As easy as pie

A few key techniques can make an ordinary dessert great

There are two gnarled old cherry trees on the south corner of our old family farmstead. I'm astonished every spring when they burst into bloom and that they've managed to survive another year without pruning, spraying or intervention of any kind. The crop of sour cherries is usually ready to harvest in mid-June, but the weather has been so warm this season that we began picking them a full three weeks early. Although the trees are loaded with fruit, we can generally only pick enough for a generously sized pie and maybe a small batch of jam. Most of the cherries are high up in the canopy, out of reach of even a tall ladder. I've long since yielded them to the birds.

click to enlarge As easy as pie
Homemade cherry pie
After all, one really superb cherry pie a year is all I really need. Before long the cherries will give way to peaches, plums and pears, each offering many delicious possibilities. Pie, in all of its spherical perfection, is undoubtedly my favorite way to utilize this bounty. Preparing a great pie can be, well, as easy as pie, but keeping a few key techniques in mind can make an ordinary dessert extraordinary. Tender, flaky crust, ripe fruit, just the right amount of sugar and a few secret ingredients.

From scratch crust

Store-bought pie crust is convenient, but it lacks the fabulous flavor and flaky layers of scratch-made pie crust. It's been decades since I've made a crust completely by hand, preferring instead to use my trusty old Cuisinart food processor. I recently gave it a go again, and while making it by hand was certainly not as speedy, the gentle, methodical process was perfect for a leisurely Sunday afternoon project and I did enjoy not having to wash out the food processor. Whatever method you choose, the flavor and texture of buttery homemade crust is incomparable. A scratch-made pie dough recipe and more tips can be found at https://www.illinoistimes.com/food-drink/easy-as-pie-11439241.

Sugar and spice

For tart fruits like sour cherries and rhubarb, use about one cup of sugar per quart of sliced fruit and about half as much for sweeter fruits like peaches, blueberries and apples. Apples are rich in pectin and therefore you don't need to include added thickener in the filling. However, other fruits like cherries, berries and stone fruit usually do need added thickener. Flour reliably thickens at low temperatures and is stable when frozen, but it has a cloudy appearance and you'll need to use more because it's not as effective as some other starches. Cornstarch is very effective so not as much is needed. It thickens rapidly although it does require higher temperatures to properly activate. If undercooked it can contribute a chalky texture and should not be used in recipes intended for the freezer. Arrowroot can be used in much the same way as cornstarch and it's freeze stable. Quick cooking tapioca is a classic option though the filling must be allowed to sit for 15 minutes before baking in order to soften and it does result in a slightly stippled consistency in the filling.

Ornate or plain Jane

Lavishly decorated pies are one of my favorite ways to celebrate. Whether it's a detailed holiday wreath adorning the crust or a scattering of patriotic stars, pies can be a blank canvas of creativity. Or they can be incredibly basic and still manage to be beautiful. A rustic galette is what I make most frequently, foregoing even the pie plate. Place a 12 to 14-inch circle of pie crust directly onto a parchment-lined baking sheet or oven-safe serving platter. Mound a quart of prepared filling into the center of the dough, then flatten it so that there's a three-inch border remaining. Fold the edges of the fruit, overlapping slightly, then bake.

Sometimes the most complicated-looking decorations are deceptively simple, such as a lattice top crust. Line a 9-inch pie tin with a bottom pie crust, leaving some dough hanging over the edge for crimping. Roll out the top crust into a 12-inch circle (Make sure your dough is thoroughly chilled.), then use a knife or pastry cutter to cut the dough into even strips. Remove every other strip of dough and set aside, covered with a towel to keep them from drying out. Place the vertical strips of dough across the top of the pie, spacing them evenly. Fold back every other strip, then lay the shortest of the reserved strips horizontally across the width of the pie, right up against the folded strips. Replace the folded strips so they're flat against the pie. Now peel back every other strip (the ones that didn't get folded last time) and place the next horizontal strip across the pie, then fold the vertical pieces back down. Repeat this process until the top of the pie is covered. Trim the excess dough from the sides then use your fingers to crimp the edges.

No matter how it's decorated, a simple egg wash makes any pie look extra special. Beat together an egg with a tablespoon of milk or water, then use a pastry brush to lightly paint the top crust of the pie. Finally, sprinkle with coarse sugar for a golden, sparkly finish.

Ashley Meyer

Ashley Meyer has been cooking as long as she has been walking. The daughter of beloved former Illinois Times food columnist, Julianne Glatz, Ashley offers a fresh, inspired take on her mother’s culinary legacy. Ashley studied winemaking at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand and recently achieved the...

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