Category Archives: dessert

A pie for imperfectionists

Piemaking

Despite that recipe you’ve found for “the perfect pie,” it will probably be imperfect — and that’s just the way it should be!

“PIE SHOULDN’T BE PERFECT,” declared an article on making fruit pie that I’d saved from a Bon Appetit magazine.

Aviva and I could  not have agreed more. While we learned a few things from the article (the butter in the crust should be in unevenly sized pieces) wondered over some pieces of advice (a pie should bake for an hour and a half at 350 degrees?) and  rejected others (really, the crust does not need that much butter!), the philosophy expressed in that simple line is what really struck home.

Aviva making pie

Aviva visits the Toby Kitchen for a pie-making session!

 

WE ARE NOT perfectionists, we realized  — and glad of it.

Being an imperfectionist (my new word) means you are content with “good enough,” and not devastated by minor failures in the kitchen or other areas of life.

The Bon Appetit article detailed a finished pie’s characteristics: “The filling will spill out, bits of crust will collapse, and it’s only natural for the fruit to shrink as it bakes, leaving a little gap beneath the top crust.”

And these “imperfections” not only don’t matter, but actually add to the pleasure of  making and eating pie.

“That’s the trouble with cake,” Aviva noted (she has a strong preference for pie over cake). “It’s too perfect.”

RhubarbbirthdayPie

The still-warm pie was too juicy to serve it on the fancy plates I’d set out, so we served it in mismatched bowls, with ice cream melting on top. My twisted-lattice crust had become rather skewed and messy, but that didn’t bother us.

 

Just as the article had predicted, my pie had not yet set properly when we served it to friends a couple hours after taking it from the oven (the article advised waiting at least four hours, and added that pie was even better the day after it was baked. But warm-from-the-oven pie is sooooo good!)

We carved out some fairly sloppy slices and ladled them into mismatched bowls with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. We used spoons instead of forks.

No one complained. It was a perfectly delicious imperfect pie and we were all happy.

————————————

Here’s the updated recipe. And for you fellow rhubarb-lovers, here’s some history and more on the wonderful pie plant.

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Marvelous mandarins

mandarins, MM

Mandarins at Monterey Market, Berkeley, California

I KNOW, I’VE SAID IT BEFORE, but it’s worth saying again: The mandarin is a wonderful winter treat, the season’s ultimate snack fruit.

If you can find mandarins in the store with leaves intact — and the leaves look nice and fresh — that’s the best indication that the fruit is fresh, picked only shortly before being shipped to market.

Mandarins, tangerines, clementines — what’s it all about? What are Pages and Sumos, Murcotts and Tangos? And what about Cuties and Halos (commercial brand names for mandarins) — and why are they better later in the season, from January to April?

Find out the answers to all of these questions and more in the excellent recent New York Times’ article, Mandarin Oranges: Rising Stars of the Fruit Bowl, by fruit expert David Karp.

For my other post about mandarins, including a mandarin cocktail, click here.

Bowlofmandarins

Mandarins and oranges — both in their winter prime.

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Kitchen troubles

sunsetrecipeTHE TROUBLE BEGAN HERE: an attractive photo in a cooking magazine for “pumpkin caramel tart with toasted hazelnut crust.” It was just before Thanksgiving, when I was considering what I could bring for dessert — and it was tempting.

I should have known better. Our Thanksgiving hosts, Nellie and Marc, had said their theme for the food this year was “tried and true.” Which really should be a theme every year for Thanksgiving, in my humble opinion. I mean, so many people look forward to those traditional foods — maybe with a few tweaks here and there —  why disappoint them?

So why couldn’t I just make a good old pumpkin pie — the kind I’d made many times before? But no, lured by the glossy photo and the promise of “ease,” I gave in to temptation.

Two days before Thanksgiving, I made the crust, and it really was pretty easy. So far so good.

My plan was to make the filling and bake the pie the next morning.  I’d just change one or two little things. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to add  a little sweet potato to the pumpkin filling? However, I hadn’t baked the sweet potato quite long enough, and it wouldn’t blend in, even when attacked with the mixer. Since lumpy filling just would not do, I walked to the store to buy another can of pumpkin puree.

The morning was gone by the time I got to the next step, making the caramel sauce. I melted sugar and swirled it in the pan till caramelized, then added the cream. No, not really cream. As I wanted a lactose-intolerant guest to enjoy this pie, I had decided to use coconut milk. But I had only light coconut milk, and I wasn’t sure this was going to work as well as cream. Oh well, I was NOT going to go back to the store. I mixed up the ingredients and put it in the oven.

The recipe said that the filling would be firm on the sides and slightly jiggly in the middle after 30 to 35 minutes. I checked after 30 minutes and panicked. It was totally liquid — like pumpkin soup! No way would it be firm in another 5 minutes. I turned the springform pan this way and that, closed the oven door and set the timer for 10 minutes. To my amazement, in 10 minutes the filling had actually set, and the tart was ready to come out of the oven.

pumpkinsinkhole2

But now there was a BIG problem. While some of the muddy-looking filling had slopped over the crust, a large sinkhole had developed — and weirdly, not even in the middle of the pie/tart, but off-center. ( I couldn’t fill the crater with whipped cream, as that would have defeated the no-lactose attempt.)  Meanwhile, I had tried to caramelize some hazelnuts for decoration but this effort failed too, and the nuts ended up crusty with sugar rather than the shiny  caramelized ones of the photo.

IN SHORT, THIS WAS NOT  the pretty pie of the glossy photo! Not at all. I debated starting over and making a regular pumpkin pie but I was thoroughly sick of being in the kitchen at this point. I gave up and went to my yoga class.

The next day — Thanksgiving — I opened the refrigerator and witnessed a semi-miracle. The contents of the pie seemed to have shifted so the sinkhole had diminished. It was now merely a depression. I still didn’t know how it would taste, but the kitchen seemed welcoming again as I cooked another batch of cranberry sauce and blanched some green beans. I nestled the pan into a box for its trip to the Thanksgiving feast.

hazelnutpumpkin

By the time we got to Thanksgiving dessert, I wasn’t too worried — perhaps an effect of the abundant food and wine. So what if it wasn’t the world’s best or prettiest pie? I’d dressed up the top with candied (not caramelized) hazelnuts  and you could barely see the former sinkhole. What’s more, it tasted pretty darn good, and the slices quickly disappeared off the platter.

But would I make this recipe again? I already knew the answer before I even took one bite. No, no, and no.

I gave the magazine away right after I took the photo for this blog post.  I have learned my lesson. A pumpkin pie would have been just as good (allowing for my usual tweaking and minor experimentation) — and I wouldn’t have had all that stupid agonizing.

So I’ve resolved: from now on, I’m not going to be a sucker for the glossy photos and complicated new recipes– especially on the big occasions, like Thanksgiving.

Pumpkin pie

My new motto: Keep it simple. Keep it classic. Keep enjoying the cooking.

p.s. That filling that I couldn’t use because it seemed lumpy? I used it today in a classic little pumpkin pie that really was easy to make (and the filling wasn’t lumpy after all). The experimental part was a cornmeal crust that I saw on the wonderful pie blog, Nothing in the House. So good!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under baked goods, dessert, fall

August fixin’s

pasta and vegAUGUST REMINDS ME of my childhood: the sticky hot humid days in Chicago, barely relieved by the big swamp cooler in the basement. We had no air conditioning and my two sisters and I slept in an upstairs attic-type room, catching what little breeze we could from the open window and a fan. A thunderstorm was an evening’s entertainment:  From our screened-in back porch, we’d listen to the thunder, watch the streaks of lightning and smell the oncoming rain.

But best of all, August meant we would pack up the car (I always had a case full of books) and leave the city for a rented cabin in Ephraim, Wisconsin, or South Haven, Michigan, where we’d swim in Lake Michigan (Yes, we did that at home too, but here it was even better) and eat fresh peaches and blueberries, corn and tomatoes, trout and smoked whitefish, and bakery white rolls. And cherry pie.

Wherever you are, fresh produce is abundant this month, and dinner doesn’t have to be salad. On these lazy days, I love to center an August meal around corn on the cob. Or potato and green beans in a vinaigrette. Or cherry tomatoes, as in the photo above, roasted (or sauteed) with some garlic and oil and sprinkled with basil, to dress a pasta. With a side of green beans with lemon zest, and a simple salad with beets (dressed in another vinaigrette) and hazelnuts, it was a light but satisfying meal that didn’t take long at the stove.

blackberry cobbThis kitchen blog began in 2009 with Blackberry Cobbler No. 8, a recipe for the eighth version I had made of blackberry cobbler.

This week my daughter and I picked  blackberries (it’s been unusually hot here so it’s almost end-of-the-season) for a cobbler and decided that the No. 8  version is still hard to beat, with very tender biscuits with a touch of cornmeal. There’s not too much sugar in it, and a dollop of ice cream on the warm cobbler will suit it just fine.

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Another tip from the checkout counter

upside down pineapple

Pineapple upside down. No, do not add “cake” on the end of that phrase. I’m talking about the whole fruit.

That’s the tip I got at the Trader Joe’s checkout counter last week, when I was buying an extra-nice (heavy for its size and golden colored) and quite inexpensive pineapple.

The clerk said she’d lived in Hawaii, and the trick to a juicy pineapple was to cut part of the top so it is more-or-less level and leave it upside down on the counter for a few days.

Okay! I went home with our pineapple and followed instructions.

juicy sweet pineapple

And yes. It was sweet and juicy and very delicious.

But would it have been as sweet and juicy if I hadn’t turned it upside down? (Remember, I’m getting pretty skilled at judging good pineapples.) Steve was convinced that the upside-down treatment was effective. But really,  there was no way of knowing or testing this out.

Regardless, pineapple is so refreshing this time of year, a wonderful antidote to all the rich sweets of the holiday season — I highly recommend it!

For more on pineapples, see A Passion for Pineapples and A Passion for Pineapples, part 2

Pineapples in Istanbul

Cutting pineapples in Istanbul

p.s.  This wasn’t the first time I’d gotten a helpful food idea at the checkout counter. There was this tip, from my local grocery, for roasted brussels sprouts.

Have you received any good hints from the checkout counter, produce section, etc.? Let me know!

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December 18, 2014 · 5:02 am

Al fresco

zuccflowersIt’s well into August and the farmer’s market is bursting with pretty much everything. We finally got some rain here last week, which made the farmers really happy.

farmersmktEverything is fresh, beautiful and tasty!

newpotatoes

salmonsaladWith all these fresh selections, I’ve still been mostly in the salad mode, which has the great advantage of using little or no heat.

capresesaladI’ve  even had enough Sun Gold cherry tomatoes and basil from my own teeny garden to make a Caprese salad (with fresh mozzarella).

pizzaAnd occasionally I have turned on the stove or the oven, to make pasta with roasted or sauteed tomatoes and basil — or pizza with those same ingredients. (Mmmm, it had been such a long time since I had pizza.) And green salad alongside, of course.

springrollskin

Another great way to eat your salad is in a fresh spring roll — also called summer roll or salad roll.

springrollwrapI’d never made these before but it turns out to be pretty simple — just a lot of chopped salad ingredients (plus some thin Asian noodles — I used brown rice ones), some shrimp or chicken or tofu if you like, and the spring roll skins, which are briefly soaked in hot water, then rolled around the filling like a burrito. You can find instructions here and many other places on the Web, and adapt them as you see fit. And make or buy a nice sauce to dip them in.

alfruit dessertAlso,  all the marvelous fresh fruit this time of year makes it easier to eat a little lighter than usual. We’ve really been enjoying a simple dessert lately: a bowl of fruit with a nice dollop of maple-sweetened yogurt. Sitting outside on a warm evening with a slab of watermelon or a juicy fresh peach is appealing too.

bbbcakeBut I really couldn’t let August go by without baking at least one Blueberry Boy Bait! I made it when we had some company coming, and it was a fitting afternoon treat.

Freddie and Val sample the Blueberry Boy Bait

Freddie and Val sample the Blueberry Boy Bait

And what better way to enjoy it, as with so many of these meals and snacks,  than al fresco — the perfect summer way to dine!

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The madeleines of friendship

Madeleines and sauternes

Well, I was going to title this post “Proust comes to Vermont,” but that wasn’t quite accurate.  Instead I was the one who came to Vermont last month, flying across the country to visit my dear friend Rachel, who I hadn’t seen in many years.

rachel

Rachel in the Ripton Country Store

But Marcel Proust was with us, at least a little bit too, in the form of madeleines.

Even if you haven’t read a page of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” you may have heard of the passage in which he dips “one of those squat, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell,”  in a cup of tea, evoking a flood of memories.

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me.

… And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before Mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”

teandmad

Interestingly, Proust made the little scalloped cake so famous that Webster’s dictionary defines the madeleine not only as “a small, rich, shell-shaped cake,” but in a second definition as “one that evokes a memory.”

Rachel had some nice new French madeleine tins she hadn’t tried out yet, and we had a couple days of rainy weather, so we pored through the cookbooks and found a recipe that sounded good in “Paris Sweets” by Dorrie Greenspan.

madeleinepans2

New madeleine tins. Photo by Rachel Hunter.

Mixing up the batter together, we remembered our silly kitchen adventures some 40 (gasp!) years past, making Grasshopper Pie (creme de menthe, creme de cacao, Oreo cookies, marshmallows. Really, did we eat that??? Ugh.)

And as we laughed and reminisced, I reflected on other experiences of cooking with friends and loved ones. Candied lemon peel with Cathy.  Cantucci  ( Tuscan biscotti) with Iris. Spanakopita with Nia. Pesto with Laurie. Antipasto with Cathy, Meg and Christina. Lemon pizza with Zak. Pies–rhubarb, lemon, apple– with Aviva.

rhubarb-pie1

Toby and Aviva — and rhubarb pie.

As delicious as the results of these cooking-together sessions usually were (often with recipes more complicated and time consuming than my usual fare), even more wonderful was the  shared pleasure of  long and timeless friendship–the laughter and camaraderie mingled with a dusting of flour, a drizzle of olive oil, the flurry of chopping onions, apples or nuts, the scents of just-picked basil or freshly grated lemon zest — each experience truly a madeleine of the memory-evoking kind.

SauternesThe day after we made the madeleines (which were very pretty, by the way), Rachel set some out on a plate accompanied by a bottle of Sauternes that she deemed a perfect pairing.  She sifted through her vintage collection for some adorable embroidered napkins and even little doily-like slippers for the wineglass stems (!) and made a lovely arrangement.

Photo-shoot for the madeleines

It was really too early in the day to be drinking Sauternes, so instead we just enjoyed doing a photo shoot. And I promised to do a blog post on the madeleines.

I brought some of the madeleines back home for Steve, who was happy to have them. In the first couple days after my return, he ate all but one out of the cookie tin. But in the whirlwind of summertime visits and visitors, he forgot about that one lonely madeleine in the tin. And, in the laziness of long, fruit-filled summer days, I almost forgot about my promise to do a blog post.

That is, just until  a few days ago, when I gently warmed up some fresh peaches and blueberries (with a couple tablespoons of sugar and water to make a sauce) and served them with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. “This would be good with a cookie,” I suggested.

“What about that madeleine?” he asked. “Do we still have one?”

madeleineandpeach
Indeed we did, and it was very stale, but Steve said he still enjoyed it.

And as for Marcel Proust? In an amusing 2005 piece in Slate, Edmund Levin tried to decipher the recipe from Proust’s descriptive passage in his novel. He concluded that real madeleines don’t produce crumbs at all — even when stale. “Proust’s madeleine did not, does not, and never could have existed,” Levin writes. “To put it bluntly: Proust didn’t know from madeleines.”

Be that as it may, the recipe we used from Paris Sweets was just right (it’s essential to let the batter rest a few hours or overnight) and we used David Lebovitz’s tip (though not his madeleine recipe) to brush them with a simple lemon glaze. A big thank you to Dorie Greenspan, Marcel Proust, and all my cooking and baking friends!

Classic Madeleines
  • 3/4 cup (105 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup sugar (100 grams)
  • grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 5 tablespoons (70 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  1. Sift the flour and baking soda

  2. Beat eggs and sugar together with a mixture until thick and lighter in color, 2 to 4 minutes

  3. Add lemon zest and vanilla

  4. Gently fold dry ingredients into the egg-sugar mixture, followed by the butter

  5. Refrigerate mixture in a covered container, at least 3 hours, preferably longer and up to 2 days.

  6. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Generously butter the tin and dust with flour. Divide the batter into the molds — don’t fill them too full. Don’t worry about smoothing out the batter; it will even out as it bakes.

  7. Bake in the upper part of the oven for 11 to 13 minutes, until the madeleines are puffed and golden, and spring back when touched. Don’t over-bake. Remove and cool on a rack

  8. If you are using lemon glaze, mix 3/4 cup confectioners sugar with 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and brush on the madeleines while they are still warm.

    madeleinesonplate

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Pie plant season

rosyrhubarb

Thank you, Maggie, for the rhubarb!

It’s the season to celebrate rhubarb once again — and what better way than pie? After all, its nickname is pie plant, and every spring I seem to write about rhubarb pie — so why break the tradition? This time I decided to just take some photos along the way and show you how I spent my Sunday afternoon, along with some simple instructions if you’d like to make a delicious late-spring pie.

chopped rhubarb

Chop the rhubarb — you’ll need 4 cups or a little more for a small 8-inch pie — and make enough pie dough for a double crust, pat into two circles and refrigerate for an hour.  Then go for a walk while the dough is chilling.

Sunday afternoon was the perfect time for pie making.

rpie2

To the chopped rhubarb, add a cup of sugar, 2 tablespoons flour, some orange or lemon zest and a squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt.

making rhubarb pie

Now roll out a little more than half the pie dough into a circle that overlaps the edges of the pie pan, and ladle in the filling in a mound.

Dot with butter

Dot  the rhubarb with butter

Roll and cut the dough into strips

Roll out the rest of the pie dough and cut into strips. A pasta cutter makes a fancy edge, but is not necessary.

Weave those strips into a lattice top

Weave those strips into a lattice top. My lattice was  a little funky, but who cares? Brush the crust with milk and sprinkle on some sugar.

Bake at 400 degrees for about 40 or 45 minutes

Bake at 400 degrees for about 40 or 45 minutes. Oops, that crust looks pretty dark.

Serve, preferably with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, and eat on a late Sunday afternoon. Skip dinner. Perfect.

Serve, preferably with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, and eat on a late Sunday afternoon. Skip dinner. Perfect.

 

See more posts on rhubarb:

Fruit or vegetable?
Return of the rhubarb lover

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Summertime easy

saladbowl
It’s been more than a month since I’ve written here, and in the meantime, we took a 12-day road trip to Montana (central and eastern) and a bit of Wyoming. For those of you who have followed my blog, you’ll know this trip in the rural West presents a challenge for me in finding food that I like, especially fresh vegetables.

I’ve written about my road trip kitchen and motel cooking tips before here, and here — and salads I made by boiling water in the electric kettle to cook bulgur and washing lettuce and other vegetables in my salad spinner.

But this year, I was lazier — ahem, that is to say, more practical (smarter?)– and often bought those packages of pre-washed spinach or salad greens that I usually eschew at home. Let me just say –they are great for travel! — Of course, I had my bottle of olive oil, plenty of lemons (and my lemon reamer) and some salt, so I had all the ingredients for dressing any kind of salad.

Also, I was inspired by a nice new blue speckled enamel salad bowl I bought at Ray’s Sports & Western Wear in Harlowton, Montana.

broccolirabe

Amy of Terra Verde Farms clued me in about roasted broccoli rabe. Just toss with a little oil and salt, roast at 400 degrees till it’s as done as you like it.

Back home, I really haven’t had much energy for making dinner. So we continue with salads (lettuce and radishes from the farmers’ market) and corn or bread or a quesadilla. If I am more ambitious (not much) I might just make pasta with fresh cherry tomatoes and basil and a sprinkle of pecorino. Or it’s cool enough to turn on the oven, occasionally I make a delicious  little piece of sockeye salmon and rice. Or some roast vegetables.

Often I really can’t think of what we should eat for dinner (crackers and cheese?) but if I do decide to actually cook something, it must be simple. It’s summertime, after all.

beancornquinoaThe salad above is about the most complicated thing I’ve made in a month, and it was really pretty easy. Quinoa (I used red quinoa from Trader Joe’s) a can of black beans, corn kernels, green and red onions, halved cherry tomatoes (from the plants on my patio!), chopped cucumber, cilantro, a little chopped jalapeno, avocado pieces and a dressing with some oil and lots of lime juice, some lime zest and salt. You could vary this a number of ways, of course.

It made a good lunch today — but I don’t know what we’ll have for dinner.

It’s not that I’ve been avoiding the kitchen all the time. I made a jar of quick pickles using dill I had in the garden, and I bought basil from farmers’ market to make pesto.

picklesI made Blueberry Boy Bait for summer visitors. Lately, Steve and I have been picking lots of wild blackberries in the evenings, and I’ve made blackberry scones and blackberry crisp (in individual servings so we wouldn’t eat too much) and even blackberry focaccia —  but mostly I’ve been putting them into the freezer for the long winter ahead.

It’s summertime, I’m lazy, and the livin’ should be easy…

individualblackbcrisp

When it comes to dessert, few things are easier than a blackberry crisp. Add a tablespoon or two of sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice and a teaspoon of cornstarch to enough berries to fill two ramekins; top with a mixture of butter (you don’t need much), oats, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon (and chopped nuts if you wish.) Bake at 350 degrees till berries are bubbling and topping is crisp. Yum!

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Pleasures of summer

yograsp

Yogurt and granola with freshly picked raspberries

Here are just some of the delights I’ve been enjoying this first week or so of July.

Salmon with lemon slices

Salmon with lemon slices

 Copper River salmon with blackened (caramelized) lemon slices. It’s nice to use a cast iron skillet for this. First, saute one (or two) thinly sliced lemon(s) in a bit of butter or olive oil until soft and starting to blacken; next, sear the salmon filet, then finish cooking in the oven at 300 or 325 degrees until the salmon is tender and flakes easily.

beanandbroccoli

Beans and greens summer salad

The base is cooked or canned white beans. I used cannellini beans that I brined the night before and rinsed before cooking. (This is a great way to cook beans that I learned from Cook’s Illustrated.) Make a dressing of olive oil, plenty of fresh lemon juice (and some zest if you like), a little garlic and some salt. You can basically add any chopped vegetables and herbs you like: for this salad, I used chopped raw spinach, chopped broccoli rabe (cooked crisp-tender), chopped green onions, a little sweet yellow pepper and some minced parsley, mint and dill. A second variation omitted the spinach but had more broccoli rabe and some basil.

Pie cherries from the farmers market

Pie cherries from the farmers market

Pitting pie cherries

Pitting pie cherries

Cherry pie

Cherry pie

I only had enough cherries for a small pie — and I decided to make the top crust only. (We never missed the bottom crust or its calories. And I didn’t have to decide whether to pre-bake it or not.)

You’ll need some nice fresh pie cherries, which are not always easy to find — and some sugar and cornstarch or other thickener for the filling (How much? Epicurious has a good basic recipe and you can adjust it according to how big a pie you’re making, etc.) Also a little lemon juice and zest.

Some people like almond extract in a cherry pie, but I don’t care for almond extract anywhere, so of course it didn’t go in.

cherrypieone

Later, that same day

I didn’t hear any complaints.

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