July 20, 2006

Sour Cherry Pie

A letter to my Mother

Dearest Mum,

Monterey Market sells sour Montmorency cherries, innocently placed alongside its sweet bing and ranier cousins. And yet these tiny, lunminously fire engine-red cherries are anything but innocent; eaten out of hand, they are mouth-puckeringly, violently sour. I finally succumbed to my fascination with the pert little things, and made a mini sour cherry pie.

In acknowledgement of my situation – i.e. one eager mouth cannot eat an entire pie, even if it wants to – I’ve been making mini pies in a little set of nonstick molds I bought for a couple of dollars at the discount store. I went all out for the cherries, and did a double pie crust. I’m glad I did; it looked so adorably pie-like once I was finished pinching the border into a pretty pattern. Since I’ve never eaten a sour cherry pie, and didn’t know how sweet-tart the end product should be, I actually looked up the sugar:fruit ratio in Chez Panisse Desserts. I usually avoid recipes for pies, since one batch of berries or apples might taste and act totally different from the next, and once you start faithfully following the recipes, you lose touch with your own taste instincts. Americans just love to drown out any natural fruit flavour with sugar. I don’t usually order pies when I’m in a restaurant or bakery, just because I’m so often disappointed by the jammy, sugary filling I find seeping out of crusts that are traditionally (and proudly!) made with half butter, half Crisco. Ugh. But I trust Chez; since their whole dessert philosophy is centered on the ingredients, both the recipes in the cookbook, and the desserts I have tasted at the restaurant, are never too sweet for me. So I bravely placed myself in the capable hands of Lindsay Shere (the first Chez pastry chef and author of the dessert book).

It was of those true, cooking-is-alchemy moments. I kept a careful eye on the pie (mini pies sometimes burn quicker than normal-sized ones), and took it out when it was just right. That’s the nice thing with double pie crusts: it’s like they have their own built-in doneness test. When the crust is golden brown and the filling starts bubbling out of the ventilation slits you slash into the top crust, you know it’s ready. Since the fruit juices inside have reached boiling point, it is wise to let it rest for a little before diving in!

Here is the most important thing I have learnt about fruit pies: you just cannot eat them by themselves. They are simply too intense, too perfumed, too rich, too sweet-tart. Either whipped cream, or in this case, vanilla ice cream, is totally necessary to bring relief to its intensity, creating a dance of cool-creamy warm-fruity, cool-creamy warm-fruity. So to get the most out of a pie - to taste each bite anew, like it’s the first, only again and again - you need the welcome intervention of dairy.

When I took my first bite of the sour cherry pie, I thought someone had played a trick on me. I expected something sweet-tart, but this was like an entirely different fruit! The first notes of its flavour were responsible for my fierce reaction: it reminded my vaguely of artificial cherry. There was the strangest, almost almond flavour to it; a low, nutty background hum to the tart cherry flavour. Then I finally understood: it was the cherry stone I was tasting. Now, and remembering the admonition that those who chip a tooth on a cherry stone while eating a cherry pie have only themselves to blame, I very carefully pitted each and every cherry before putting it in the pie. But here’s the strange thing: the cherry remembers. After months of slowly, achingly growing to maturity, clinging to the reassuring, hard stone, removing that stone cannot undo its relationship with its fruit: the cherry flesh remembers its heart. It’s a private mourning, its swan song for its stone. If you taste a pitted cherry raw, you will be overwhelmed by the juice, the flavour, the punch. But that stone perfume remains tucked away, too subtle for crude human taste buds, until it is unlocked by the relaxing, inexorable trial by heat. An ironic paradox: a light dose of arsenic lets you taste the life of the fruit.

So my sour cherry pie was more than merely sour. It was rich and redolent, gushing with warm juices – cherry blood; cut by the sharp almond flavour of the stone – cherry bone; every mouthful melting but each berry still holding its individual shape – cherry flesh. Everything cherry is, demurely tucked twixt two flaky, buttery crusts.

If I can find decent sour cherries in Cape Town (maybe they use them for pickling?) I will attempt to recreate this for you then.

All my love,

Baking Notes To fill a regular-sized pie, you need two pounds (900g) sour cherries, 2/3 cup sugar, and 2 TBS flour, mixed. For a mini pie, that's 1/2 pound cherries, 2 TBS + 2 tsp sugar, and 1/2 TBS flour. Preheat to 400F/200C, and lower temperature to 350F/180C, fifteen minutes into baking.

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