Saturday, July 14, 2007

Old-fashioned Montmorency cherry pie

When we moved here five years ago, one of the charming features of the neighborhood was a huge garden maintained by an elderly Italian neighbor who owns several adjoining properties. Mike grew squash, and tomatoes, and beans, and corn; you'd see him every afternoon in his overalls, toting tools, and heading off to work in the garden.

Sadly, Mike began to suffer from dementia two years ago, and could no longer maintain the garden. Mike's family has since sold some of their property, including the garden lot and an adjoining rental house. The garden's new owners are former neighbors who now live East of the mountains; they've invited a few other neighbors to use the garden. But this year no one is growing much in it, and the lower section has gone to seed.

My friend Nilos and I were out walking Thursday and spotted a small cherry tree in back of the garden, filled with ripe cherries. We asked some of the neighbors about it, and they said we were welcome to pick the cherries. They'd tried them and found them to be rather sour.

Of course they were sour! They're Montmorency cherries, also known as old-fashioned pie cherries, which are available at only one or two Seattle farmers' markets, one or two weeks of the year. They're incredibly fragile, losing their bright red, translucent color and turning to a darker shade just an hour or two after you pick them. They need to be cooked, brandied, or otherwise preserved immediately.

On Friday Nilos and I picked about 9 pounds of them. Then I scurried down to the basement pantry and rummaged in the box marked "kitchen gadgets" until I found the little vintage cherry pitter. Using the pitter, and a narrow-tipped wooden chopstick, Nilos and I pitted the first nine pounds of fruit; she took them to Anita's and today they produced three gorgeous cherry pies. They brought one by for me. (Zorg, having been traumatized in his youth by a seasonal job as a commercial cherry picker, has a permanent aversion to cherries.)

With a ratio of 4 cups cherries to 1 cup sugar, the pie is perfect. Anita tells me that the thickener is the pie filling enhancer from The Baker's Catalog. [CORRECTION: the filling is Signature Secrets] And she did a butter crust, far more delicate than anything I'd have been likely to attempt.

Cherry pie made with old-fashioned pie cherries was my dad's favorite dessert. He and my mom had difficulty finding canned sour cherries when they moved to Florida, so I'd ship them cans of Oregon pie cherries. Since "real cherry" pie is such a family tradition, I called my mom tonight and invited her over to enjoy some pie tomorrow afternoon.

And I'm taking some pie over to Mike and his wife. That cherry tree was the only fruit tree in his garden, so he must have planted it because he liked those particular cherries. I figure that even if he doesn't remember the tree, he'll still enjoy the pie.

[NOTE: We used one of Nilos' professional pie crusts, but here's a link to my "no-fail" recipe -- easy to make and easy to handle.]


  1. Anonymous10:28 AM

    Karen, a correction: the thickener I used is called Signature Secrets and is available at this link:

    The one you mentioned has other ingredients that I didn't want--and I'm not sure it's the same thickener anyway.

  2. Last year a house on my block sat empty waiting for a buyer. The pie cherry tree in the front yard of the house produced massivea mounts of cherries. The nighbors warned me they were sour. I said I know they are sour, they're pie cherries! No body else knew what to do with them. I made fruit leather rather then frustrate myself making a pie crust.

    Now the house is occupied so I bought a pie cherry tree in a pot and just planted it two weeks ago, it is alreay blooming. So maybe I will get fruit this year. The new occupants of the house have told me I am welcome to all the cherries when they come because they don't like sour cherries.

  3. Oh my, I forgot to put in a link to my incredibly easy pie crust (a recipe I got from the Sunday paper's story on a woman whose pies win the state fair every year). Here it is:
    It's not only easy to make, it's very forgiving and easy to handle -- won't get leathery while you are rolling and cutting.