Have you ever heard the phrase “kill them with kindness?” Well, that works … but I have always had better luck with my own saying, “persuade them with pie,” as long as I make good on my word. I’ve tried making apple (it’s pretty good), pecan-caramel (wicked yummy!), coconut cream (tasty), strawberry-rhubarb (great for summer gatherings), and lemon meringue (sooooo refreshing), but nothing works as well as an edible “olive branch” than a cherry pie.
In my relatively short lifespan, I have given cherry pies as gifts, taken a fresh cherry pie to a friend in crisis, wowed the workers at an office potluck, and even provided one of my signature pies (as well as a pint of ice cream) to someone I had wronged.
Both pies and cherries have unique places in world and U.S. history. A pie (derived from the medieval words “coffyn” and “pye”) is a baked dish consisting of a pastry dough casing or crust that partially or completely encloses some type of filling. Most pies fall into one of three categories: savory (like “pot pies” and Shepherd’s pie and quiche), sweet (a single type or combination of fruit and berries), and cream (usually a whipped confectionary mixture that many cooks and bakers do not even recognize as a true pie). Pies range in size and shape, but most are further labeled as “filled” pies (a baking dish covered with pastry which is then covered with filling), “top-crust” pies (filling is placed in a baking dish and simply covered with pastry dough or even a potato mash type layer before baking), or “two-crust” pies (filling is completely enclosed in layers of pastry).
Historians believe that pies were initially found in Egyptian culture as early as 9500 B.C. These early pies were called “galettes” and were simply lumps of honey wrapped in a covering of ground oats, wheat, rye, or barley. Over time, pie “recipes” took on the needs and flavors of conquering cultures. Ancient Greeks developed a more true pastry dough and used it to create “meat pies” that were ideal for lightweight, easy-to-store foods that could travel both on ships and with foot soldiers. As the Romans took charge and their influence moved into northern Europe and southern Spain, pies began to make better use of salt and spices. The first Roman “cookbook” produced in the 1st century actually contained several pie recipes. And in Asian cultures, even items such as “spring rolls” and “pot stickers” are simply regional variations of the pie concept.
During the middle ages, pies were incredibly popular because they could be cooked over an open fire and could make use of local game. The Pilgrim communities and early settlers of the yet-to-be-formed U.S. brought pie recipes with them to the New World and soon pies included native fruits, berries, and nuts.
Of course, you can’t have a cherry pie without some cherries. Cherries … the popular stone fruit loved by millions … are a member of the Rosaceae family, making them cousins to apricots, peaches, plums, and even almonds. With more than 1,000 known varieties in the world, cherries are believed to have originated in China around 4000 B.C. Cherries have been enjoyed for centuries throughout Europe and Asia, and cherry seeds came to the Americas with the first settlers … due in part to the fact that a cherry orchard can be planted and brought to full production in between 4 to 6 years. Today, cherries are grown commercially in about 20 countries. In the U.S., cherries are primarily grown in Michigan, northern Wisconsin, Washington and the Pacific Northwest, and California.
Cherries generally fall into one of two categories. Sweet cherries … Prunus avium … are the most common type found in the U.S. and grow primarily in the northwest climates. These fruits are the larger of the cherry types, with firm and sweet meat. Sweet cherries are most usually eaten “raw” as a simply snack.
There are several popular types of sweet cherries such as the well-known Bing (extra-large fruit with dark red-to-almost black skin), Rainier (sometimes called “white cherries” because of their light yellowish flesh, golden reddish color, and delicate flavor), Lambert (heart-shaped fruit with a deep ruby color and semi-sweet flavor), Skeena (a dark red, very firm variety with a particularly strong flavor), Van (smaller than the Bing variety with a black skin and extremely sweet juice), Lapin (a large, meaty cherry that keeps extremely well and is popular worldwide for jams and jellies), Royal Ann (a golden pink variety that is used to make “maraschino” cherries), Santina (a very sweet, oval-shaped black cherry popular in British Columbia), and Sweetheart (a late seasonal cherry that is firm to the point of almost being crunchy).
Sour cherries … Prunus cerasus or “pie cherries” … are smaller in size and less sweet (or actually tart) than their sweet relatives. Because it is easier to control the sweetness levels while cooking and baking, sour cherries are highly preferred for the production of pies, desserts, sauces, candies, etc.
In the 1600s, much of the British country side boasted large cherry orchards. Cuttings from one orchard near Kent, England, were one of the first plantings completed by American colonists in Massachusetts. Today, most varieties of sour cherries grow in the Midwest and eastern United States; nearly 75 percent of the varieties grown domestically come from Michigan. Sour cherry trees are smaller than sweet varieties, require more water and a more nitrogen-rich soil, and are more resistant to blights and pests.
Varieties of sour cherries include two broad groups: Montmorency (also called “Amarelle” with light red skin, yellowish fruit, and clear juice that is the most popular variety for pies) and Morello (dark red cherries with red juice that freeze well and retain flavor).