This past March, Chicago was hit with approximately three weeks of unseasonably warm weather. Mother Nature is a moody mistress, and this kind of temperamental display is a gardener’s nightmare. A premature thaw followed by a frost is enough to kill a summer harvest, and I was disappointed to discover that the negative effects of the heat wave were severe. Chicago farmers lost nearly 70% of tree fruit harvests this year. Peaches, local apples, plums and nectarines will be in scant supply this summer, but the one that left me a bit groundless was the loss of our sour cherries. Each summer our sour cherry tree produces enough fruit to keep us stocked for jam and frozen desserts until the next harvest rolls around. But this holiday season will have to come and go without one of my mother’s home-grown cherry pies. There is nary a cherry to be found. And while a seasoned gardener would probably exhibit a wizened fluidity to a natural near-disaster of this sort (here’s hoping next year is better!), a novice like me simply can’t accept the loss. So, in a feeble attempt to hedge against a cruel recurrence of shortage in future years, I decided to triple our supply.
Although I have never done it before, it turns out that planting a tree—or two—is a fairly straightforward task. Sour cherry varietals (we planted Montmorency) prefer well-draining soil, but are otherwise in need of no more than a good staking and a little water now and again if nature doesn’t help out.
And what, exactly, will I be missing? Pie perfection. Although, truth be told, when I found the above picture of a pie we baked last Christmas, I realized that I truly have no intention of missing out on sour cherry pie this year. I have already set out to find a farm in Michigan where I can source some frozen sour cherries for our holiday baking.
In case you also feel compelled to produce a pie of your own I have included my mother’s recipe below. The big (or not so big) secret is the tapioca: It beats flour and cornstarch in combating a runny pie. My mother’s recipe calls for a lattice top, which is prettier than mine, but also more time-consuming.
Cherry’s (Mom’s) Best-Ever Cherry Pie!
5 cups fresh, tart cherries (well-drained)
2 to 2 1/2 cups white sugar
1 scant tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 rounded tablespoons quick tapioca 1 tablespoon butter, cut in tiny pieces
Add butter AFTER placing cherry mixture into pie pan. Gently stir above ingredients and let set for at least 15 minutes to soften tapioca.
2 1/2 cups white ﬂour
2 1/2 teaspoons white sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup salted butter
7 to 9 tablespoons ice water, approximately
Mix flour, sugar and salt in a bowl, set aside. Cube cold butter into tiny squares and add to flour mixture. Mash butter cubes coarsely with a fork or pastry cutter. Slowly add ice water and continue mixing with fork. Dough will be ready before it “comes together” into a ball. If you can squeeze a small handful into a nice ball, dough is ready to roll out. Form dough into a ball and cut in half. Gently roll the bottom crust into a nice circle, about 2-3 inches larger than your pie plate. Place in pie plate and set aside while you prepare lattice topping. Taking your second ball of pie crust dough, roll into a slight rectangle and cut 8 to 10 3/4” strips for lattice top.
Pour cherry pie filling into pie plate and sprinkle over top the tablespoon of minced butter pieces before adding lattice topping. After lattice top is added, cut the dough around the outside of the pie plate leaving about 1-1/2 inches all around. Fold (roll) dough up to top edge of plate all around and form a fluted edge (zig-zag) by pressing dough between your left thumb and your right thumb and index finger.
Sprinkle top of pie LIGHTLY with salt, and then sprinkle with about a teaspoon of sugar.
Place a cookie sheet on the rack below your pie (to catch drippings) and bake for about 50-60 minutes at 400 degrees, or until pie crust is a golden color. You may need to cover the edge of your pie with aluminum foil to prevent crust from browning too much after about 20-25 minutes. Watch pie closely as it bakes to prevent edges from browning too much. If top begins to brown before the 50 minute point, lay a piece of foil over the top of the pie.