Last year my kids and I discovered Leona Valley, a fold at the edge of the high desert near Palmdale filled with cherry trees. Every June (and this year possibly into the beginning of July) a dozen or so family-owned orchards open their gates to city folks only too happy to pick. It isn’t the cheapest way to acquire cherries, but the memories are priceless: tromping up and down the hilly orchards, seeking out the most perfect clusters, filling huge plastic buckets with cherries for the whole neighborhood, emerging with unmistakable evidence on your face of having enjoyed a few along the way.
And so, last June, two moms and four very happy little boys spent several hours filling buckets of sweet red and yellow cherries. We brought them home, divvied them up, and panicked a little. The joyous realization that we had fruit for a dozen pies was overshadowed by the enormity of the task ahead: Who exactly was going to pit all those cherries? (Hint: My fingertips were red for weeks.)
When blushing yellow Rainier cherries appeared at the Santa Monica farmers market last week, I only hesitated a moment before buying a few pounds. A year had gone by. I’d recovered enough to pit one pie’s worth. I love the sweet, mild Rainiers in pies and tarts, because less sugar means you taste more cherry and less syrup. And then there’s the other great thing about Rainiers: They don’t stain.
I’m not great with a rolling pin, so I use an easy press-in dough for this pie; it’s flaky but has enough structure to stand up to the heavy layer of cherries. You’re probably less intimidated by pie crust, so use whatever recipe you like. Don’t be put off by the use of olive oil in the crust below – it helps the texture and lends a hint of the exotic.
Yellow cherry pie
6 cups yellow Rainier cherries, pitted
3 Tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons sugar
2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup milk
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
In a large bowl, toss together the cherries, cornstarch and 1/2 cup sugar. Leave the cherry mixture to macerate on the counter while you assemble the crust; the sugar will draw out some of the liquid in the cherries and will mix with the cornstarch to make the juicy cherry filling.
In a pie plate, mix together the flour, 2 Tbsp of the sugar, and the salt with a fork. Using the same fork, whisk together the melted butter, olive oil and 1/4 cup of the milk in a measuring cup. Pour the liquid over the dry ingredients in the pie plate and mix them together with the fork. If the dough seems dry, add the remaining milk a little at a time. When the dough comes together in the middle of the plate, stop mixing. Use your fingers to press the dough over the bottom and up the sides of the pie plate.
Stir up the cherry mixture once more, then turn it into the unbaked pie crust. Bake the pie about 45 minutes, or until the fruit is wrinkled, the juices are bubbling, and the crust is a gorgeous golden brown. Cool before slicing.