipe I found on Epicurious.com for the “Best-Ever Pie Crust” and they aren’t exaggerating. The filling is one I’ve improvised over the years to the point where I don’t need a recipe to make it, but I took the time to note amounts, etc. this time around so you can recreate it – or add your own personal touch.
Cherry Pie to Die For
For two crusts
- 2 1/2 cups pastry flour*
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 tsp sugar (optional)
- 1/2 cup chilled, unsalted butter, cut in cubes
- 1/2 cup chilled lard, cut in cubes
- 5 Tbsp ice water (or more, as needed)
In a food processor, combine the flour, salt and sugar and pulse to blend. Begin feeding cubes of butter and lard into the processor, pulsing on-and-off until about half the fat is incorporated and the mixture is beginning to look like coarse cornmeal. Add the rest of the fat and pulse just a few times to cut it into pea-sized chunks. Don’t worry if it’s not perfectly distributed.
Dump the mixture into a bowl and, using a fork, begin to toss in the ice water a tablespoon at a time until the dough begins to clump together. Depending on the flour, the air temperature and the weather, it may take more than five tablespoons; if so, add more a teaspoon at a time; you want a dough you can form into a neat ball, but it shouldn’t be wet.
Divide dough in half, form into balls and flatten each half into a disk on a piece of plastic wrap. Wrap and refrigerate at least an hour (or up to three days in advance). If necessary, let rest at room temperature for a few minutes to soften before you roll it out.
Sprinkle a large cutting board or pastry cloth with a small amount of flour and roll each disk to about 1/8″ thickness.
Here’s a tip from Harold McGee: Let the dough rest for 20-15after rolling it out to allow the gluten sheets formed by rolling to relax; that makes it easier to shape the crust without stretching it, which in turn prevents the crust from shrinking when it bakes.
Transfer crust to a pyrex pie plate (the easy way is to roll the circle of dough up onto your rolling pin and then gently unroll it into the plate). Press gently into plate, trim and crimp the edges as you please (unless you’re making a two-crust pie, in which case see below). If your recipe calls for a prebaked crust (this one doesn’t), prick it all over with a fork before baking. and weight it down to prevent bubbles (a handful of dried beans on a piece of tinfoil is as good as expensive pie weights).
Use the second disc of dough to make a lid for your pie, or a second pie, or freeze it for later.
* Pastry flour has a lower protein content than all-purpose or bread flour, but more than cake flour; that helps produce the tender, flaky result you want in a pie crust (or biscuit), as opposed to the chewiness you get in good bread. I used whole wheat pastry flour, grown and ground by Stalford Seed Farms in Shedd. This flour is ground fairly coursely, and the resulting dough was a bit crumbly, so I had to do some piecing to get it in the pan. And the strips for the lattice topping kept breaking – so rather than fuss with them and risk turning the dough tough, I just arranged them randomly on top of the filling. What the heck: It’s all about “more tasty crust,” and I’m not entering it in the county fair or anything.
Sour Cherry Filling
- 1 cup plus 1 Tbsp sugar
- 3-6 Tbsp cornstarch (depending on how juicy your cherries are
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 5-6 cups of fresh cherries, stemmed and pitted. You want enough to mound a bit in the pie crust, whether or not you’re going to put a top crust on. I like sour pie cherries, but feel free to use your favorite variety; just adjust the sugar and lemon juice to the level of sweetness/tartness you enjoy
- 1 tsp fresh lemon juice (for tart cherries) to 3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice (for sweet cherries)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract OR almond extract, or 1/2 tsp of each
- 2 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into cubes
- 1 Tbsp milk, for glaze
Whisk together 1 cup sugar, cornstarch and salt in a large bowl to blend. Stir in cherries, lemon juice and vanilla/almond extract; set aside.
Preheat oven to 425F.
If you haven’t yet done so, roll out one portion of pie crust and transfer to a pyrex pie pan (you can use the cheap metal ones, but they aren’t as deep and, I think, produce an inferior crust.)
Spoon the cherry mixture into the crust, mounding slightly in the center. Dot with butter. Now you can either
- Roll out the second disk of dough, cut in strips and make a traditional lattice top crust (here’s a nice little photographic how-to).
- Do a standard top crust (don’t forget to cut some vents so the steam can escape)
- Get creative – use a knife or cookie cutters to cut shapes from the second sheet of pie crust and lay them on top
- Leave it open-faced and freeze the other piece of dough for later.
If you do top the pie, finger-crimp the edges together for a tight seal. Brush the top (but not the edges) with a little milk and sprinkle with sugar if you like. To keep the edges from overcooking, I fold a long piece of foil into a narrow collar and wrap it loosely around the rim of the pie; remove it 10 minutes or so before the pie is done.
Place the pie on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375F and bake until filling is bubbling and crust is golden brown, about 1 hour longer. Transfer to a rack (or an unused stove burner) and cool completely. Serve with vanilla (or lemon!) ice cream.
Tart-sweet, with a crisp, tender-flaky crust and the smooth sweetness of ice cream: It tastes like summer to me.