Friday, June 30, 2006

Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?

In case you haven’t flipped the page on your calendar yet, I’d like to remind you that the 4th of July – and all its accompanying patriotic frivolity – is fast approaching. This Tuesday, many Americans will spend the day getting pink-skinned at the beach or pool, and later, will join family and friends for incendiaries, inebriates and Independence Day feasting. Sometimes the feast will involve a potluck, and sometimes that means you will have to offer up dessert. What in the world will you bring?

Gee, I have an idea.

And what could be more American? While some may consider apple to be the quintessential American pie, there’s one reason I can’t recommend that you put an apple pie in your 4th of July picnic basket: Apples are not in season.

Luckily for you, cherries are.


Now before you rush to the store and pick up a quart-basket of those tasty, burgundy-skinned or creamy pink-mottled variety, heed this warning: Don’t bother making this pie unless you have tart, ruby-red pie cherries.


While those other varieties are just fine for piling in a bowl and grabbing handfuls to munch on and spit their seeds across the patio, only their flashy first cousins will do for this pie.

Here in Lancaster County we have a terrific orchard, Cherry Hill Farms, where you can buy all varieties of cherries – or even pick your own. (Normally, you’d find the Queen perched on a ladder and plucking rosy orbs herself, but you might have heard that we’ve been having a bit of rain around here. . .)

When you do find a source for pie cherries, I advise you to buy a lot of them. Use some for this pie and then freeze the rest. You’ll need to pit them, of course, but I promise you that’s not as grim a prospect as you might imagine. Position yourself on the sofa with three bowls: one containing the pre-pitted cherries and one each for the pits and the resulting pitted cherries. Pour yourself a beer and turn on a baseball game – preferably one involving the Reds, Cardinals, Dodgers, Yankees, or Red Sox (okay, I admit it – I’m polyamorous when it comes to The Boys of Summer)-- or a good movie (In America, or Kinsey if your children aren’t hovering nearby).

And then you pit. And pit. And pit. Use whatever implement you have – the tip of a spoon, a clean hairpin, or an actual cherry-pitter – and be prepared for your fingertips to get stained and sticky pink juice to spill into your lap. You won’t care because you’ll be cheering the Reds crush the Cubs. By the fourth inning, you’ll have gone through several pounds of cherries and will be ready for another beer.


Reserve about a pound and a half of the pitted cherries for the pie and package up the rest into Ziploc bags for freezing. Come January you can make another pie and send me a thank you note.


Cherry Pie
Adapted from The Pie and Pastry Bible

Not only is this a perfectly luscious pie specimen --the tartness of the cherries melding with the sugared cherry juice and buttery crust -- but it’s an absolute beauty. The cherries don’t lose much of their stunning color during baking – although they get a tiny bit shriveled – and they peep up through the lattice of the crust in a most tantalizing way.

For crust:

2 ½ c. flour
1 t. salt
1 t. sugar
1 c. (2 sticks) cold butter, cut into small pieces
½ c. ice water

For filling:

1 c. sugar
3 T. cornstarch
½ t. salt
4 c. pie cherries (about 1 ½ pounds), pitted, with juices reserved
¼ t. almond extract

milk for glazing crust

To make crust, combine flour, salt, and sugar in food processor. Add butter and process by pulsing until mixture resembles meal. Slowly add water and process until mixture holds together. Press dough into 2 balls and then flatten slightly. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill at least 1 hour.

For filling, stir together sugar, cornstarch, and salt in large bowl. Add cherries and their juices, along with almond extract. Let mixture sit at least 15 minutes – or up to 3 hours.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 425.

Remove pie dough from refrigerator about 15 minutes before rolling out. Roll out first piece and place in pie plate, trimming edges of dough to extend about ¾ inch past rim of plate.

Stir cherry filling well and pile into pie plate.

To make a woven lattice, roll out second piece and cut into 8 long strips, about ¾ - 1 inch wide. Lay four of the strips evenly over the cherries, parallel to one another. Fold back onto itself every other strip (2 strips will be folded back). Then, starting at center, lay new strip at right angle over the 2 strips that aren’t folded back. Unfold the first strips and fold back the other 2. Lay another new strip down. Repeat on other side, starting again from center.


When all the strips have been put down, trim them to edge of pan and then, fold over dough from pie plate and crimp edges.

Carefully brush milk over tops of lattice strips. Set pie on lowest oven rack and bake 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 and bake 30 minutes more. (If pie crust is browning too quickly, you may need to cover edges with foil.)

Cool pie several hours.

Serve generous slices topped with vanilla ice cream to good friends who are deserving.


Friday, June 23, 2006

Make New Friends...


Once upon a time (or, Back in the day, as my students tend to say), I spent hours in the kitchen cooking. I poached, I pureed, I preserved, I pickled. When not actively engaged in cookery, I pored over my collection of recipes or leafed through one of the many culinary magazines to which I subscribed. Sometimes I loitered at the Williams-Sonoma store, lusting after 20-quart stockpots and Le Creuset sauciers as a dipsomaniac might ogle a magnum of Cristal. While all this seemed perfectly normal to my husband and me, most of our friends and family considered my behavior slightly odd. I was often described in hushed tones as A Gourmet.

I had plenty of time to devote to this obsession because back in the day I was not figuring out how to transport two children to orthodontist appointments, cello lessons, hip-hop classes and swim meets while simultaneously grading 38 freshman essays, trying to complete a novel, and attempting to keep ipods out of the spin cycle of the washer.

These days my life is complex and my meals are simple. While I haven’t yet resorted to instant mashed potatoes and canned tamales, I’d be willing to wager that my friends long ago rescinded my gourmet status.

I do, however, still make pie.

This week’s featured recipe is a byproduct of my Gourmet Period.

The scene: a picnic on the lawn of the Long Beach Museum of Art, a twilight jazz concert underway, the grassy knolls jam-packed with blankets and revelers. Our picnic basket is likely filled with a Silver Palate tarragon chicken salad that I’d made earlier, along with a loaf of homemade bread, and heirloom tomatoes and goat cheese bathed in a balsamic vinaigrette. Nothing you couldn’t have whipped up, say, in a mere 4 hours or so.

Throughout the night, as I gradually unpack the basket, I observe a trio of picnickers adjacent to us staring wistfully at our meal. (I can’t remember exactly what was in their basket, but I suspect it involved The Colonel.) Finally, as I extract dessert -- a blueberry-buttermilk tart -- I glimpse threads of drool hanging from the corners of their mouths.

I am suddenly aghast. One big tart just for the two of us! How greedy. How shameful. How. . .American. Impulsively, I lean over our crumb-strewn blanket and ask the trio if they would like to try the tart.

They would.

And that’s how Robert and Raquel and Jonathan became our good friends and the tart re-christened, “Blueberry Friendship Pie.”

Maybe it will work its magic on you, too. While I can’t say that I’ve made a new friend each time I’ve served it, I haven’t gotten into any fist fights, either.

Blueberry Friendship Pie
Adapted from Gourmet

Although this may appear complicated due to the number of steps involved, the recipe is actually quite simple. To save time, you can make the tart dough and let it rest overnight. Or, you can pre-bake the tart shell several hours ahead. Most importantly, although the presentation of the tart seems more…umm…refined…than that of a pie, it’s easier to make if you take advantage of food processor and blender. And there’s a special bonus for all you crust-a-phobes: Ignore the rolling pin for this recipe, and simply press the dough into the tart pan with the heel of your hand.

For tart shell:

1 1/3 c. flour
¼ c. sugar
½ t. salt
1 stick (1/2 c.) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
1 egg yolk beaten with 2 T. ice water

For buttermilk filling:

1 c. buttermilk
3 egg yolks
½ c. sugar
1 T. grated lemon zest
1 T. lemon juice
½ stick (1/4 c.) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1t. vanilla
½ t. salt
2 T. flour

2 ½ c. blueberries

powdered sugar for garnish

Make shell: In food processor, mix together flour, sugar, and salt. Add butter, while pulsing, until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Continue pulsing and add yolk and water mixture. Form dough into disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill at least one hour.

Place dough inside 10-inch tart pan with a removable fluted rim. Using the heel of your hand, work dough across the bottom of pan and then, using fingertips, press dough all the way up sides of rim.


Holding a knife horizontally, slice off excess dough from top of rim.


Chill shell at least 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350. Line shell with foil and fill with pie weights, rice, beans, (or in a real pinch, popcorn kernels.)


Bake shell on middle shelf of oven for 25 minutes. Remove foil and weights and bake 5 minutes more. Cool shell.

Make buttermilk filling: In blender or food processor, blend together filling ingredients until smooth. Spread blueberries over bottom of tart shell. Pour filling over blueberries and bake in middle of oven 30 to 35 minutes, or until filling is just set. Carefully remove rim of pan and let tart cool completely on rack.

Sift powdered sugar over tart and serve at room temperature.


Friday, June 16, 2006

Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch


When traveling in the French-speaking province of Quebec, Canada, I suggest you keep three words at the ready. They do not – as you might imagine – form the question, parlez-vous anglais? Rather, the three most important words you’ll utter during your travels to la belle Canada are these: Tarte au sucre.

That’s right, sugar pie.

To explain: The Queen and her entourage are currently on vacation. And while most people tend to relax when they engage in leisure travel, the Queen of Tarts is still hard at work. She knows how disappointed her throngs of readers would be if a Friday passed sans pie, so she’s reporting this week from the road. (la rue) Hopefully, this pie-palooza will keep all three of you engaged until next week.

But back to the tarte au sucre. A traditional Quebecoise dessert, it’s still possible (though a bit difficult) to find the pie on the menu at select Montreal restaurants. The best tarte au sucre I’ve tasted was at La Paryse, a cozy burger-fries-shake shop in the city’s quartier latin. Recommended by new friends Anthony and Michelle at the Montreal-centric food blog an endless banquet, here it is: a lovely, gooey (in the best possible sense of the word) butterscotch-y creation.


In Old Quebec City, the Tatum Café serves a fine version. The gorgeous plate presentation holds a hefty slice, and is best accompanied by a cup of strong coffee.


They also do a tasty caramel pie (which, come to think of it, is just another form of sugar pie).


Lest you worry that the Queen has done nothing but consume pies during her sojourn, let me assure you that there have been many other merry moments, including a visit to the Contemporary Art Museum to see an exhibition of Brian Jungen. Jungen, a Vancounver-based artist, creates tribal masks from Nike Air Jordans and re-creates whale skeletons from plastic lawn chairs. Need I say more?

And then there was the pilgrimage to the incredible Jean Talon market, where we gawked at the bounty at the fruit and vegetable vendors and gorged ourselves on crepes, blue-cheese stuffed olives, and. . .pies. (Lemon and maple flavored tartlets, to be precise, from Les Sucreries de l’Erable)



Bike-riding through the Parc Jean-Drapeau and hiking up to and around Mont-Royal allowed us a guilt-free trip to the superb Premiere Moisson bakery, where, having temporarily misplaced our James Bond secret camera, we had to obtain permission from the manager to photograph the pie counter.


A la prochaine. . . Bon appetit!

Friday, June 9, 2006

A Brief Pie-ography (and a promise to avoid pie puns in the future)

My grandmother, a good Ohio country cook, always had pie on the table waiting when I came to visit her. My favorite involved any form of berry, and sometimes we’d go to Boone Lake and pick the blackberries ourselves, lacing rubber bands around our well-wrapped wrists and ankles to stop the chiggers’ offensives. I wish I’d paid more attention to Gran’s pie-making technique, but by the time I was old enough to appreciate such things, I was a teenager and far more interested in imagining My Exciting Future.

Years later, after all that excitement, I got married. Lots of good things accompanied my journey into matrimony, but for the purposes of this blog, I’ll stick to one: I started making pies. My first attempt took place on an unusually muggy Thanksgiving morning in southern California. Eleven people were coming to our house for the big dinner later that day and for some reason (probably because no one else offered) I was the designated baker.

Things did not go well. The kitchen was hot and the pie dough sticky and resistant. Although I finally managed to roll it into something that resembled a circle, each time I tried to transfer it to the plate, it fell apart in crumbly pieces.

There was nothing to do but cry.

Fortunately, my husband had been handily engaged in a project of his own: mixing up a batch of festive cranberry cocktails. And being the good and wise partner that he is. . . Two cocktails later, I tried again, patching and pressing the dough into a crazy-quilt that suddenly seemed more than acceptable. Besides, my mate assured me, no one would ever notice.

He was right, of course. It was Thanksgiving and everyone simply seemed thankful that I’d persevered. (And thankful for the cranberry cocktails, too.)

These days, I bake lots of pies -- and I hardly ever cry. At least not about the pies.


This week’s recipe is part of my Past.

Reader, last weekend I attended my college reunion in St. Paul. Surprisingly enough -- and contrary to all my dour expectations -- it was fun. Although there was far more beer consumed than pie during the idyllic four years I spent at Macalester College, one pie memory lingers, involving late-night jaunts to the restaurant called Poppin’ Fresh Pies. Over slices of the trashy-sounding “French Silk,” we’d moan about the horrors of our college existence: the lecherous economics professor, the Twin Cities’ persistent subzero temperatures, the roommate who’d erased our favorite party tape.

We also moaned about the mysterious lusciousness of the pie before us. Now that I’ve deconstructed it, I see that the saucy French Silk pie is nothing more than a heap of rich chocolate mousse tucked into a sweetened cracker crust.

Truly, with age comes wisdom. . .


French Silk Pie
Adapted from W.A. Frost & Company and

For the crust:

1/3 c. butter, softened
2 ½ oz. unsweetened chocolate, melted
1 ½ c. Ritz or Townhouse crackers, crushed
1 c. powdered sugar

For the filling:

¾ c. butter, softened
1 c. sugar
3 oz. unsweetened chocolate, melted
1 ½ t. vanilla
½ t. salt
3 large eggs

For the topping:

8 oz. whipping cream
1 t. sugar
bittersweet chocolate, for decoration

Make the crust by creaming together butter and sugar. Add chocolate and cracker crumbs, combining well. Press mixture into a 9 in. pie plate. (Don’t worry if mixture seems wet. It will firm up as it chills.) Chill crust while preparing filling.

Using an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until very light and fluffy – approximately 2 minutes. Gradually add melted chocolate, vanilla, and salt. Add eggs, one at a time, beating at medium speed for 4 minutes after each addition. Spoon filling into chilled pie crust and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.


Before serving, whip cream with sugar until soft peaks form. Spread top of pie with whipped cream and using a vegetable peeler, shave chocolate onto top of cream to form curls or confetti.


Note: People in the know still advise against serving food containing raw eggs to pregnant women, individuals with compromised health, and young children. So, to be safe, don’t pass this pie around at baby showers, infirmaries, or birthday parties where clowns are the featured attraction.

Friday, June 2, 2006

Why Pie?

A perfect pie
Thank God It’s Friday. Really. I’ve been waiting all week to launch this blog and say hello and welcome, Reader. What can you expect to find at Pie Day Friday? Well, pie of course -- and perhaps recipes, stories, and a little chit-chat, too. I won’t promise anything else, but that’s plenty, don’t you think? So pull up a fork and come visit with The Queen of Tarts.

Or…Why Not Pie?

Many people tell me they would never dream of making a pie. Too daunting, they say, although when it comes to other scary endeavors – visiting their accountants, sleeping in tents, raising children -- they rarely lack for nerve. Just mention pie crust, though, and you’ll see them start to tremble. And don’t bring up that mysterious implement known as the rolling pin (they won’t have one), or suggest that pie-making is just a matter of taking the time to practice (they don’t have that, either). Pie-making, to them – and perhaps to you, too? – ain’t gonna happen.

Well, in my new role as The Queen, I feel compelled to quell these concerns. First, no self-respecting person should ever feel intimidated by a lump of dough. Second, an empty wine bottle has been the salvation of many pie bakers lacking proper tools. Third, you made time for the season finale of Lost, didn’t you?

Or perhaps you simply need to be convinced that pie-making is a worthwhile endeavor. If so, allow me this: When you make a pie, many good things will happen: Ordinarily-sullen fifteen-year-olds will lick crumbs off their plates and plant a kiss on your cheek. Women in size 4 dresses will abandon their diets and beg for seconds. Compliments will be tossed at you with more gusto than Frisbees at a college coed. I’ve even had a musician promise to write a song in tribute to my pies. (BTW, Steve, I’m still waiting.) Take a pie to a party and you will leave with many new friends.

Matt eats pie

That, you see, is the power of pie.

Strawberry-rhubarb pie is my family’s favorite. Everyone seems to like the combination of sweet and tart fruits; it’s gobbled up even by people who claim they don’t like pie. (Alert: Be wary of those kinds of people! Why would anyone want to reject an entire category of cuisine?)

Spring is the best time of year to find rhubarb, although I’ve spotted it at the grocery well into the summer. You might want to carpe diem: buy a bunch, chop it up, and freeze it for later use. And try to use locally-grown strawberries, if possible. These little ugly ones are usually much tastier than the large trophy-wife berries encased in their plastic prisons.

Strawberries and rhubarb awaiting preparation

I recently toted three of these pies to a party hosted by our friends John and Follin. Besides hanging out with some of our very favorite people, we had the pleasure of meeting John’s big extended family – enthusiastic pie-eaters, all. When it came time to serve dessert though, I discovered that the pies were very juicy. Very, very juicy. (Less-charitable people might even say “soupy,” but they wouldn’t dare try that around me.) And while this…um….liquidity factor…didn’t affect the taste, it did hinder the presentation.

So the next day, I made yet another strawberry-rhubarb pie, thickening it this time with quick-cooking tapioca instead of the flour I’d always used before. The resulting filling had significantly more body, although it was still not overly jelled. So that’s what I recommend in this recipe. If you, however, are a fan of juicy pies, omit the tapioca pearls and substitute flour as noted.

An unbaked strawberry-rhubarb pie

If you don’t know much about making crust, just do the best you can (or buy a refrigerated crust). I’ll talk more about making pie crusts on future posts.

Finally, when it comes to baking pies, you might want to consider the philosophy of Kurt Vonnegut: “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

So abolish that Fear of Flying, Reader – and prepare to soar. . .

Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie

Pastry for a 9-inch two-crust pie
4 cups rhubarb (about 4 large stalks), cut into 1/4 to 1/2 inch pieces
2 1/2 cups strawberries, sliced
1 1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup instant tapioca (or 1/3 cup flour)
pinch salt
2 T. butter
2 T. milk
1 t. sugar

Preheat oven to 450.

Line a 9-inch pie plate with half of pastry dough. Combine the rhubarb, strawberries, sugar, tapioca (or flour), and salt in large bowl, making sure all fruit is coated. Let sit 10 minutes. Pour fruit mixture into pie plate. Cut butter into small pieces and lay on fruit. Roll out remaining dough and place on top, crimping edges to seal. Using a pastry brush -- or your finger -- paint entire crust with milk and sprinkle with sugar. Make several cuts in top of crust to allow steam to escape. Bake the pie for 15 minutes, then lower heat to 350 and bake 35 minutes more.

Three pies all in a row