Monday, July 24, 2006

The Wild Ones

If you had been able to track me down this past Saturday afternoon at 3:30 (and that would have been very difficult: I took great care to make sure that I hadn't been followed), you would have found me in the middle of a dense blackberry thicket, dressed in heavy black jeans, a heavy flannel shirt over a heavy t-shirt, gloves with the fingertips missing, and a ball cap -- despite a temperature of about ninety degrees (in the shade, where I was not). It's possible that the first thing you would have noticed was that I completely drenched in sweat or that I was carrying around a bucket with just over a gallon of ripe blackberries in it, but it's much more likely that you would first have noticed that I was trash talking the blackberry canes. In the interest of not offending the more innocent of my readers, I will not repeat exactly what I said to the blackberry canes, but rest assured that they were so cowed by my brilliance that they could say nothing in response and had to resort to physical attacks.

Saturday was my second day of blackberry picking this year. I had gone to my usual picking grounds the evening before, when it had been much cooler, and had come away with four pounds of prime berries and the location of a much larger blackberry patch. This last information came from a woman who showed up to pick blackberries when I was about a pound-and-a-half into picking and who seemed very grateful that there was someone else around. As she was leaving, she told me how to get to the larger patch.

It takes a batshit insane special kind of person to subject himself not once but twice (so far) in a year to the certainty of multiple lacerations and the (manageable) possibility of heat stroke, but I am who I am, and if it troubles me a little bit to remember just how completely happy I was fighting the decidedly ferocious thorns and trying not literally to melt, it's an easy matter to dispel those worries by sitting taking a cup or two of blackberries, giving them a quick rinse, putting them in a bowl, sprinkling on a teaspoon of sugar, and dousing them with a few tablespoons of heavy cream.

That really is the best way to eat them, but when you can't stop yourself from liberating the plump beauties from their thorny environment and so end up with ten pounds of blackberries, you have to come up with other ways to use them.

I have very likely written here before that I am not normally a jam-making kind of guy. Jam making requires a great deal more patience and meticulousness than I normally have. You can't (or at least I can't; presumably things are different if you're Christine Ferber) just kind of make up the recipe as you go along. You have to be very careful with measurements and techniques and preparing your containers, whereas I prefer to wing pretty much everything I do in the kitchen. Still, when Saturday evening arrived, I found myself alone (V. is in Ethiopia doing some consulting) with a large quantity of berries that I had gathered that very afternoon, an ample supply of jelly jars, and a copy of Mes Confitures that I had bought a month or two previously on the recommendation of Lindy.

Ms. Ferber's recipe for wild blackberry jam is a two-day affair. It requires a relatively small amount of time and effort on the first day, an overnight maceration of the fruit, and the will to complete the whole process on day two. These were all things that I had or could trick myself into, so I went for it.

I should say up front that I'm not really thrilled with Mes Confitures as an introduction to the art of jam making. The recipes are very sketchy, and the introductory section on basic techniques is not much more detailed. With most sorts of cooking, I would find lack of detail to be not in the least intimidating, but I would recommend, if you're going to be jamming, that you find another book as an introduction to the technique and use Ms. Ferber's work as a source of ingredient lists and ideas. Her recipe for wild blackberry jam, for example, does not even tell you how much it will yield, and that's really something you need to know if you are having to wash and sterilize jars. You really can't be in the middle of putting your jam into jars and stop to sterilize a few more jars. I was making a double recipe of the jam (because I had so many berries), and I had no idea how many jars to prepare so I sterilized about a dozen half-pint jars as well as a single one-pint jar. In fact, the (doubled) recipe makes almost exactly eight half-pint jars of jam. The very last jar was not quite full, so I refrigerated it (after it had cooled) rather than relying on the seal to preserve it. If I had left a half-inch of headroom in each jar, I would have probably had eight full jars, but Ms. Ferber says that she fills her jars right to the top, so I left no more than an eight of an inch of space in the first seven jars.

Wild Blackberry Jam

4.5 pounds wild blackberries
3.5 pounds granulated sugar
The juice of 2 lemons

Remove any foreign matter from the blackberries, put them in a colander, and rinse them quickly. When they have drained, put them in a large pan along with the sugar and the lemon juice. Bring slowly to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat, let cool, pour into a glass or ceramic bowl, cover, and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, bring the mixture slowly to a boil. Cook, skimming carefully, until the mixture reaches 221 degrees. This will take roughly forever. Pour the mixture into sterilized jars and seal.

The recipe sounds very simple, and on some level it really is, but in other ways it's very much not. Cooking jam for the first time is a bit of a nerve-wracking experience, particularly when you are using nearly a gallon of fruit that you really suffered (ok, it was fun suffering, but still) to gather. If you're going to try it, I recommend finding a good introductory text or, preferably, making your first batch with an experienced jam maker. I was fearful that I was doing something wrong because of the extremely long amount of time that it took for the jam to go from about 215 to 221 degrees, and I worried that I would burn the jam, which really would have been a damned shame.

I worried a little less after I stuck a spoon into the big measuring cup that contained all of the gunk that I had skimmed off the bubbling surface of the jam. I reasoned that if the gunk tasted that good, the jam itself would have to turn out fine. (I ended up with over a cup of gunk. It was very good poured over vanilla ice cream.) And, indeed, it did. I tested some this evening with some good bread and butter, and it was splendid. It set well without being overly thick, and both the surrounding liquid and the whole berries tasted the way they should. I am overly proud of myself for being patient and careful, and I have a tremendous feeling of accomplishment when I look at my eight little jars of jam. I try not to remember that eight half-pints is really just two quarts, because that seems like not enough jam for the amount of work expended, but oh well.

Clearly jam making is something that I'm going to have to do a good deal more of. This will also require some research and some investment in equipment. I did not, for example, have a canning funnel, and I could not find one in any of the local supermarkets or housewares stores. I took a plastic funnel, tested it in boiling water to make sure it could stand relatively high heat, dragged it down to the basement, hacked off the bottom with a wood saw, and then shaved off the ragged ends with a sharp paring knife. It worked pretty well, but earlier today I ordered a canning funnel. My stockpot (which has a very heavy bottom) worked well enough for making jam, but I think that I might want to invest in a copper jam pan if I'm going to be doing this on a regular basis. I have to determine whether the 1/16-inch thick pans (not cheap, but affordable) are good enough or I have to lay out the cash for the 1/8-inch thick version, which is much not cheaper than the thinner version. I believe that I would be more willing to jam on a regular basis if I could get the faster evaporation that I would get from a 12-quart copper jam pan.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Bloodied, But Unbowed

I have seventy ounces of fresh, plump, ripe, delicious wild blackberries.

And you don't.

Your bitter tears of envy are entirely appropriate.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Discussing the Peach

A linguistically savvy reader recently e-mailed me to point out that I have a regrettable tendency to say that something could not be expressed in words when I could more succinctly say that something is ineffable.

And, of course, he has a point, though one could argue that anyone who would think that I would welcome suggestions about how to be succinct had missed a few thousand of my run-on sentences.

"Ineffable" has, in fact, been my favorite word for as long as I've had a favorite word, which, to be honest, has only been for about fifteen years: before that, choosing a favorite seemed a bit unfair to all the other fine words. And while I have no plans whatsoever of moving toward succinct, I am very fond of exact, and when one has a word as good as ineffable at one's command, one ought to use it. I suppose that I have often not used it because I wasn't sure that people know what it means, but, well, anyone who didn't know knows now, so let's go with it.

This past weekend, I was at Costco, and I came across boxes of white peaches. It is, of course, an iffy proposition to buy fruit at a grocery store, even Costco, but these peaches were so handsome in their adorable twelve-to-a-box packaging, that I couldn't resist plopping down nearly nine bucks for a dozen large peaches. They were clearly not quite ripe when I bought them, but two days later I had the first one with my breakfast, and it was delicious. Fully ripe but not yet so juicy as to be dangerous.

Ineffability is an elusive thing. If something's ineffable, you can still talk about it, and you may even be able to talk about it in ways that give people an inkling of the way you feel about it, but it's still very much a through-a-glass-darkly kind of thing. There has to be a level of profundity associated with ineffability.

As it happens, the taste of a peach, however ripe and wonderful, is not quite ineffable. The aroma is an altogether different thing. This morning I took two of the remaining six peaches and put them in a bag to take to the office. I ate one around eleven, and it was juicy and delicious. I let the other one stay in the bag until about half an hour ago, and then I put it to my nose and inhaled and oh my. Ineffable.

But one has to try anyway. Though perhaps not at too much length, because I've been inhaling this peach for the last half hour, and every time I take a whiff, I react in a way that I can only imagine is the way that Humbert Humbert reacted around Lolita. Peaches, so far as I know, are completely legal, but I find myself blushing after I smell this one here. I'm a little afraid that someone's going to catch me: nothing this good can possibly be decent. I should probably go ahead and eat it before I get arrested.

Monday, July 10, 2006


The title of this post illustrates succinctly why after only two weeks of Portmanteau Writing 101, the professor ejected me from the class, frothing as I ran down the hall, "Lewis Carroll is spinning in his grave, you idiot!"

Anyway. I'm generally not a big cobbler maker (though I suppose that, in principal, I'm not really opposed to flirting with shoemakers) because I'm skilled at (and I like) making pastry, and if you're skilled at (and you like) making pastry, then why not just go ahead and make a pie? And, of course, a cobbler is no dessert for a prescriptivist. If you say you're going to make a pie, you might be making a single-crust or a double-crust or a lattice-crust pie, but everyone knows pretty much what you mean. Crust recipes are, of course, legion, but if someone tells you you're getting cherry pie, you're very rarely surprised with the appearance of what, um, appears on your plate.

But cobblers? You can combine just about any fruit mixture with just about anything remotely doughy and call it a cobbler. Most cobblers contain a single crust-like layer, but it's anybody's guess whether it's going to be a top or a bottom crust-like layer. And then you have no idea what that crust-like layer is going to be composed of. I'm pretty sure that there are people who just open a tube of biscuits. Some people use a regular pie dough, which really makes you wonder why they didn't just go ahead and make a pie. A biscuit-like dough is perhaps more common, but it might be almost anything.

When I think of a cobbler, I tend to think of a bunch of fruit and sugar dumped into a square pan with some thickener and then covered with a relatively liquid drop biscuit dough that includes some nutmeg. It is, of course, lazier than a pie, but a cobbler can be very good, and it requires a good deal less planning than a pie because the crust doesn't need to rest and doesn't require anything approaching careful handling. So if you unexpectedly find yourself with a bag of peaches thirty minutes before dinner, you can have a cobbler ready for dessert.

In the case at hand, I had already made two cherry pies, and I had enough cherries for a couple more, and certain members of the household were expressing the heretical notion that perhaps there had been enough cherry pie for the moment. (Who are these people?) So I just picked my jaw up off the floor and decided to make a cobbler.

But I didn't want to make just any old cobbler, so I came up with a new recipe for the crust-like structure. It is meant to be a cross between almond shortbread and biscuits so that it retains elements of the usual cobbler crust but becomes a little more special and capitalizes on the natural affinity of almonds and cherries. I should also note that the excess scraps of this dough make a very good cookie. I think that I may make another batch of the dough with a handful of my glacéed cherries chopped up and added to the dough. Then I'll roll the whole shebang into a log, refrigerate it, slice it, and bake it. Yum.

Because I pretty much made this recipe up (or at least I made the dough up: the filling is just my standard cherry pie filling without the almond extract), I wasn't sure that it would turn out the way I wanted, but it turned out almost exactly the way I wanted. If I could change anything, it would be to use a little less dough than I used. The dough is very good, but I would have liked a slightly higher proportion of cherry to dough and a few more leftover scraps to make into almond cookies. [Update: upon further reflection, I might also grease the baking dish to make the finished product easier to get out. It would be a shame to leave any of it behind. It's really good.]

What I ended up with here is certainly not a pie, but I'm not sure it's a cobbler, either, though I am sure it's delicious. You can call it anything you like.

Cherry Not Pie

For the crustish part:

1 cup blanched almonds
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 t. salt
1 t. baking powder
1/2 cup butter, frozen
1 egg
Ice water

For the filling:

1 quart tart cherries, pitted
1 scant cup sugar
3 T. quick cooking tapioca
1/4 t. salt

Toast the almonds at 300 degrees for about ten minutes. Remove them from the oven and let cool completely.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Put the filling ingredients in a bowl, stir to combine, and let sit. They should sit for at least fifteen minutes and up to an hour before you use them.

Put the flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder in the bowl of your food processor and pulse to combine. Add the almonds and pulse until they are ground fine. Cut the butter into eight pieces, add to the food processor, and pulse until the mixture has the texture of coarse meal.

Add the egg and pulse to combine. If the mixture does not form a cohesive mass, add a tablespoon of ice water and pulse again. Repeat until the dough forms a ball.

Take about half of the dough and press it into the bottom of an eight-by-eight baking pan. It should be about a third of an inch thick. Take the rest of the dough, roll it into a log, wrap it in plastic wrap, and put it into the freezer for a few minutes, or until you can slice it relatively easy. Cut it in slices about a third to a half of an inch thick.

Pour the filling mixture over the layer of dough in the baking pan. Top with the sliced rounds of dough.

Bake at 425 for fifteen minutes, lower the heat to 350, and bake for another 30 to 50 minutes, or until the juices are thick and bubbling throughout.

If you are not fond of puffy dough, you could probably omit or reduce the baking powder. I liked it the way it was, though I would likely halve the baking powder if I were just making cookies with the dough.

I almost always have blanched whole almonds lying around from one of my blanching sessions, but if you only have whole, unblanched almonds, I don't see any reason why you couldn't use them in this recipe.

I really can't wait until I can try this recipe with ripe peaches. Yum.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

God Only Knows How They Make the Green Ones

I'm still in the middle of my cherry fascination, which might go on a bit longer since the orchard that I got them from says that it still has plenty of cherries and that the picking is very good right now, and I have a couple of free hours later today.

I'll likely make some sort of cherry jam before I'm done, but I wanted to try a different approach with some of the fruit. Regular readers of the site will know how much I adore a good fruitcake and how much I suffer when the forces of darkness peddle sugar- and preservative-laden bricks of sawdust under the name of fruitcake leading a gullible nation to believe that fruitcakes can never be more than that.

But they can be. And the first step toward making them be all that they can be (the Army is still famously resistant to enlisting fruitcakes) is to get rid of that muck that the supermarkets sell as glacéed cherries. You know what I'm talking about. Those super sweet, red and green, putatively edible miniature bombs of sugar that are most likely extruded in a factory in a secret CIA prison in Eastern Europe. Evil in a plastic tub.

The glacéed cherries that I made are neither evil nor in a plastic tub. They are sweet, and there's no way around that, but they're also very good, and they taste nothing like you know what.

What they aren't, alas, is fruits confits, the Provencal specialty that you can make yourself if you have tons of time, a hydrometer, and a copy of Mireille Johnston's The Cuisine of the Sun. The process Ms. Johnston describes (I'm going from memory right now because either my copy of the book has been temporarily mislaid or there's a vast right-wing conspiracy to keep me from looking up any of the many recipes that I use from there, and in either case: oh, the humanity!) takes many, many days, very careful measuring with the hydrometer, and glucose. It is something that I intend to make sometime, perhaps later this summer, but it is not something to be undertaken lightly, nor, I think, with tart cherries.

Even though glacéed cherries are much simpler than fruits confits, you still have to commit six days to the process. But none of the work is hard, and it's really only a few minutes on days two through six, and even on day one if you can find a fast way to pit your cherries. The whole thing is also really a kick. It's very satisfying to see the bowl of cherries sitting on your countertop, with the syrup getting heavier and darker every day (the picture above is from day five). You won't want to try this recipe without a new bag of sugar in the house. It's a lot of sugar, though most of it ends up in the syrup, which you can preserve separately.

Glacéed Cherries

1.5 lbs tart cherries
2 cups water
1/2 cup light corn syrup
More sugar than you have

Rinse the cherries well and drain them thoroughly. Remove the pits. Let the cherries and any juice they released during pitting sit in a bowl while you prepare the syrup.

On the first day:

Combine the water, the light corn syrup, and 2/3 cup of sugar in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and add the cherries and their juices. Cook on moderate heat until the temperature reaches 180 degrees. (This should not take long.) Cover the saucepan and let sit for a few minutes, then pour everything into a clean bowl and cover and let sit overnight.

On the second day:

Put a strainer over a saucepan and carefully pour the cherries and syrup into it. Reserve the cherries. Clean the bowl. Add 1.25 cups additional sugar to the syrup and bring it to a boil. Skim it if there's gunk floating in it. Reduce the heat, return the cherries to the syrup, and bring the temperature back up to 180 degrees. Cover the saucepan and let sit for a few minutes, then pour everything into a clean bowl and cover and let sit overnight.

On the third day:

Do what you did on the second day, adding two additional cups of sugar.

On the fourth day:

Do what you did on the second and third days, adding one additional cups of sugar.

You now have two products to deal with. The cherries need to be dried. If you have a food dehydrator, use it. I don't have one, so I drained the cherries moderately well, then put them and the syrup that was clinging to them into a pie plate. I put that in the warming drawer of our oven on the lowest setting overnight. The next morning, I drained off the remaining (very thick) syrup, cleaned the pie plate, put the cherries back in the pie plate and returned it to the warming drawer.

The syrup can be brought back to a boil and put into jars and processed. You should have around about five cups of it, so you can get two pints of syrup put by with some left over for immediate use. I washed my pint jars, lids, and rings in hot soapy water, put them on a baking sheet and put them in a 225 degree oven while I was dealing with the syrup and cherries, so they were in there about fifteen minutes. Then I poured the syrup directly from the saucepan into the jars, leaving not quite half an inch of space at the top, screwed the lids on, and processed in a boiling water bath for ten minutes. I have no idea how much of that was necessary, but it seems prudent to be safe when you're putting foods by.

You can't tell from the picture, but the syrup is essentially the color of liquid garnets. It truly is beautiful. It's also little more than sugar, and it really doesn't have all that strong of a cherry taste. It will, however, make a terrific pink lemonade. And you can probably use it anywhere else you'd use very heavy syrup and either want or don't mind a strong red color.

The first problem with this recipe is that it's a large investment of time (though not effort) for a relatively small amount of product, unless you count the syrup, which you really shouldn't, unless pink lemonade is the most important thing in your life (and, hey, you could do a lot worse). The syrup seemed more than adequate for the amount of fruit, so I think that when I make this again (which I will), I'll double the syrup and quadruple the fruit so that I end up with a much bigger haul of glacéed cherries and, hopefully, a syrup with a stronger cherry flavor.

The second problem with this recipe is that it's really a lot of fun, and when you've been through it, you're likely to be a little annoyed at your significant other for not having had the foresight to plant a few apricot trees so that you could do the same process with a bushel or two of apricots. V. thinks that it's entirely unreasonable of me to be put out with him about the lack of apricot trees in the back yard, but, really, if you're a gay man, how hard is it to foresee that you might end up sharing your home with someone who demands fresh apricots? Not that hard.

I didn't follow the process precisely, and on a couple of occasions, most notably on day one, I let the cherries get significantly too hot after I added them to the syrup, and they cracked as a result. I'm not sure that any amount of care keeps you from ending up with something that looks like craisins, but I'll certainly be more careful the next time (or when that bushel of fresh apricots arrives).

I'm also encouraged to try the full out fruits confits. I reckon that it's time to order a hydrometer.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

This Is What Happens

when you decide that for your second cherry pie, since you don't have your zig-zag cutter, you might as well not make a lattice-topped pie, and instead you try to make a sort of negative latice by cutting out rounds of dough and lying them on top of the cherries, but then when you've baked the pie, you just can't resist pulling off half of the rounds and eating them along with the two -- or if you're very fortunate, three -- cherries that cling to each of them.

In the immortal words of the Pussycat Dolls, "Well, wouldn't you?"

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

As American As...

I am not generally one to wave the flag. (Neither am I generally one to wax political, but it seems to me that Independence Day ought to be at least a little bit of a day of national introspection as well as a day of national celebration. Something about food follows.) Don't get me wrong: I'm glad to be an American and to live in the country that brought the world the Bill of Rights, cheese grits, and the Egg McMuffin, but it has always struck me as unseemly when people take too much pride in their nationality. When someone tells me how proud he is to be an American, I generally smile and nod, but what I really want to do is to ask him, "And just how hard did you have to work to, you know, be born here?" It's a good thing to feel a responsibility to one's homeland, but it's not such a good thing when nationalism makes you start to look at other people as having fewer rights than you have because they had the poor judgment to be born in a distant and poorer country.

I am troubled by almost any sense of entitlement, and too often the sense of entitlement is accompanied by a lack of any sense of responsibility. Even the European upper classes understood the concept of noblesse oblige, but some Americans seem to think that by waving a flag, they have paid the price for their freedom. I'm afraid I know too many people who believe that patriotism impels them to send other people and other people's children to fight and die but who are not willing to make any sacrifice -- not even so much as to pay their reduced taxes without whining -- themselves, and many of these people use the flag and their own exaggerated patriotism as a cover.

The sight of the flag still stirs most of us, myself included. And there are many, many people whose expressions of patriotism are entirely sincere, and God bless them. But if anyone tries to tell me that I am less of an American because I don't wave a flag or, especially, because I happen to think that the current administration has pointlessly spent lives and eroded our freedoms without increasing our security, then I intend to ask them what they have given up for America and why they think that they're better than anyone else because of where they were born. The last time I checked, it was self-evident that everyone is created equal, and not that some people are more equal than others.

On to a more gustatory note. I have no intention of usurping the place of apple pie as the great American dessert. I love apple pie in all its forms (though I am embarrassed to admit that I have never made or eaten one with cheddar: that's not the way Mom made it), and while I might lament that many of the great American pie apples are no longer commercially available, it is still possible to make a delicious apple pie almost any time.

However. Apples are a fall crop. They are best shortly after harvest, and they become less and less wonderful as the year turns, so that by summer, they're less than they used to be and less than they ought to be. By the time July rolls around, there are, in most of the country, superior summer fruit options, so it makes sense to give the apple a bit of a rest. In particular, the beginning of July is sufficiently close to the peak of the all-too-brief tart cherry season. Tart cherries make a superior pie, and they are associated (perhaps apocryphally, but still) with George Washington, our great national hero. For these reasons I declare (and, yes, I can do that) that on Independence Day, the great American dessert is the cherry pie. It's self-evident.

You can, of course, make cherry pie any way you want to, but the right way is to make a lattice-top crust using Pâte Brisée. And you can use any recipe for Pâte Brisée that you like, but here's mine:

Pâte Brisée

10 ounces King Arthur all purpose flour
10 ounces cake flour
1/2 t. kosher salt
3 sticks salted butter
Ice water

Combine the flours and salt in a bowl. Cut each stick of butter into 32 pieces (2x2x8) and toss them in the flour. With a pastry blender or your fingers, cut in the butter until it is the consistency of coarse meal with some small pieces remaining. Add about 3/4 cup of ice water and toss with a large fork. Add more water until the dough can be formed together into a ball. Knead the dough very briefly, then divide into four pieces, form each piece into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate.

The dough can be used after two hours in the refrigerator, but it can wait for up to a few days, perhaps longer in the freezer. Each of the disks of dough you end up with will generously handle a nine-inch pie, and you could probably get three lattice-topped nine-inch pies out of this recipe. I like having extra dough, though, because Mom always had extra dough. She would roll the scraps out, cut into strips, sprinkle on sugar and cinnamon, and bake on a separate baking sheet alongside the pie. I do the same thing.

Most all-butter pie crusts have a tendency to burn in a hot oven, but I had no problems at all with this recipe, even though I did not shield the dough when I put it into a 450 degree oven. It was very easy to roll out, easy to work with, and admirably flaky.

A good cherry pie should not be overly fussy. Almond is a flavor that goes very well with cherries (Christine Ferber will tell you that Morello cherries, which, alas, are not so common over here, taste strongly of almonds.), so some almond extract is a good addition, but otherwise, it's best to keep it simple. Many recipes also recommend some lemon juice, but I found it unnecessary. The amount of sugar really depends on the tartness of your cherries. I did not find these proportions overly sweet.

A lattice crust should have a zig-zag edge rather than a straight one, but my zig-zag cutter has gone missing. Because the taste is straightforward (though delicious) and not overly sweet, good vanilla ice cream is a splendid accompaniment, particularly if you are eating the pie while it's still warm.

Cherry Pie

A rounded quart of tart cherries
3 T. quick-cooking tapioca
1 cup sugar
1/2 t. almond extract
1 T. butter
Pâte Brisée

Pit the cherries. Hopefully you will have just over four cups of them. Combine the cherries, tapioca, sugar, and almond extract in a bowl and let sit for at least fifteen minutes.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Line a nine-inch pie plate with dough. Pour in the cherry mixture, top with a lattice crust, and dot with the butter. Put the pie on a baking sheet and into the oven. After ten minutes, reduce the heat to 350 and cook for an additional forty minutes to an hour, or until the juices are thick and the crust is nicely browned.

I had pitted all my cherries (except the ones I used for the quick dessert in my last post) at one go with my hand-dandy, super-duper new cherry pitter. Eight pounds in about half an hour! Accordingly, my cherries were all in ziplock bags in the refrigerator. It is an easy matter to add the sugar, etc., to the ziplock bag, shake, and let sit for a while. I had not, however, let my cherries come to room temperature, so the baking time was longer than expected. Fortunately, the end product did not suffer.

Also fortunately, I have two more bags ready to go for more pies. I believe that one could easily freeze one or more of these bags and then make a pie later with the thawed cherries, but I am compelled to pass along V.'s story about the time, forty years ago, when his mother was given a large quantity of tart cherries from a neighbor's cherry tree. She was told that she had only to pit them and freeze them, but when she defrosted them, she found that in addition to cherries, she had a quantity of worms. I am not sure that the discovery of worms would have deterred me much; after all, you can fish them out, and if you miss one: more protein. But she ended up throwing out all her cherries. My cherries were pretty clearly worm free, and one wonders what the orchard uses to make them that way. Still, I rinse them very thoroughly, and I don't worry much more about it. The simple joy of a good cherry pie is enough to erase many a doubt.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

That Which Was Lost Has Now Been Found

Aside from my children, who naturally have the closest hold on my heart, the only things that I really get emotional about are food and music. I have told the story here before of my Bach-induced near nervous breakdown, so I won't go into that again, but I will say that almost everyone who knows me thinks of me as almost unnaturally calm. If, however, I'm asked to sing something (in public anyway) and there are differences of opinion as to interpretation, then look out: instant diva.

Anyway, before I get into the most recent instance of food-induced euphoria, let me briefly mention some music-induced euphoria. Last night, V. and I went to see A Prairie Home Companion, and I cannot put into words how much I loved it. I didn't care so much for the story framing devices (i.e., the very beginning and end), but everything that happened at the theater that was the heart of the movie was marvelous, and nothing was more marvelous than watching Meryl Streep sing. But I won't say any more because I'm afraid that someone will go see it and tell me that they didn't like it, and then I'll have to pretend that that person's opinion is perfectly valid while inside I'm judging that person the same way I judge anyone who doesn't like Jane Austen, though if you're under 30, I'm sometimes willing to think that you'll just grow into liking Jane Austen when you've lived a little more or else you'll die alone and bitter because there is no music or subtlety in your soul if, indeed, you even have one.

Anyway. I've had a couple of recent instances of food-based rapture, and they both involved fruit. Not long ago, after having convinced myself that my favorite blackberry patches had fallen to road construction, I took a different turn and realized that they were still there, and I smiled all the way home. The patches are somewhat attenuated, perhaps, but they're still there, and they should start having ripe berries in a week or perhaps less. I may go over and check them out on Tuesday, since it's a holiday.

You all know how found I am of quoting the Bible (oh shut up), so I'm going to let my buddy Luke explain to you what finding the blackberry patches is like:

And he spake this parable unto them, saying,

What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?

And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.

And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.

I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.

Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?

And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost.

My buddy Luke may have been a bit sexist, but you get the idea. As it happens, the blackberries are old news (I re-found them a month ago, perhaps even earlier), but today's food-based joy was something very similar. Early this afternoon, I received an e-mail from my friend T.:

Tart cherries are in season at a farm in HoCo. I called, and they said picking is good. You can find directions at I just heard about them from a cute boy online, and I'm going to pick some now. I thought you'd want to know.

I'm pretty sure that I hadn't mentioned to T. (or anyone else) that I spent over an hour a week ago moping after I called my usual pick-your-own orchard to hear on their recording that the tart cherry season was over for the year. But T. and I have discussed our favorite pies, and cherry is near the top of the list for each of us (Don't worry: the way you rank pies, or your personal pierarchy, really is a matter of individual taste, so if you prefer, say, blueberry pie to cherry pie, I won't expect you to die bitter and alone. Probably), so it was perhaps reasonable (though still uncommonly nice) for him to think of me, and I'm glad that he did.

What's probably not reasonable is how very, very happy hearing about the cherries made me. After all, it's not like the cherry orchard had ever been lost: I'd simply missed the very brief season. But from the moment I got the email until the moment three hours later when I returned home with a bag full of eight pounds of perfectly ripe sour cherries, my smile reached all the way to my ears. Certainly that is the most fun it's possible to have for thirty-two dollars. (The cherries themselves were only sixteen dollars, but I also bought a deluxe cherry pitter, which, I am delighted and somewhat surprised to say, works very well indeed.)

Naturally I have big plans for my cherries, but when I got home, I only had a small amount of time before we were due to head out for the evening. So I decided to go with something simple. I am afraid that you may not be able to make it because even if you have tart cherries, you probably don't have any clementine ratafia on hand. But, really: whose fault is that? I've praised clementine ratafia on this page until I was blue in the face, and it's incredibly easy to make, and it's a wonderful gift, and it keeps for a long time in the pantry, so your steadfast refusal to make a batch or batches really puzzles me, I must say. I thought better of you. (Sorry: channeling my mom there for a moment.) I don't really know what to do if you don't have the ratafia to provide the gentle spiciness and complexity of flavor, but I think that some Cointreau and a pinch of ground cardamom would be awfully good.

Tart Cherry Compote

One cup tart cherries
2 T. granulated sugar
1 T. amaretto
2 T. clementine ratafia

Rinse the cherries very well. Drain them equally well, and remove the pits. Place the cherries in a nonreactive bowl with the sugar and the amaretto, stir, and let macerate for half an hour. Add the ratafia, stir again, and let sit for another five minutes. Remove the cherries with a slotted spoon and reserve. Place the liqueurs, juices, and sugar in the microwave for thirty to forty-five seconds, or until the sugar is dissolved. Refrigerate briefly until the syrup is room temperature or slightly warmer.

Divide the cherries into two serving dishes. Pour the syrup over the cherries and serve.

The syrup, on its own, may be a touch too sweet for some tastes, though I found it delicious. It is even better when you take a spoonful of the syrup with one or two cherries: you will taste bursts of tartness within the sweetness. Absolutely delicious.

As I often do, I used Whey Low instead of ordinary granulated sugar in this recipe. As I often say, I don't think there is any difference in taste.