For Presidents Day, a Jubilee of Cherries

I cannot tell a lie...this is the best pie ever, for President's Day or any time.

For decades, my Aunt Rita gave my dad a totally-made-from-scratch cherry pie every Washington’s birthday/Presidents Day.

Her pies had that classic, homemade character, without that machine-made look you get even in a decent bakery pie.  The lattice was pleasing but not precise; the thick crust around the rim bore her knuckle’s imprint; a crescent of cooked, dark red filling usually oozed over part of the edge and congealed.  We always hated to disturb the pie’s homespun beauty by cutting into it, but that fleeting thought usually lasted just a few seconds.

A culinary Olympian, Aunt Rita used only canned sour cherries, sugar, cornstarch and almond extract in her filling. The filling was sweet but not overly so. This commitment to making the filling from scratch never wavered, even when the supermarkets began offering jars of ready-made fillings — those cloyingly sweet, impossibly red mixtures with a few dozen cherries floating around like shipwreck victims awaiting rescue.

Rita’s crust was also homemade, and she always nailed that finicky balance of flour and shortening.  The crust was latticed on top, flaky but with a small core of chewiness under the thick rim.  That soft part under the thick circumference was my favorite part, especially when some pie filling stuck to it. I’d dip that thick crust in whatever filling remained, like using Italian bread to mop up those last drops of sauce.

While Aunt Rita was a purist in the old days, over the years she became more practical.  Partly in response to the jaw-dropping price for a can of sour cherries, she has tweaked her traditional recipe.  Now her filling is a happy mix of two cans of sour cherries — cooked with sugar, cornstarch and almond extract — and a jar or can of the pre-made cherry pie filling.  Can’t say it takes any less time, and making one of these will still set you back at least $12, but it is chock-full of cherries, sweet but not too sweet, and beats those store-bought pies anytime.  And while you can substitute your favorite homemade pie crust for this, I am happy to report that even Aunt Rita, who is now 90, has given that up for a good ready-made crust.   But after making my own (see photo here) with a Pillsbury ready-made crust, I suggest going for the full Monty and making your own…it does taste better.

So this President’s Day, bake up this pie for your first family, or for a cabinet of your dearest friends.

Cherry Pie

2 cans tart cherries, drained (save the juice)

1 jar (21-23 oz.) prepared cherry pie filling

1 cup cherry juice (from the canned cherries)

1 cup sugar

¼ cup corn starch

6 drops red food coloring

4 drops almond extract

2 prepared unbaked pie crusts (your own recipe or ready made)

1 T butter, unsalted

Milk, for brushing the crust (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Mix sugar and cornstarch.  Put in saucepan along with 1 cup cherry juice; and stir well and cook over medium heat until thick and clear.  Add red food coloring and almond extract and stir.  Let cool, then combine with tart cherries and prepared cherry pie filling.  Line a 9-inch glass pie pan with one of the prepared unbaked pie crusts, and pour in cherry mixture.  Dot with butter and make a lattice from the second crust (Weave the lattice on a piece of wax paper, then invert onto top of pie and peel away the paper.)  Crimp edges with your knuckles.  Brush top crust with milk if desired.  Bake 50 minutes to an hour, checking frequently, until golden brown.  Cover the perimeter with a strip of foil if the crust begins to brown too much.

Makes 8 servings.