With six kids it was always busy, even hectic, for my mom.
Between the shopping and the chauffeuring, wrangling two St. Bernards – not to mention the sheer workload of keeping us fed and clothed – the occasional dessert was mostly made by one of us kids: usually something like a box of brownie mix.
Cherry pie? Ninety-nine percent of the time, it was as far away as the moon.
Except in February, when George Washington's birthday came around. Once upon a time, it was a holiday all by itself, when the "cannot tell a lie" myth was recounted in school, and Founding Father phrases surfaced in our history lessons.
Just the right amount of sugar, a touch of cinnamon, almond extract, a drop or two of red food coloring (to put back the color the water in the can had stolen), and some Minute Tapioca.
Ahhh, what bliss. We were transported.
One of the first recipes I agitated to add to our website many moons ago was that cherry pie: our Presidential Cherry Pie, in fact. You can click on the link to get to the recipe; it's pretty simple. Meanwhile, come with me and we'll put a couple of cherry pies together.
Once your dough is made and resting comfortably in the fridge, it's time to mix up the filling.
Today, when the yen to recreate that perfect pie moment occurs, there are more and better cherry options to choose from.
My first choice, when I can find them, are IQF sour cherries. Our local coop sometimes has them in the freezer case.
Prepared cherry pie filling is probably the last place I'd go, but I will confess to being particular about letting anyone else do my seasoning for me.
On the right are the canned sour cherries my mom relied on. Believe me, if the choice is those or no pie, I will choose the cans every time.
Pie hint #1: Grease your pie pan
Before putting in the bottom crust, grease your pan.
Why doesn't anybody ever tell you this? How many times have you mangled the business of taking out your first slice of pie? Granted, that sacrificial slice is a bonus for the cook in the kitchen, but it can make for some pretty awkward moments if you're trying to serve at the table. Unless you're prebaking a pie shell, this is a default setting.
Now for the filling. You have a choice here: our recipe calls for either Pie Filling Enhancer or quick-cooking tapioca for thickener. I made one pie with each, so you can get a sense of their different results. If you'd rather use a different thickener, check out our Pie Thickeners Guide for amounts.
This lined pie plate has the filling that combines 6 cups of sour IQF cherries, 3/4 cup sugar, 1/2 cup Pie Filling Enhancer, 1 teaspoon almond extract, 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/2 teaspoon salt.
Pie hint #2: Top-crust creativity
Sure, you could roll out that top circle, drape it over the filling, cut a few slits in it, crimp the edges, and you'd be a pie-making hero, no question. But I don't want you to miss the opportunity to really have some fun.
A longstanding chef's tenet is that the top of a dish should give you a clue as to what's inside, so I went in search of a cherry pie-top cutter.
Next I cut a bunch of leaves from the rest of the dough, and started putting it all together on top of the filling. I brushed everything with some egg substitute (Egg Beaters or the store equivalent: my favorite egg wash), and now it's ready for the oven.
The left photo is how it looked when I mixed the ingredients with the sour IQF cherries. On the right, the filling is in the lined pie pan. It looks different because I microwaved the frozen cherries to thaw them out and let them release some of their juice.
Food science note: tapioca needs to spend some time in liquid (15 to 20 minutes is about right; let the filling rest in a bowl, not the lined pie pan) before cooking, so its starches can take up water and swell. The wonky term for this is pregelatinizing the starch.
Pie hint #3: Give your pie the edge
With the second pie I reached for the cherry cutter and a pie shield. Pie shields are the perfect-sized cutters for top crusts.
After cutting out the top crust, I cut cherry silhouettes and saved the cutouts. Then I used a small, square fluted cutter to harvest a lot of little handkerchief squares, and overlapped them on the outside edge of the pie.
I used a small paintbrush to egg wash the squares and the cutouts, to help them stand out from the unglazed crust.
How did everything turn out?
Pretty well! Let's cut into them both, and see how the thickeners did their job.
On the left, Pie Filling Enhancer. (You'd get the same result from a mixture of Instant ClearJel and sugar, by the way; check out the baker's hint at the bottom of the recipe.) On the right, instant tapioca. The texture is a little less smooth, but they're both cutting nicely. Feel free to zoom in on those crust cross sections and check out the flake!
Yes, those frozen sour cherries are practically glowing. And no, I didn't put a single drop of food coloring in the fillings.
Recapturing a food memory can be a tricky thing. I'm grateful for the extra effort my mom made, so I was able to experience how amazing a freshly made cherry pie can be.
The best part is the way that memory informs what I can bake now. I encourage you all to use your favorite pie memory as inspiration, not intimidation. Let it be your starting point for new adventures. We'll help you, if you're nervous. Just give us a call, or chat with us online. Let the baking begin!
Please bake and review Mr. Washington's Cherry Pie.
Mr. Washington would be proud of you.