When my family immigrated to Canada, I had never tasted cherry pie. With my first bite, I was hooked. The tart, jewel-red fruit, suspended in a thick glaze and surrounded by flaky pastry, gave me comfort while I tried to adjust to life in Canada. The addiction did little for my waistline, but lots for my emotional stability.
Cherries are rich in anthocyanin, an antioxidant that has anti-inflammatory properties and has been linked to health benefits. Store them in the refrigerator as soon as you buy and keep the stems on.
It used to be that large, inky purple Bing cherries were everyone’s favourite because they were the only good ones available, but now there are other kinds to try. The darker the skin, the more intense the flavour. White cherries, like my favourite Rainier variety, have an intensely sweet taste, but with a tart edge. They are perfect for eating out of hand. Cherries need to be pitted if you want to bake with them. Cherry pitters, which make the job much easier, are available at kitchen shops and online. Alternatively, you can simply cut the cherries in half and ease out the pits. Tart red cherries need only a little pinch and the seeds shoot out.
Tart red cherries, also known as sour cherries, usually the Montmorency variety, are harder to find than dark red ones. Most are processed into dried cherries, cherry-pie filling, cherry juice, canned cherries and maraschinos. Tart red cherries have a short season, so the best way to enjoy them year-round is to freeze them. Wash, stem and pit them, and place on cookie sheets in a single layer. Freeze and then bag them for use all winter. Some supermarkets sell pails of tart red cherries in season, which are useful to have in your freezer, and in Niagara, Ont., the Cherry Lane production facility allows visitors to buy pails of frozen, pitted cherries with or without sugar all year long. Buy the unsweetened and add your own sugar for a cherry pie whenever the craving hits.
For the best pie, make or buy your favourite short-crust pastry. Roll a 12-inch circle and ease into a 9-inch pie plate, cutting off excess. Mix about 5 heaping cups pitted tart red cherries with 1 cup sugar, ¼ cup tapioca flour or tapioca starch (they’re the same thing) and a pinch of salt. I use tapioca because it thickens with a glossy look, is gluten-free and has a neutral taste. It never discolours the filling. Pile the filling into the pie crust. Either make a lattice top or cover with pastry. Combine 1 egg and 1 tbsp whipping cream. Brush over top of pie. Sprinkle with a scant 1 tbsp sugar. Bake for 15 minutes at 425 F. Reduce heat to 350 F and bake for 35 to 50 minutes longer or until juice is bubbling and thick. Serve warm or at room temperature with a large scoop of vanilla ice cream. Heaven.
If your cherries are frozen, defrost them overnight in the refrigerator. Don’t drain off the liquid as it is mostly cherry juice. If I want to make a really luxurious pie, I boil down that liquid by about half so that it gains intensity. Cut back the tapioca starch to 3 tbsp and enjoy a perfect pie.
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