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What Makes A Cherry Pie Perfect?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up in out Summer Sipping series, one of D.C.'s best bartenders tells us how to mix up a batch of refreshing cocktails and some non-alcoholic alternatives to toast our independence, and he gives us a little history lesson about cocktails.

But first, we have to eat before we drink, and even more important, we have to have dessert, and what better way to top off a Fourth of July barbecue than with a slice of cherry pie. Now, cherry pie is, pardon the pie, a slice of American culture and the ultimate comfort food for Independence Day, so to learn more about cherry pie, we took a trip to Buck's Fishing and Camping here in Washington, D.C.

Don't let the name fool you. It's a chic restaurant where cherry pie is a summer menu staple. Chef Vickie Reh joins us. Also here with us is Tom Sietsema. He is food critic for the Washington Post, and he covers the local food scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns, and he confesses to love cherry pie. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

Mr. TOM SIETSEMA (Food Critic): Thank you for having me.

Ms. VICKIE REH (Chef): Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Does anybody know how cherry pie became so identified with Independence Day? Why do we love it so much?

Mr. SIETSEMA: Well, I think first of all there's the color aspect. It's red -red, white, with the ice cream. You know, it sort of mirrors the colors of the flag a little bit, and also there's a long tradition of people eating pie in this country too. People were making pies a long time before they were making cakes, and pie was at one time sort of a status symbol among American farmers way back when, and pie was also eaten throughout the day on - it was not unheard of to start the day with a piece of pie, for instance.

MARTIN: Not unheard of for me, either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Do we want a sweet cherry for the best pie?

Ms. REH: Well…

MARTIN: Because I know when I go to the market, and I'm sampling, you know, which I am, I'm looking for the sweetest cherry, but is that what I want for pie?

Ms. REH: Certainly, I think it's traditional to use a sour cherry, which is what we did when we made a rustic pie for you to try with a crumble, but we also used a Rainier cherry with a lattice topping because we wanted to showcase the pretty colors of the red and the yellow of the Rainier cherry. And then I made a small French dessert, which is called clafouti, but here at Buck's it's a new staple, and we call it pudding pie, and with that I use the traditional dark cherries, but beware because we left the pits in, which is traditional, and the bitterness of the pits combines with the sweetness of the cherries to make a really nice-flavored dessert, so…

MARTIN: You mean it's actually traditional to eat the pits?

Ms. REH: No, you put the cherry in your mouth, and then you would spit the pit out, probably not very classy for a romantic date, but it tastes very nice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Pretty good for a picnic.

Mr. SIETSEMA: Food that makes you work.

MARTIN: Exactly.

Ms. REH: Exactly, kind of like spitting the watermelon seeds.

Mr. SIETSEMA: Exactly, that's part of the fun.

MARTIN: Why don't we start with the pie that I think most of us would associate with a classic cherry pie with your double crust and a very pretty lattice top. Tom, why don't you have a bite and tell us.

Mr. SIETSEMA: And these look like Rainier cherries.

Ms. REH: They are Rainier cherries.

Mr. SIETSEMA: And I like the fact that you've got - I love a lattice top. I think it looks really pretty and artful. I like it because it's not too sweet, and I like the fact that the whipped cream is not sweetened too. It allows you to really taste the flavor, I think, of the fruit. I'm curious what you used. Did you use butter in this?

Ms. REH: We use butter in the crust.

Mr. SIETSEMA: In the crust, right.

Ms. REH: But actually just - with the berries, it was just a little bit of sugar, a little bit of flour and cornstarch, some lemon juice.

MARTIN: This raises a question for me, is how do you know how much sugar to use with your cherries?

Ms. REH: The cherries were so lovely and sweet that I used almost no sugar with the Rainier cherries, and that's also why I put the lemon juice in it, to lighten it a bit. I think it brings a brighter note to it, and then we obviously used a lot more with the sour cherries because I didn't want us all puckering.

MARTIN: What shall we try next, the rustic?

Ms. REH: I would try the rustic, yeah. I think we'll end with the pudding pie because it has…

MARTIN: And what makes it a rustic?

Ms. REH: We call it a rustic pie because it's free-form. We lay the pie dough out on the sheet pan and then pile the cherries in and then fold it over. Rather than using a pan, it's free-form, and then we sprinkle the streusel topping on them. It just looked more rustic to me.

Mr. SIETSEMA: This is also probably a pie that a non-baker like myself could make.

Ms. REH: Absolutely.

Mr. SIETSEMA: Because the streusel gives you the crunch, but you don't have to deal with the dough, which is so tricky, I think.

MARTIN: And what kind of cherries did we use here?

Ms. REH: Those are the sour cherries.

MARTIN: The sour cherries.

Mr. SIETSEMA: You can tell.

Ms. REH: Which is more traditional.

Mr. SIETSEMA: A little more bite.

MARTIN: Tom, you look all over the country, and you're from the Midwest, but are cherries, fresh cherries, available all over the country?

Ms. REH: I would think so.

MARTIN: You think they are?

Mr. SIETSEMA: Yes, yeah.

MARTIN: But if they're not, what do we think about - I hate to ask - canned?

Ms. REH: I think that you might be able to find frozen cherries that would work. Certainly if you got canned, you wouldn't want them packed in that horrible, horrible pink…

Mr. SIETSEMA: That weird pink, red liquid, yeah.

Ms. REH: Which could frankly just be maraschino cherry juice that was thickened with cornstarch, but…

MARTIN: So we don't want the kind that you put in the fizzy drinks. We don't want those, the little jars of that. That's not a good plan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What if you're like Tom, you're a little bit crust-averse? What is your recommendation, do you - would you ever…

Mr. SIETSEMA: Oh, I like crusts, I just don't like making them.

MARTIN: Making them.

Mr. SIETSEMA: No, the double crust, I appreciate the art that goes into it.

MARTIN: That's my point. If you're a little bit hesitant to make one, can you buy a nice frozen crust?

Ms. REH: I would not probably buy the frozen crust, but I think that, and I don't want to name a brand name, but certainly the ones that you can buy in the refrigerated section, you know…

Mr. SIETSEMA: The one with the little man whose belly you poke. It's pretty good. It's kind of…

Ms. REH: In a red box.

MARTIN: Okay, all right. Well great, great, great. You've got one more for us to try.

Ms. REH: And this is the one that, like I said…

MARTIN: There's a fancy name for it. Tell me what it is.

Ms. REH: The fancy name is clafouti, but at Buck's, basically we take traditional methods of cooking, and then we implement local produce with them, and so we didn't want to use a fancy French name for it. So we're calling this a pudding pie, and it's eggs and flour and sugar.

It kind of is almost a pancake dough that then you cook in a ramekin so it's obviously thicker. It raises, and then it falls, but the traditional way of making it in France is to use a dark cherry and to leave the pit in, and the bitterness of the pit gives it a certain action, I guess I'd say, an interest.

Mr. SIETSEMA: A real pronounced sort of almond flavor, like a bitter almond flavor.

Ms. REH: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Tom, what do you think? Tell us what you think.

Mr. SIETSEMA: I like this. I think - I've made a lot of clafoutis in my time too, and I think this is a very good version. I think for the Fourth of July, though, I'd probably buy local and eat local, and I think I prefer the lattice crust and the crumble crust.

MARTIN: The traditional. It shows us that cherry pie can kind of go fancy too, and go fancy, right. So what is the key to making a great cherry pie?

Ms. REH: I think it's buying the great fruit and having a good crust, personally.

MARTIN: Tom, what's the secret?

Mr. SIETSEMA: I think crusts are trickier. You know, it's one thing to buy the fruit, and I think that is important, but fruit is forgiving, whereas crusts are not. You know, there's a big debate. Do you use, you know, butter, which gives you a little flavor, but it's a little hard to work with, or do you use shortening, which is easier to work with but doesn't give you the flavor?

Some people like to use a combination of both fats, and I find that that's worked for me as a home baker.

MARTIN: And the final, key question: ice cream or not? Chef?

Ms. REH: I kind of like whipped cream, but I can see where ice cream would be a fan favorite as well.

MARTIN: You wouldn't scream, you wouldn't run screaming out of the kitchen if somebody asked for a little scoop on the side.

Ms. REH: No.

MARTIN: Tom, what do you think?

Mr. SIETSEMA: Well, the fun thing - I like both too, but what I like about ice cream is that it sort - especially on a hot piece of pie, it sort of melts and creates - not only do you get ice cream on the top, but you get this sort of crème anglaise around it as it slowly melts into the pie and the plate. I like both.

MARTIN: Tom Sietsema is food critic for the Washington Post. Chef Vickie Reh is the chef at Buck's Fishing and Camping in Washington, D.C. Our thanks to everyone at Buck's for letting us come today, and happy Fourth.

Mr. SIETSEMA: Happy Fourth.

Ms. REH: Happy Fourth of July. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.