(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 17, 2008.)
At noon today, I looked out my window and saw a robin fly off with a red cherry in his beak. HEY! That's my cue! The first cherries are ripe, and if I want to pick any before the birds have found them all, I'd better hurry. I grabbed my picking bucket and ran outside, waving my arms as I went to shoo away the birds.
We'd been watching our two little trees closely, getting more and more excited as it looked like this might be the year for our first "real" harvest. We'd been picking a handful of cherries each year, and last year we harvested a pint that we sugared and ate over ice cream. The birds always seem to get a few, also. I don't mind sharing with the birds, as long as it's only sharing. If they start stripping the trees, we'll invest in netting. This year, the trees were loaded, and we were thinking, "Pie!"
A little while later, I had filled my quart bucket and was still finding ripe cherries, so I picked until the cargo pocket of my shorts was full. You can tell ripe cherries by their color, of course (ruby red for pie cherries), but you can also tell if a cherry is ripe by giving it a tug. If it comes off its stem and into your hand pretty easily, it's at its peak of flavor. If you have to pull so hard that you get stem and all with the cherry, it's less than fully ripe. Any damaged cherries shouldn't go in with the rest, as they won't keep as well. My solution for cherries that have a little split or tiny bird-peck mark is to eat them on the spot. Delicious!
These Montmorency Cherry trees, a "sour" variety mostly used for pies and jam, were the first trees we planted in our little backyard orchard. The fruits are smaller and less sweet than Bing type cherries. I don't find them too tart for fresh eating, but some folks do. You can get trees on regular, semi-dwarf, or dwarf rootstock, depending on your space requirements. I like being able to reach fruit without a ladder, but if you have deer problems you might consider full size trees. Pie type cherries are generally self-pollinating but may set more fruit if you have more than one tree. North Star and Balaton are other popular varieties. We got our trees from Stark Brothers. You can check out this and other companies in the Garden Watchdog.
If you don't have the space or the inclination to plant your own cherry trees, see if you can find a local orchard with pie cherries. My in-laws make annual trips to Levering Orchard in NC to stock their freezer with cherries for my mother-in-law's famous cherry pie. It's a good idea to call before you go; last year's late freeze all but eliminated the cherry crop. Although you can usually purchase pre-picked cherries, picking your own has a special charm that shouldn't be missed.
Before you make pie or jam with them, cherries have to be pitted. My mother-in-law likes to use a paring knife to just cut the cherry in half, removing the pit as she goes. My father-in-law taught me to use a simple hand-held cherry pitter, which is plunged into the cherry to pop the pit out the other side.
I found a slightly fancier one that looks like a paper punch and lets me work my way through a bowl of cherries pretty quickly. Although clever, the big mechanical pitters with a hopper and crank may be better suited to the larger sweet cherries. We tried using one with the little pie cherries, and a lot of pits got left behind. Nobody wants to bite into flaky crust and sweet, juicy filling and then crack their teeth against a pit.
After pitting my harvest, I had 4 cups of juicy, tangy cherries. That's more than enough for a beautiful pie. I know what we are having for dinner tonight. A little tossed salad—and cherry pie! (see recipe below)
Whether you plant your own or search out a U-pick orchard, I hope you'll find a source of fresh pie cherries.
One taste of homemade pie from fresh cherries, and you'll never want to go back to canned filling. This is one culinary adventure that's worth the extra effort!
Felicia's Famous Cherry Pie
(adapted from an old Betty Crocker recipe)
4 cups pitted tart cherries
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
(or 3 Tablespoons cornstarch)
juice of 1/4 lemon
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2-3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
Two 9 inch pie crusts
Preheat oven to 425°F
Pie crust: you'll need a top and bottom crust, preferably homemade. (I used a Pillsbury refrigerated crust, and it worked fine, but please don't tell on me.)
Combine cherries, sugar, flour or cornstarch, and lemon juice. Fit the bottom crust into a deep dish 9 inch pie plate, and mound the filling into the crust. Sprinkle with almond extract. Cut the butter into bits and dot in on top of the filling. (I've skipped the lemon juice and/or the almond extract, and it's still delicious, so don't panic if you don't have any on hand.)
You can either place the top crust over the fruit and cut some vent holes in it, or you can cut it into strips and weave a lattice top. Crimp the top and bottom crusts together around the sides, either shaping or trimming away any extra dough.
Put the pie in the oven and slide a cookie sheet on the rack below it to catch any juice that bubbles over. Do this even if you think your pie pan is so deep the juice could not possibly bubble over. It will.
Bake the pie at 425°F for 30 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 350°F and continue baking another 15 to 30 minutes (allow up to 1 hour total baking time). The pie is done when the crust is nicely browned and thick juices are bubbling out of the vents in the top crust.
Let pie cool before cutting if you want pretty pieces. Warm pie, however, is delicious with vanilla ice cream, and nobody much cares how it looks.
Photos by Jill Nicolaus.
A big "Thank you!" to Felicia Cash Amidon for sharing her recipe with us.