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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Today In The Oven ...

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.

Cherry pie is a favorite type of dessert worldwide, and in America it is a staunch rival of the iconic apple pie. In fact, in the U.S., cherry pies are common players in pie eating contests and baking competitions, summer-month picnics, and restaurant dessert displays. Many bakers pay special attention to developing patterns and decorative treatments for the top crusts of cherry pies, building lattices or intricate braids or even unique cut-out shapes. Cherry pie is also one of the top items served à la mode (with a scoop of ice cream or dollop of some other dairy treat).

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).

Regardless of sugar content, most cherries have a short cultivating season … some as little as 30 days … roughly falling between early June and mid August. Medical researchers have also discovered that cherries are rich in vitamins (especially C), iron, potassium, and antioxidants. Sour cherries have higher levels of these health agents than sweet varieties. Sour cherries have also been found to exhibit anti-inflammatory properties ten times stronger than aspirin; some cherry extracts are popular herbal treatments for gout and arthritis.

I know many people make pies with fresh cherries and I do when it is summer. But like tomatoes, “fresh” cherries out of season are dreadful. Canned varieties work just fine. First you create two 9-inch crusts for a two-crust pie. In fact, if I’m thinking of doing something fancy, sometimes I make the recipe 50 percent larger so I have extra pastry dough to “play with.” But for a normal pie, sift the flower, salt, and nutmeg together in a good-sized mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, beat the oil, milk, and vanilla together lightly with a fork. Add this mixture to the sifted components and blend well. Divide the flaky dough in half. Place each half between sheets of wax paper and roll them out carefully into pie crusts. Let the crusts sit.

To create the filling, stir together the sugar, corn starch, cinnamon, and cloves in a large mixing bowl. Add the cherries and toss in the dry mixture until the cherries are coated. The required cherries for this recipe come in an odd amount (5 ½ cups). One 16 oz. can of cherries equates to about 1 ½ cups, so four cans will be just a bit too much … you need to “guesstimate” about 3 2/3 cans. If you want to use fresh cherries, 1 pound provides about 2 1/3 cups. And if you choose frozen cherries, 10 oz. of frozen cherries equals 1 cup. If you do use fresh cherries, let the bowl stand for 15 minutes (stirring occasionally) before you proceed. If you select frozen cherries, let the mixture stand until the fruit is partially thawed … about 45 minutes … before proceeding.

At this point go ahead and preheat your oven to 375 degrees F. Slowly loosen the wax paper from one crust and use it to line a 9-inch pie pan (glass preferred). Trim the crust with maybe 1/2 inch overhang. Once finished, slowly fold the sour cream into the cherry filling mixture. If it appears thin, sprinkle in some additional corn starch and stir easily. Once satisfied with the consistency, transfer the completed filling into the pastry-lined pie pan.

Now you have to decide how you are going to treat the top crust. The “easy way” is to simply place the second crust over the top of the pie and then crimp the edges together to form a seal. And cut small slits in the top crust to vent heat during baking. DON’T FORGET THE SLITS.

Another option is to use a small knife or even small cookie cutters to cut patterns into the top crust. I actually have an old ChapStick lid I saved to create a “polka dot” motif. Classic cooks often cut the top crust into strips and actually weave a lattice, carefully crimping the edges into the bottom crust. It takes some patience, but this treatment produces a gorgeous pie. Once completed, carefully brush your top crust with milk using a pastry brush and then sprinkle the whole thing with a little sugar.

Now that you are ready, place the pie on a baking sheet. To prevent overbrowning, cover the edges of the pie crust with strips of aluminum foil. Place the pie and baking sheet in the oven and bake for 30 minutes (or 50 minutes if you used frozen cherries). Open the oven door and carefully remove the foil. Bake your pie for between 25 and 30 minutes more until the crust is golden brown and you can see the filling bubbling. Remove your “labor of love" (or “project of penance”) and let the pie cool on a wire rack.

POINT OF RANT: After going to the trouble, you may just want to scarf the first one down yourself … so make two!!

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