Sour cherry season is notoriously short – blink and you miss them – but this year it was even shorter. Due to devastating weather including an unusually warm winter and a late spring cold snap, it’s estimated that 90% of the annual cherry crop, along with quite a bit of orchard fruit were wiped out. My favorite farmer and friend Pete had a depressingly low amount of sour cherries on his market tables for exactly two weeks, about ½ the typical season. I was there both weeks, picking up a half flat of Montmorency and Baletons the second week. Good thing too … the next weekend they were but a mere memory. He’ll have gallon buckets of frozen cherries for a while but I prefer to pit and freeze my own. I’m funny like that.
I’ll usually make something right away; maybe a tart or a cobbler. Given that I have a habit of buying too much of a good thing, I’ll freeze the remainder. I pit, freeze solid in a single layer on sheet pans before transferring to Ziplocs for longer storage. Come January, I’m glad that I did. Nothing brightens up a cold winter day than an unexpected sour cherry pie.
Last summer, a friend threw a birthday pig roast for her husband and I wanted to bring something special. Baking for large groups of people is a challenge if you want to do something beyond cookies. A special birthday demanded something special so I baked pie. Slab pie for a crowd.
What is slab pie? Think back to grade school lunches. Teachers would send the kids home with a monthly calendar of lunches and my mom and I would circle the days I’d buy lunch, always marking the days with pizza and especially the one or two days a month with “apple slice” listed for dessert. Remember those? The glazed, thin, double crusted squares of apple pie served from a big sheet pan? Yes indeed, slab pie at it’s finest.
For the party, I thought slab pie would be perfect: large enough to feed a crowd, special enough for a birthday and not so flashy as to overshadow the cake. I made two half sheet pan pies, one apple, and one sour cherry. I cut each into 24 squares and then stared at them. What now? How was I going to get these to the lake? They didn’t stack well in a cake box, my original plan, as the double crust tended to slide on the center slices. This would not do. So I individually wrapped the 48 pieces in parchment and tied each carefully with a string.
Needless to say I was late to the party. Wrapping those damn things took a lifetime. When I arrived, everything was in full swing – pigs roasting, drinks flowing, people dancing! I found the birthday boy in the crowd, presented my gift and said “Happy Birthday! I made you pie!” Now, some people might consider it a bit odd to be handed 20lbs of pie for their birthday. Not my friends. Showing up with something like this is perfectly normal.
To say that these slices were popular is a gross understatement. People loved them. I was a little surprised at home much they loved them. As the night progressed, I noticed several folks had telltale red and white strings hanging out of their pockets. Around midnight, little parchment packets miraculously appeared and were consumed quickly, in the darkness, with guilty giggles. Round two was on.
I’ve made these slab pies numerous times since though usually on a smaller scale using a quarter sheet pan. In fact, I made a cherry one last week for Bastille day, serving it with a lovely sour cream ice cream. Went over like gangbusters. Cherry has become the hands down favorite, especially with the fruit I have stashed away in the freezer. I let them defrost in a strainer overnight in the fridge to drain, then use some of the accumulated juice in the pie and then the rest to make a sour cherry sorbet. It’s remarkable.
You can use any pie crust you like but my particular favorite is the lard/butter combination below. The only issue is that it’s notoriously susceptible to temperature. Do not try this on a hot day. I do realize that cherry season and hot weather go hand in hand, but damn, this dough is a nightmare when it gets too warm. Don’t try to push through – just keep putting it in the fridge, get it nice and cold and keep going. If you have a marble pastry board, chilling it overnight helps immensely.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: HOT DAMN THANK YOU MA’AM! Pie is always good, but pie for a crowd is outstanding. I baked these exact pies again for a Christmas party with the same crowd and felt like a celebrity the entire night. One guy saw me walk in with the big telltale white box and started jumping up and down in excitement. I’m not kidding. There’s something really really great about making people that happy. You think its just pie, but it’s not. It’s so much more.
SOUR CHERRY SLAB PIE
Makes one ¼ sheet pan, about 12 slices
This is how you make pie for a crowd. If you wanted to make a bigger pie that will easily serve 24, double the recipe and use a standard half sheet pan. If you’re using frozen cherries, defrost in a strainer set over a bowl and use the accumulated cherry juice in the filling. If you don’t have cherry juice, fresh OJ makes a fine substitute. With this pie dough, be diligent and keep it really cold.
For the pie crust:
2 2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cold and cut into small pieces
10 Tablespoons organic lard (or vegetable shortening), cut into small pieces and frozen
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup ice water
for the filling:
6 cups sour cherries, pitted (fresh or frozen; if frozen, defrost and drain first) – 3 quarts
1 cup sugar
¼ cup + 2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon almond extract
¼ cup cherry juice (or fresh orange juice)
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg, beaten with 1 Tablespoon of water for an egg wash
for the glaze:
¾ cup powdered sugar
¼ teaspoon almond extract
2 ½ Tablespoons water
- For the pie crust: Mix the flour and salt together in a large bowl.
- Add the butter and, using your fingers, rub the butter into the flour until it’s the size of small peas and the mixture is rather coarse.
- Break up the lard (or shortening) and add it in bits to the bowl.
- With your fingers, continue to work in the lard until the mixture has small clumps and curds. Do not overwork.
- Switch to a wooden spoon and add the ice water, stirring just until incorporated.
- Turn the dough out onto a work surface and fold it over on itself a few times to gently blend together but don’t overwork.
- Divide the dough into two pieces, flatten each into a rectangle, wrap in plastic and chill for at least one hour.
- Preheat oven to 375°.
- For the filling: In a large bowl, combine cherries, sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, almond extract, cherry (or orange) juice, and salt. Stir to combine; set aside.
- On a lightly floured surface, roll out the larger piece of dough into a 17”x13” rectangle. Work quickly to keep the dough cold – as soon as it warms up you have a nightmare on your hands. Be sure to work on a lightly floured surface and keep the top of the dough lightly floured as well to prevent sticking. If at anytime the dough warms up too much, pop it in the fridge for 30 minutes to chill.
- Transfer to a 13” x 9” x 1” rimmed sheet pan (aka a “quarter sheet”) – pastry will hang over sides of pan.
- Pour cherry mixture into the pastry lined sheet pan, dot with butter and set aside.
- On a lightly floured surface, roll out remaining piece of dough into a 14” x 10” rectangle.
- Drape pastry over filling. Bring bottom pastry up and over top pastry.
- Pinch edges to seal and crimp all around.
- Using a fork, prick top crust all over then brush with egg wash.
- Bake until crust is golden and filling is bubbling, 40-55 minutes.
- Transfer to a wire rack until just warm to the touch, about 45 minutes (or longer.)
- For the glaze: In a medium bowl, whisk together powdered sugar, almond extract and water until desired glaze consistency is achieved – you want it fairly loose and runny.
- Use a pastry brush to evenly coat the top of the pie.
- Let the glaze rest at least one hour to set.
- With a sharp knife, cut into squares and serve. Pie is really best the same day it’s made but it ain’t too shabby the next day.