Monday, July 19, 2010

Melick’s Town Farm and Sour Cherry Pie

Not too long ago I spent my first summer weekend in New Jersey, gardening at my country home, aka Mom and Dad's.  Before heading outside to tackle the weeds and pots of flowers waiting to be planted, I took the morning to visit my favorite farm stands and markets.

One of my stops was Melick’s Town Farm in Oldwick, NJ where I found my dad’s all-time favorite pie fruit, sour cherries.  Melick’s makes and sells amazing fruit pies but, me being me, I would rather bake one than buy one.  Thinking a treat would be in order after a weekend spent outside in the Jersey heat and humidity, I picked up two quarts of fresh cherries, hoped it would be enough for a pie, and headed home.

Or at least I thought I was headed home.  On the way down Lamington Road I spotted a sign for a new farm market in Pottersville, a tiny bucolic town that lies alongside the Lamington River.  Again, me being me, I had to buzz by and check it out.  The weeds could wait!

This is the inaugural summer for the Pottersville market, held outside the pretty Reformed Church on Black River Road.  There will be three more markets held from 9:00 AM – 1:00 PM on the last Saturday of July, August, and September.  

I found a small and festive gathering of farmers and artisans selling, among other things, eggs, honey, cheese, cut flowers, jams and preserves, vegetables, handmade soaps, beeswax candles, gourmet coffee, and freshly baked breads.

It’s exciting to see more farmers’ markets popping up around New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the Union.  The bulk of NJ’s agricultural crops come from the southern part of the state but there are still open areas of land being farmed throughout the state, including central New Jersey where I’m from.

For those of you who think all of New Jersey looks like the area surrounding Newark airport and Giants Stadium (and I know you're there!), you should venture off the Turnpike and take a drive through the quaint country towns of Somerset and Hunterdon counties.  I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how charming it can be.

When I finally returned home I got a big smile from Dad when he learned a homemade sour cherry pie was in his immediate future.  Sour cherries and my dad go hand in hand; anytime they’re on a menu it’s a safe bet that's what he’ll be ordering. Once upon a time we even had a sour cherry tree growing in our backyard (along with sweet cherry, pear and apple trees).  All of our fruit trees faded after several decades of producing and are now gone.  The sweet cherry tree, seen here in the middle ground of the picture, was the last to go.

Sour cherries are also known as tart or pie cherries and as these various names suggest, many people find this type of cherry too acidic to eat out of hand.  They are best used in cooking and baking, which mellows their sharp flavor to sweetness.  Tart cherries are also more delicate than sweet cherries, a major reason you will rarely find them fresh in the grocery stores.  Despite their fragility, sour cherries hold their shape in the heat of the oven unlike their sweet counterparts, making them better suited for baking.

The two main sour cherry cultivars are amarelle and morello.  Morello cherries are generally found in Europe and have a dark skin and flesh.  Amarelle cherries have bright skin and pale yellow flesh and are found throughout the United States, Canada, and France.  The most common variety of amarelle cherry in the US is the Montmorency, named after a valley in France where the first trees were known to have grown.

Over 70% of the United States commercial sour cherry crops are grown in Michigan where the soil and climate along the banks of Lake Michigan are ideally suited for this type of tree.  Utah and New York also have commercial production.  Throughout the US many farms grow the trees in smaller numbers to harvest and sell the fruit locally.

The beautifully translucent red sour cherries I found at Melick’s were picked from trees on their farm and were perfectly ripe. Sour cherries appear in the Northeast for just a few weeks in July and then they are gone.

If you decide to plant your own tree you will soon discover, as my dad did, sour cherries are less prone to diseases than sweet cherries, but the birds LOVE to eat them.  Anyone who plants a sour cherry tree with hopes of picking the fruit will quickly become a bird-netting expert out of necessity!

My first-ever attempt at making a sour cherry pie was a team effort: I made the dough early in the day and chilled it, Dad pitted the cherries, and I put it all together and in the oven before dinner.  The pie was still warm when we ate it with vanilla ice cream later that night.   It was fantastic and I am now officially as crazy about sour cherry pie as my dad.  I just wish the season had lasted a little longer. 

Classic Sour Cherry Pie with Lattice Crust

Chances are the only time you will run into a basket of sour cherries is directly from a farmer.  If you’re smart, you won’t think twice before buying them all up and bringing them home.  The good news is because the cherries are soft, the pits are easy to remove.  Buy as many as you can stand to pit, lay them out on a sheet pan in the freezer until frozen, bag them in a Ziploc, and you’ll be eating sour cherry pie for months to come.

2 ½ cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
5 tablespoons (or more) ice water

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
¼ teaspoon salt
5 cups whole pitted sour cherries or dark sweet cherries (about 2 pounds whole unpitted cherries)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice (if using sour cherries) or 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (if using dark sweet cherries)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 tablespoon (about) milk
Vanilla ice cream

Whisk flour, sugar, and salt in large bowl to blend.  Add butter and rub in with fingertips until small pea-size clumps form.  Add 5 tablespoons ice water; mix lightly with fork until dough holds together when small pieces are pressed between fingertips, adding more water by teaspoonfuls if dough is dry.  Gather dough together; divide into 2 pieces.  Form each piece into ball, then flatten into disk and wrap in plastic.  Refrigerate at least 30 minutes.

Do ahead:  Can be made 2 days ahead.  Keep chilled.  Let dough soften slightly before rolling out.

Position rack in lower third of oven and preheat to 425 degrees F.  Whisk 1-cup sugar, cornstarch, and salt in medium bowl to blend.  Stir in cherries, lemon juice, and vanilla; set aside.

Roll out 1 dough disk on floured surface to 12-inch round.  Transfer to 9-inch glass pie dish.  Trim dough overhang to ½ inch.  Roll out second dough disk on floured surface to 12-inch round.  Using large knife or pastry wheel with fluted edge, cut ten 2/3-inch-wide strips from dough round.  Transfer filling to dough-lined dish, mounding slightly in center.  Dot with butter.  Arrange dough strips atop filling, forming lattice; trim dough strip overhangs to ½ inch.  Fold bottom crust up over ends of strips and crimp edges to seal.  Brush lattice crust (not edges) with milk.  Sprinkle lattice with remaining 1-tablespoon sugar.
Place pie on rimmed baking sheet and bake 15 minutes.  Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees F.  Bake pie until filling is bubbling and crust is golden brown, covering edges with foil collar if browning too quickly, about 1 hour longer.  Transfer pie to rack and cool completely.  Cut into wedges and serve with vanilla ice cream.

Serves 8

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