Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sour cherry pie

Maybe I've seen too many movies, but I firmly believe that every family has at least one great food story.  Be it a terrific disaster involving one very blackened Thanksgiving turkey or a quest to discover the key to a top secret cookie recipe from six generations ago.  This story has neither of those elements :)  But, at least to me and mine, it is a pretty fantastic history of the Kemp family and its love of a rare but delicious summer fruit -- the sour cherry.  If you'll permit me, a trip down memory lane...

I had to do a bit of digging to make sure that I got the details right, but I think I've got it mostly covered between my mom's excellent memory and my dad's occasional commentary and a few clarifications from my grandma.  (Isn't it that way in every family?)  Anyway, according to my dad, he claims the craze began when his grandmother (my great grandmother, whom we called Ama) had a sour cherry tree in her backyard.  Her kids grew up with fresh homemade cherry pies, probably picking and pitting the cherries themselves.  Once they were grown and married with families of their own, all of Ama's children and their kids frequently argued over who deserved which batch of cherries, how to share them equally, and when the best cherries were to be picked.  (If you aren't aware, it's practically cruel how short sour cherry season is -- the latter weeks of June and early ones in July, no longer than four weeks.)

When my dad's parents (and my grandparents) moved from their farm on the eastern shore in Maryland, to a sweet home in suburbia, they cleared the wooded area behind their house and planted a cherry tree of their very own.  My dad was still young, so he and his three siblings also grew up with pies from the backyard.  Can you imagine that?  I'd love to have a cherry tree, maybe a raspberry bush, too, in my backyard someday.  Yum!

Fast forward two decades and some change to when my parents were young and newly married (again, the exact year is unclear) and now living in Pennsylvania.  During the warmer months, when my parents would visit my dad's folks at their home, there were rousing games of badminton in the backyard until the sun went down.  It turns out that my mom and grandfather, Pop-pop, were the more gifted competitors and would often complain about distractions to their otherwise Olympic-caliber games.  One such distraction happened to be -- yep, you guessed it -- the sour cherry tree.  The shuttlecock would frequently get stuck in its branches during rallies.  Cries of, "Cut down that tree!" could be heard from my mom every time.  Excuses, excuses :)  I kid, I kid.

One particular summer, Pop-pop decided that the tree, its inconvenient location, and plethora of unwanted attention from the pesky grackle birds had to go.  He informed my dad and everyone else in the family that he was going to cut down the tree the next time my mom made a fuss about it.  At the next family function (much before us young ducklings), my mom and Pop-pop were having a spirited match when the birdie found its way to its favorite spot among the cherry tree branches, effectively ending that play.  My mom reminded Pop-pop that he should really get to cutting that tree down because, you know, it was constantly interrupting their athletics.  Without blinking, Pop-pop left the backyard only to return a few minutes later with a saw and started cutting down the tree that very night.  My mom, thinking she was the reason for the destruction of this beloved family landmark, was immediately in tears.  "Oh, she was inconsolable!" recalled my grandma.  Meanwhile, everyone else was in on the joke so all they could do was laugh and laugh as the tree came tumbling down.

A few more years later in July of 1984, my mom is nine months pregnant with yours truly.  She and my dad, clad in a pink polo shirt, were out to dinner and joking that hey, wouldn't it be hilarious if she went into labor now?  She didn't, and they finished their fish and headed home to where there was a fresh batch of sour cherries, just waiting for a baker's touch.  A week or so had gone by and they were still unused.  That evening, my mom said she just had a feeling she should use them soon or they might be neglected due to other unpredictable events.

So she went about her evening, literally barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen (love it), assembling sour cherry pies.  While they were in the oven, I'm told that, while she wasn't having contractions, she just had an inkling that my dad should take her to the hospital very soon... like, that night.  But no, not just yet -- she wanted to get the pies out of the oven and cooling before they jetted off in a hurry.  (God bless my mother, she knows her priorities!) So the pies came out and around midnight they headed to the hospital.  Eight hours later, a baby girl was brought into this world at 8 pounds and 9 ounces.  A little girl that would grow up to bake the very same pies that, the entire Kemp family is convinced, might just have something to do with her love of sugar, spice and everything nice... it may have even helped to snag Matt, too :)

Kemp Sour Cherry Pie
-makes 1 9-inch pie

A few notes: Not sure what to do with that fresh sour cherry juice?  For goodness sake, don't throw it away! Save it in a covered container and make yourself some sour cherry-ade later.  I looked for possible uses, thinking of a reduction and glaze for pork or beef, but so many suggested adding a dash of sugar to a glass full of it, stirring, and guzzling this simple summer cocktail of sorts.  Deeeeeeeeelicious!  Refreshing!  Tart and sweet!  Oh, and I suppose if you want to make it a real cocktail, you could throw in some vodka, too.  I hear that's what adults do, anyway.

2 rolled out pie crusts, store-bought and thawed from frozen or double this recipe
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling
3 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon cornstarch (or 2 Tablespoons more of all-purpose flour)
1/8 teaspoon salt
5 cups fresh sour cherries, pitted and drained very well
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 1/2 Tablespoons butter
1 egg, lightly beaten

Preheat oven to 425 F.  In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, flour, cornstarch and salt.  Fold in cherries and almond extract, stirring until evenly mixed.

Line 9-inch glass pie plate with one pie crust and gently pat into dish, trimming overhanging dough.  Fill pastry-lined plate with cherry mixture and spread evenly so top is relatively flat.  Dot cherry mixture with pieces of butter and cover with remaining pie crust, trimming its overhang as well.  Gently press together edges, either with a fork (like I did) or the thumb to forefinger method.  Using a pastry brush, brush the entire top of the pie crust with the egg wash.  Cut vents in top crust to your liking, and sprinkle top with a bit of granulated sugar for an extra crunch.

Bake pie at 425F in oven for 10 minutes.  Reduce heat to 350F and bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until crust is golden.  Remove promptly from oven and place on wire rack to cool completely, roughly 2 to 3 hours (unless you don't mind really runny pie filling).  In fact, I find it's best left to sit and set overnight.  Serve alone or with commode, as my dad would say a la mode :)

Today is National Peach Pie Day!  Ehhh, my vote is already clear :)

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