I made a cherry pie this weekend, but not just any cherry pie--it was a birthday pie. Charlie, my oldest son, turned seventeen on Saturday, and he's never really been one for cake, so it came as no surprise when he ordered up pie for the occasion. It has, for years, been his favorite dessert.
You know how some kids would rather have a mass-produced chocolate chip cookie than one of their mom's homemade cookies? Well, Charlie is kind of like that when it comes to cherry pie. He loves that bland, bright pink, gelatinous goop that comes in a can with a few token cherries. Of course, you know as well as I do that the canned filling isn't much good, but it is the kid's birthday.
So, rather than sacrifice all of my principles and make him a pie using that stuff, I decided I'd try to make a homemade filling that more or less mimics the canned in color and texture, yet tastes better and contains more fruit. (Oh, and speaking of the fruit, I was only too fortunate last week to get my paws on a few bags of frozen Michigan pie cherries. Michigan is ALL ABOUT cherries, and these were obscenely on sale, thus not to be passed up. I forked over the cash, scurried home under cover of darkness, and tossed those babies into the basement freezer for future reference.)
To recreate the characteristic gooey aspect of canned filling, I used ClearJel instead of cornstarch as a thickener. ClearJel, which is a form of modified corn starch, has advantages in some situations over cornstarch. It doesn't add a cloudy aspect to whatever you mix it into, and if it's used in a pie that's going to be frozen, it retains its stability once the pie is thawed. For a lot of people, it's the thickener of choice for this particular sort of pie.
(In fact, I must mention that it was a friendly fellow baker, Linda Aukerman of Ohio, who encouraged me to give ClearJel a whirl recently; she sent me some in the mail a few weeks ago, and I'm so glad I'll be able to tell her that I finally gave it a go! Linda is quite the home cook and baker, and she was featured in the Penzey's Spice catalog not too long ago. We chat by email now and then. She's just the nicest gal.)
(Hey, this is slightly off the immediate subject, but have you ever tried rolling out your pie dough on an all-cotton cloth that's been dusted with flour? Try it once and you'll never go back, girls. Not kidding. Learned this trick at school this year. Makes the whole rolling-out process a hundred times easier, assuming you've got decent dough to start with!)
The filling turned out to be pretty darn tasty and just what I was aiming for. Charlie thought it was spectacular, even though it didn't even come from a can, and that was my goal--a happy birthday boy. Mission accomplished! Michigan Cherry Pie with Lattice Crust
(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)
Makes one generous, standard size, deep dish pie:
Pastry for one 2-crust pie (My favorite pie crust recipe can be found here, in an earlier post!)
frozen sour cherries, I used all of a 40 oz. bag (or, use at least 6 cups)
granulated sugar, 2 cups
ClearJel (regular, not instant) 1/2 cup
cold water, 2 and 2/3 cups
fresh lemon juice, 2 Tbsp. and 2 tsp.
cinnamon, 1/4 tsp.
almond extract, 1/2 tsp.
red food coloring (optional; you may want to add a tiny bit)
Thaw the frozen cherries completely in a colander or strainer set over a large bowl, and save all of the juice that drains off. (If you don't wait for the cherries to completely thaw and drain, they'll release too much juice while the pie is baking, and the filling will become too runny, so be patient.)
Use all of that juice to replace a portion of the water in the recipe (for eg., if you get 1/3 cup of juice, use that to replace 1/3 cup of the water).
Combine the sugar, the ClearJel, and the cinnamon in a large saucepan. Add in the water, cherry juice, and almond extract. Stir, over medium-high heat, until hot and bubbly.
Add in the lemon juice and heat to boiling; let the mixture boil for one minute.
Remove the pan from the heat and pour the mixture over the cherries in a large bowl. Fold together gently, so as to not break the cherries.
Lightly grease a deep dish pie plate with vegetable shortening.
Roll out your bottom crust on a lightly floured surface and line the pie plate; take care not to stretch the dough. Fill the pie shell with the warm cherry mixture.
To make a lattice top-crust, roll out your top crust dough, and then cut it into strips of even width, about a half inch wide or so, using a pastry wheel or a sharp knife.
Lay half of the strips across the top of the pie going in one direction. Pull back the alternate strips, as shown below.
Then, one by one, weave in the remaining strips going in the opposite direction; start with the longest strips in the middle of the pie.
Work quickly, so the strips don't get too warm, but also work gently so you don't tear them. Finish off the edges of the pie as you prefer, perhaps using any leftover dough to help make a border. (I made a little impromptu scallop design on the border of this pie with the side-edge of my pastry wheel . . . not too neat and tidy looking but necessity is the mother of invention, is she not?)
Brush cream or milk lightly on the lattice, taking care not to drip milk into the filling. Sprinkle coarse or granulated sugar on top of the milk, also just on the lattice.
Bake the pie in a preheated 400-degree oven for about 35 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. If the crust seems to be browning too quickly, cover it lightly with foil. Let the baked pie cool completely, on a rack, before attempting to cut it. It will take a few hours to cool fully.
P.S. Enjoy munching your Michigan cherry pie . . . and next time you're here for a visit in the middle of the summer, head to cherry country in the northern part of the lower peninsula. They're worth the trip! (Even the folks at National Public Radio love Michigan cherries, as evidenced here!)
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