Life Is Just A Bowl of Cherries – And Then Some

Yesterday, John and I went out to Damascus, Maryland to pick cherries. John had been chatting with a co-worker who told him of this great little pick-your-own place called Rock Hill Orchard, and when I called to find out what was in season and they told me “tart cherries” – well, we HAD to go.

My favorite kind of fruit pie is sour cherry pie. A regular old cherry pie is fine, but a sour cherry pie is a rare taste treat. It’s got a flavor that’s out of this world, and tart (or sour) cherries are far easier to pit than sweet cherries. However, the fruit has a notoriously short picking season and is so delicate that it isn’t a great candidate for shipping, so you don’t see them in stores very often. I can occasionally get them at my local farmers’ market, but you’ve got to snap them up when you can.

We arrived at Rock Hill Orchard around noon Saturday. We were outfitted with a plastic bag-lined red bucket apiece and instructed to drive up the hill to the cherry orchard (next to the strawberry patch). It wasn’t a huge orchard but every tree was loaded down with bright red cherries. There were only a few other pickers, but even if there had been fifty people, there still would have been plenty of beautiful ripe cherries for everyone. We wandered well back into the orchard, chose a tree and started picking.

The sun was warm, the air fresh and there was a nice breeze. Amazingly, there were very few bugs about (I had been expecting to joust with wasps and bees for the fruit). The cherries were so ripe they practically fell into your hands; in fact, many of them simply slid off their pits when you pulled at them. I was choosy and careful and did not take stems or any fruit with debris on it, and in no time at all I had a bucket full of rosy, immaculate fruit.

John’s bucket was equally full, but over my protests, we kept on picking, pulling the plastic bucket liners up so the buckets were over capacity. Knowing that I was going to be the one to make cherry pies, I finally called a halt and we carried our brimming buckets back to the young man at the entrance to the orchard, who weighed our produce and gave us the price. Forty bucks and change! We’d picked just over eighteen pounds of cherries. Here’s our take: I am grinning but I think I was still a little shell shocked.

It took us just under an hour to pick all those cherries, and all the way home I was thinking, “what in the world am I going to do with all that?” We stopped at an ice cream stand so John could get a soft serve; I had a diet soda and thought about cherries. We stopped at a motorcycle place so John could look at all the toys; I thought about cherries. I was like General Patton planning my attack – shopping lists were forming in my brain. As we headed back toward Virginia and home, I announced: “I have to go to the grocery store.”

John waited in the car while I shopped for flour, shortening and disposable pie pans. When we got home, I started making crust for a double-crust pie; John set himself to pitting all those cherries (not so bad, really; you just give them a squeeze and the pit pops out where the stem was attached). He had three bowls – a giant one full of cherries, a small one for pits and a medium one for the pitted fruit.

Here is my recipe for piecrust, courtesy of Real Simple magazine:

Simple Pastry

2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp kosher salt
1 stick unsalted butter, chilled
1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening, chilled
1 egg
1 tbsp white vinegar

In a large bowl, using a pastry blender (or two crossed knives, or your fingers), combine the flour, salt, butter and shortening until the mixture is crumbly and the size of peas. Break the egg into a measuring cup and beat lightly; add the vinegar and enough cold water to measure 1/2 cup. Slowly add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and stir until a soft dough forms. Divide in half. Shape each half into a flat disc and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for at least one hour.

After I had my dough chillin’, I joined John at the table to help with the pitting. We were just about finished when the timer went off, letting me know that an hour had passed and it was time to make the pie filling and assemble the pie. Here’s my pie recipe, courtesy of

Baked Fresh Cherry Pie

1 recipe pastry for a 9 inch double crust pie
4 tbsp quick-cooking tapioca
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup white sugar*
4 cups pitted cherries
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 tbsp butter

*Note: I use 3/4 cup of Splenda in place of the sugar. I also use a little less butter – I think 1 tbsp is sufficient.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (205 degrees C). Place bottom crust in piepan. Set top crust aside, covered. In a large mixing bowl combine tapioca, salt, sugar, cherries and extracts. Let stand 15 minutes. Turn out into bottom crust and dot with butter. Cover with top crust, flute edges and cut vents in top. Place pie on a foil lined cookie sheet — in case of drips! Bake for 50 minutes in the preheated oven, until golden brown. Let cool before serving.

John finished up the pitting and started cleaning up the kitchen as I assembled the pie and put it in to bake. It was a beauty, if I do say so myself, and smelled wonderful as it baked, and I have to say that it was one of the best-tasting pies I’ve ever had. As we treated ourselves to a second piece, we agreed that the freshness of the cherries was clearly evident in every bite. Less than twelve hours from tree to plate: now that’s a fresh cherry pie.

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