Holiday Baking: Mary Cherry Christmas Pie

When my counterpart and I started discussing Christmas dinner a few weeks back, I knew I wanted a cherry pie. I grew up in Northeast Wisconsin, and we spent our Christmases with my grandparents and cousins in Sturgeon Bay on the Door Peninsula, where orchards of tart cherries littered the landscape from Brussels bordering Kewaunee County in the south up to Gills Rock on the northern tip of the mainland where a ferry could take you to the islands on the very northern tip between Upper and Lower Michigan. Every Christmas, every holiday, ended with a tart cherry pie.

I haven't had a cherry pie for Christmas since that last Christmas with my grandmother in 2004. While I can usually count on my brother-in-law for a sweet potato pie - a regional favorite out here in Maryland - this year I decided that I was having a nice tart cherry pie like when I was a kid.

I have long been a fan of the basic pie crust in the Betty Crocker cookbook, but this year I deviated. I tried the Deluxe Butter Flaky Pastry Pie Dough from The Joy of Cooking, 1997 edition.

This is a double-crust recipe for a 10-inch pie. After recently discovering that my 9-inch pie pan is actually 9.5, I felt confident that this recipe would yield enough crust. For this pie crust, you will need:

2.5 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

2 sticks of cold unsalted butter

1/4 cup vegetable shortening

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon ice water

Mix together your dry ingredients and set aside.

Cut your butter down into small pieces about 1/4 inch thick. Cut the butter into your dry ingredients using a pastry blender. The recipe - and really all pie crust recipes - claim you can use two butter knives cutting in a cross-wise motion against each other for this process. This has never worked for me, and I doubt it has worked for anyone. If you are a baker, even if only around the end of the year, get a pastry blender.

Now, the point of pie crust is fairly contrary to the point of many other baked items. For pie crust, you want to keep everything cold. Especially so with a butter crust like this one, so don't over work it. Cut everything together until there are still some pea-sized lumps of butter.

At this point, the recipe calls for the vegetable shortening, but also mentions that you can just use more butter if you like. The authors note that an all-butter crust is more difficult to work with. I was undeterred, and cut another half stick of cold butter into my dough.

The dough should still be pretty coarse but also somewhat mixed. Here's where I work it by hand, adding that ice water a little at a time. You want just enough to pull it all together. The third cup plus tablespoon was all I needed.

Divide it in half, shape each half into a flat disk, and chill for at least 30 minutes.

When the pie crust is chilling, I took a little rest, then moved on to the filling.I used the Cherry Pie with Canned or Bottled Fruit, also in The Joy of Cooking. For this filling you will need:

4 cups canned or bottled cherries, juice drained but 1/2 cup added back

1.25 cups sugar for tart cherries

3 tablespoons corn starch

1 tablespoon lemon juice - I used the juice from one lemon

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

2/3 tablespoons butter

I did not have any Door County cherries on hand, and I hear they are not as easy to come by as they used to be, most of the orchards having been sold or developed or let go to rot and ruin. This actually makes me quite sad. But, I had a good substitution with Oregon Tart Cherries in Water. I needed three 14.5 ounce cans to get the required four cups of fruit.

Oregon tart cherries - almost as good as my childhood memories of Door County

Mix the cherries and juice with the sugar, lemon juice, almond extract, and corn starch, and let the mixture sit for about 15 minutes.

Cherry pie filling

While it's sitting, you can preheat your oven to 425 and roll out your bottom crust. Despite the warning about the all-butter crust being difficult to work with, I had less trouble with this dough than with any other pastry dough I've ever attempted. I had enough to line my pie pan without tears or holes or patches. Cut off any overhang with a clean kitchen shears, leaving enough to crimp the top crust.

A single blemish on an otherwise perfect pie crust

If your 15 minutes have passed, pour the fruit filling into the pie crust and dot it with the butter.

Now, I know there are strong opinions among bakers about the lattice crust being the preferred topping for a fruit pie. A raging debate on this takes place in my own family. My niece has perfected the lattice top crust just to let us older women know that it really isn't that difficult. And it isn't. But, this is my Christmas pie, and I have something special in mind. So, I rolled out my top crust.

And reached for the Christmas tree cookie cutter. After some careful measuring, I determined where the center of my top crust would be and gently cut out five Christmas trees, tops pointing center. I used my pastry blade to ease the dough off the board and into position atop the pie, lining it up based on my measurements. I used the tried-and-true crimping tool of my forebears - a dinner fork - to secure the crust in place. Then, for the crowning touch, I took a small star cookie cutter and cut one out of the dough scraps. I used a little egg white to affix it to the center of my top crust to make Christmas pie perfection.

The top crust with Christmas tree cutouts

And in position atop the pie

So, whether you use a whole crust with vents or a lattice crust, bake your pie at 425 for about 30 minutes. Then, turn the oven down to 350 and slip a cookie sheet under the pie. Bake it for another 25-35 minutes, until the crust is golden and the filling is bubbling. During this second half of baking, use your nose to make sure the edges of the crust aren't overcooking. If they start to get too dark, cover them with foil.

Let the pie cool on a wire rack. You can store it at room temperature for only a couple of days, so clear a spot for it in the fridge.

The finished product - Mary Cherry Christmas Pie