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Sunday, July 22, 2012

I Cannot Tell a Lie…I Baked That Cherry Pie!…

Pie cherry tree“Yes, I can bake a cherry pie,

Quick as a cat can wink his eye…”

“Are the leaves turning already?” I wonder as Gladys and I spin along Tualco toward the Barrell Man’s house. I’m referring to a tree in his backyard. Then I realize it’s mid-July and those aren’t leaves blushing red on the tree, they’re pie cherries, and a bumper crop, too. Last summer I stopped by with bartering on my mind: a quart of Valley honey for enough pie cherries to fill a pie crust. The Barrell Man was kneeling among his corn rows plucking weeds. I noticed right away the backyard cherry tree had only a sparse setting of fruit. We chatted a while but because of the scarcity of cherries, I made no mention of a possible exchange of honey for cherries.

At one time we had two backyard cherry trees. One spring some sort of beetle infested both. I noticed tiny holes oozing sawdust from the trunks; each tree looked like it had been shot-gunned. A good dousing of the trunks with insecticide came too late: the younger tree died and the older, badly damaged, never recovered. Two years later I cut it down, yanked the stump, and for years there were no fresh cherry pies made from our backyard cherries.

Two years ago I purchased a bare root Montmorency pie cherry tree and planted it where its predecessors once stood. To prevent the return of those tree boring beetles, in late March I use an oil-based dormant spray and apply it liberally to trunk and branches. The tree yielded a handful of cherries its first year. This spring the little 
“Monty” had a heavy bloom and I had high hopes my close attention to its health would provide enough fruit for one cherry pie.

May came and the tree’s flower stems began to show green pips. June. The pips had swollen and turned yellow. It’s hard to judge just how many cherries, when picked and pitted, would amount to four cups of fruit, but I was determined to make a pie—even if it was a miniature eight inch. No, I would not settle for a cobbler. On that point I was determined.Pie protection As soon as the first pink blush appeared on the marble-sized cherries, I covered the entire tree with protective netting so the robins wouldn’t peck my pie dreams in the bud.

July. The cherries, now plump little morsels, had turned a uniform deep red. They dangled from their stems like ruby pendants, and though I was tempted to pluck a few to eat fresh, I held off; this first crop was destined to become a pie. Tree ripenedEach day I’d circle the tree, peer in at the fruit, try to size up the tree’s potential in terms of pie filling.

Harvest time. I rounded up a picking bucket and headed out to fetch my pie. Carefully I removed the netting; there was not a single cherry to spare. Off with the fruit, one stem at a time. Tree-ripened and fresh, that’s how I wanted the cherries. With visions of pie slices in my head, I cleaned the tree of every single cherry. As the bucket filled, I weighed my pie chances. I had hopes that eight inch pie might just become the standard nine. With the harvest and my hopes in the bucket I headed for the house.Headed for a pie

                         *               *               *               *

While the oven is warming, allow me a strange digression. The topic? Evolution--specifically the evolution of Man. More specifically yet the evolution of Men. I’m talking about two innovations that have brought us men out of our stone age caves into the light of the modern age, brought us out of the dark woods of hunting and gathering, moved us males along the evolutionary trail from Homo ineptness a few steps closer to Homo capabilis, two miracles of  modern times that have brought us more on par with the nimble fingers and knack for the creative that are the hallmarks of the females of our sex.Two giant steps for menkind indeed when the gift bag and Ready-Made piecrust came along.

The gift bag. When the time comes for us men to wrap a gift for that special someone, no longer do we need wish we had four hands to tie the bow. No longer do we need to take Origami 101 to learn how to swaddle a gift in wrapping paper, graft the thing together with a minimum of cellophane tape; no longer be uncertain if we’ve taped the right seams, allowed enough wrap to cover the gift; in short, come up with package that shows some creativity and is pleasing to the eye of the recipient, rather than a jumble of paper, tape, tags, and bows that looks as if a young child or chimpanzee collaborated on the thing. Just select a bag large enough to hold the gift, is season-appropriate, and a festive color. Certainly we men are up to that task. Just pop the gift in the bag and discretely cover it with colorful, loosely wadded sales fliers. (The more evolved among us might even select matching colored tissue paper.) There’s your gift--all tastefully presented and with little handles to boot!

Ready-made piecrust. Man crust, I call it. Remember Simple Simon of nursery rhyme lore (“Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair…”)? I just suspect Mrs. Simon baked the pies; Mr. Simple was simply the salesman. Now, guys, piecrust comes in a box, conveniently rolled up for the man who himself would bake pies. No muss or fuss with that troublesome dough, the cutting in of shortening, lard, butter (decisions, decisions…). No more do our clumsy hands have to fumble a dough roller and try to smooth out a crust that’s not an ellipse, or a trapezoid, or a square (a square crust in a round pan??) and fractured around the edges. Just slip a Ready-Made out of its sleeve, unfurl it, and there it is in all its perfect rotundity.A man crust The rest is simple: a matter of reading the recipe; any man can do that, right? 

I squeezed just enough fruit from this year’s cherry crop to fill a nine inch pan: a tad shy the four cups of fruit the recipe called for. A few more cherries would have been nice; where pies are concerned, it’s better to have extra filling than not enough. Nobody likes a pie with sparse innards—not this pieman anyway. Not having the burdensome task of trying to meld flour, shortening, and water into a suitable receiving blanket for pie filling allows one to express his creativity with the other ingredients. In my case, switching out the flour as a thickening agent for tapioca instead. A fruit pie isn’t complete without those little translucent globules of manioc buds to glue the works together. (This pieman also doesn’t like his slice of pie to juice out in the pan, sending him to the silverware draw in a huff for a serving spoon to ladle the leaked contents sauce-like over the deflated slice.)

In goes the filling. Next, pats of butter enough to impress Julia Childs and you’re ready to marry top and bottom crusts.Topless... Here you cross your fingers and hope the seal is strong enough to contain the bubbling contents. (The seasoned pieman knows the molten filling is quick to find any fissure in the crust and ooze magma-like down the sides of the dish or worse yet, seep under the bottom crust and cement it to the pan.) I’m a seal first, flute last pieman. I’m also a counterclockwise fluter. Come to think of it, preparing the rim of the crust is the artistic stage of pie building. I must admit I haven’t quite mastered the technique yet. My efforts look at best…well, homemade. Venting the pie…just a practical tree for this baker: a trunk and four offset branches, one per quadrant for a grove of four trees per pastry. My goal for the ultimate top crust presentation is a well-tined  fleu-de-lis venting, but for now, let’s keep it simple, Simon. Just dust the top with a light sprinkling of sugar and my man pie is ready for the kiln.Headin' for the heat

A half hour later. The smell of pie success fills the kitchen. A few minutes more and I’ll lift a nicely browned, bubbling pie from the oven; the two-year old tree will have provided its first pie. Next year it’ll surely yield more. I might even make a cobbler.Braggin' rights...

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