Other people’s recipes: Sweet cherry streusel pie from Four & Twenty Blackbirds

It’s been a long while since I’ve made an actual pie — I think it would have to have been a pumpkin pie, some year around Thanksgiving. But earlier this year I bought The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book by sisters Emily and Melissa Elsen, owners of the trendy Brooklyn pie shop of that name, and I’ve been wanting to make some pies ever since. The book is organized by seasons, and while cherry season seems to be winding down — at least in Washington State where most commercial cherries seem to come from these days — there were still plenty in the supermarket. And therein lies my first frustration: this book is steadfastly volumetric, without providing any hint of the desired weight of ingredients, even those that are never sold by volume, like cherries. Since I’m notoriously bad at estimating volumes by eye, I ended up buying three times as many cherries as I actually needed to make this recipe. (More for me, I suppose, but there is a limit to how many cherries one single guy can eat before they spoil in the refrigerator, particularly when one is also having cherry pie for dessert!)

Another frustration with this book is the rather disjointed way that the complete recipe for a pie is assembled: crust recipe at the back of the book, except some of the procedure at the front of the book, topping recipe at the back of the book, filling recipe in the middle, with much place-marking and flipping back and forth to find all of the details of the ingredients and procedure. Perhaps if one is both an experienced pie baker and accustomed to the particular recipes in this collection it might be easier to use, but for a first-time user it can be quite daunting to discover, as I did, that the pie plate was supposed to be buttered, that an egg-white glaze was needed when blind-baking the crust, and that pastry flour was specifically not recommended to use in the Elsens’ crust recipes. (Oh well, too late now.) That said, I was able to successfully complete the recipe, and I have the pictures to prove it.

Like many pie and tart recipes, this is a two-day process: the dough is prepared on the first day and chilled overnight, and then the dough is rolled out, the crust is prepared, the filling is made, and finally the pie is baked off on the second day. In this case, there’s also a streusel topping that needs to be chilled as well, so I started with that:

Streusel topping

The streusel, like the pie dough, was prepared the day before and refrigerated.

The pie dough, which uses only butter as the fat, was considerably more difficult than the streusel. It starts simply enough:

Flour and butter

Cold cubed butter is added to a mixture of flour, sugar, and salt to make pie dough.

But then you have to incorporate the butter into the flour without allowing it to soften or melt, so that it remains as distinct but small lumps that will smear out when the dough is rolled and become flakes upon baking. I found this to be extremely difficult, and I have no idea if I stopped too soon or went too long:

After cutting in the butter...

The Elsens advise using a pastry blender to make the pie dough. I can’t agree, but I followed their instructions anyway, to the extent that I could. The butter-flour mixture made an unmanageable mass on the pastry blender, leaving me with no idea when “mostly pea-sized pieces of butter remain”. Next time, I’ll be using the food processor.

I think I also added too much liquid. although it was hard to tell how much was the right amount. (The Elsens’ instructions seem to conflict a bit here, with some parts of the book recommending a spatula or scraper to combine the liquid and flour-butter mixture, but others saying to do it with your hands.) It did come together into a lump, however, so I proceeded in accordance with the instructions:

Preparing to rest the pie dough

Pastry must rest for some time in the refrigerator. This serves two purposes: first, it allows the butterfat to resolidify, and second, it gives the flour time to completely absorb the liquid. Excessive handling at this stage can develop gluten, resulting in a tough crust. I probably managed that.

On Sunday, I got up and dealt with the lump of pie dough. It did not take a whole lot of work to roll it into a reasonable facsimile of a pie crust, although I perhaps could have made it look a bit less sloppy:

Pie crust ready for blind baking

The following day, I rolled out the dough in accordance with the Elsens’ directions, and fit it into a nine-inch Pyrex pie plate. I eschewed the fancy hand-crimped edge treatment they suggest in favor of a simpler fork-crimped edge. The crust has to go back in the fridge to resolidify after all that handling.

After trimming the edges, I had a bit of leftover dough (probably more than I should have) and made myself a little treat:

Cinnamon-sugar pastry thingie

My grandmother makes cinnamon-sugar pastry treats out of leftover pie dough. I didn’t have enough dough to do it like she does (I think she makes extra dough intentionally!) but I mixed some cassia and brown sugar together and rolled it up in a scrap of pastry like this. Then 15 minutes in the oven and yum!

While waiting for the crust to solidify, I got to work on the cherries — first figuring out how many I actually needed, and then the simple but tedious and messy process of pitting them.

And about those cherries...

I am notoriously awful at estimating volumes by eye, so I bought about three times as many cherries as necessary — the Elsens, somewhat inconsiderately, specified only “5 cups” as the quantity, and I don’t know anyone who sells fresh fruit by the cup. The actual measurement was a pound and a half, or 55 individual cherries; after pitting, as shown on the scale here, they weighed about 22 ounces.

The crust eventually goes into the oven. For this recipe, the crust is only partially baked ahead, so by design it comes out looking pretty much as pasty as it did when it went in:

Crust cooling

As with most fruit pies, the crust must be par-cooked (“blind baked”), both to set the shape of the dough (otherwise it would slump) and to ensure that it cooks completely (as the wet fruit filling would otherwise keep it from getting hot enough).

The crust was protected from premature browning by covering it with a sheet of aluminum foil — which was of course necessary anyway to hold the pie weights:

Pie weights

At the kitchen store you can buy fancy metal or ceramic pie weights to use when blind baking your crust. Or you can go to the supermarket and buy a pound of beans for a buck or two. Guess which option I prefer!

Finally it’s time to make the pie filling itself:

Pie filling

In addition to the pitted cherries, the pie filling also contains a great deal of brown sugar, starch, and a shredded apple, all of which contribute to the gelling of the filling. (The apple contributes pectin but is otherwise not noticeable in the baked pie.) The Elsens’ recipe also includes a couple dashes of Angostura bitters, although I suspect you’d have to run a side-by-side blind tasting to tell what difference it makes.

The cooled crust has to go back into the refrigerator, although I know not why. Once it’s good and cold, it’s time to fill it with the cherry mixture:

Filled pie crust

After the pie crust cooled completely, it was time to fill it. My cherries were so big that it was difficult to fill it evenly — every time I moved some of the filling into a hole on one side, another hole opened up on the other.

Then the streusel topping is spread over the top:

Ready to bake

Thankfully, the streusel topping is quite forgiving and will cover up any obvious voids in the pie filling.

The recipe calls for a two-level baking process: the pie starts on a preheated sheet pan on the bottom rack of a 425°F oven for 20 minutes, then is moved up to the middle rack at 375° for the remainder of the cooking time. Despite all the imperfections, it looks delicious when done:

Completed pie

My oven is probably not precisely level, allowing a small amount of filling to escape on one side. Despite my misshapen crust, it turned out pretty well, I think. Maybe if I make this again I’ll use a tart pan.

Pie in general is not exactly light, calorie-wise, but since I was having a low-fat, relatively low-calorie soup for dinner, I could afford to have a full slice (1/8 of the pie), and it was good.

Pie minus one slice

So, um, I neglected to take a picture of my actual slice of pie, but I did remember to get a picture of the pie with a slice removed!

One more picture with a closer view of the cooked pie filling:

Negative slice

Here’s a closeup of the pie with a slice taken out. Look at how solidly the filling has gelled after having cooled for a few hours!

Nutrition

Well, pie is definitely not a light dessert — I’ve had cakes that are lower-calorie than a slice of this pie, and even a good chocolate bar is going to lighter per serving by quite a large degree. But it’s not terrible, either, and there’s a lot of good fruit in this one.

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1/8 pie
Servings per container: 8
Amount per serving
Calories 482 Calories from fat 171
% Daily Value
Total Fat 19g 30%
 Saturated Fat 12g 61%
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 53mg 18%
Sodium 175mg 7%
Potassium 141mg 4%
Total Carbohydrate 59g 20%
 Dietary fiber 2g 8%
 Sugars 30g
Proteins 3g 7%
Vitamin A 14%
Vitamin C 6%
Calcium 3%
Iron 10%
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