Let’s start off with a question What the fuck is a “pie bird”?
The short answer is that it’s a hollow, ceramic bird-shaped funnel designed to allow steam to vent from a pie, thus avoiding filling overflow or general crust sogginess.
But dig a bit deeper and we learn that pie birds, or some incarnation of them, have been around for a couple hundred years and their name and shape comes from that nursery rhyme–”Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye, four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie” (Note: I dig into that rhyme in the story about The Pious, the greatest pie artist ever.)
So venting a pie is an old trick, but it sounds like pie birds in the shape of birds really didn’t hit critical cultural mass until the 1930s. You can still buy brand new pie birds at Lee Valley and probably a tonne of other places, but those old-school ones have become collector’s items for bakers and other people who feel a need to amass random old shit. Like my mom; she has at least a dozen of them rattling around her china cabinet. So on the annual visit to my folks’ summer compound on a beautiful lake in Northern British Columbia i decided it was finally time to put a pie bird into the starting line-up and see just how well they sing. And what better summer homestyle pie to make with your mom and kid than Cherry Pie?
Old-School Cherry Pie
The pie this month is a blast from the past, straight from Joy of Cooking, a book that’s been in publication since the 1930s, has sold over 18 million copies, and was the go-to cookbook of record for pretty much anyone’s childhood in the pre-internet era.
But first, the pastry. My father, an automotive mechanic by trade, was always the pastry guy around our house. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t mind getting lard under his fingernails (that orange cleaner goop solution mechanics use to grease off their hands also works for lard) or maybe it is because he once won a cake baking contest in highschool in the 1960s—which is one of those old-timey family lore stories i remember hearing as a child:
“It was a big deal, this contest,” my dad explained. “Back then most of the mothers were still homemakers and everyone had a lot of pride in their family recipes. I was the only guy in the contest, up against all these women with their mothers’ and grandmothers’ cherished recipes.”
The old man didn’t mention whether he entered the contest to meet chicks or not, but he did let me in on the secret to his victory. “I went to the store, bought a box of cake mix, followed the instructions, and mixed the living shit out of it. I stirred that batter for 15 minutes at least, got it nice and creamy and consistent. And that was all it took. I beat everyone with an out of the box cake because i took my time to do it right. Don’t be over-eager son, that’s the secret. Cake is cake, it’s the effort that makes the difference.”
My old man has a knack for sneaking valuable life lessons into everyday conversations. He also pointed out that if someone spends all their money and energy developing a product and taking it to market, they’ve likely put some time and research into what recipe they put on the box, so don’t be afraid to give that a try. (Case in point: my family pumpkin pie recipe is a very slightly modified version of the one off the can of pumpkin and I consistently impress the heck out of people with those pies. We’ll get into that in October though.)
So, true to form, my old man makes the pastry following the recipe on the side of the shortening box. With the added tip that the secret is to not mix it too much (the opposite of a cake). “Those little chunks and pockets of fat are what makes the pastry flaky.” With the crust ready, we get into the guts of things. Paraphrasing Joy of Cooking (1977 edition), here’s what you do:
- A 9-inch cherry pie requires about 4 cups of fresh fruit. You can split the cherries by hand and pull out the pits, or use one of those fancy pitters from the kitchen store that keeps the cherry intact and just blows the pit out the ass end of it. Either works. though the difference in pie texture will probably be slightly noticeable with full cherries.
- Cherries are a bit acidic so you want to thicken the filling with:
- 22⁄3 tablespoons of quick-cooking tapioca
(note you can go super simple and use 1⁄4 cup of flour if you don’t have this but it will not congeal as well)
- 11⁄3 cups sugar (using less is fine, it depends how sweet you want it.)
- 2 drops Almond Flavouring or 2 tablespoons of Kirsch (booze!!!)
- Combine and let sit for 15 mins
Preheat oven to 450º Fahrenheit (if your oven goes to 450º Celsius you are not fucking around, but use Fahrenheit for this or it will burn).
Pour all the fruit filling into the pie shell and chuck 1-2 tablespoons of butter on top (spread it out a bit if you can, not all in the centre).
Cover with a latticed top crust (basically cut your other crust into strips and start weaving) or a full crust that’s “well pricked,” ie: has lots of holes to let moisture out. Or you can use a pie bird like we did (more on that later). Also, it isn’t the end of the world if you pasty brush a little butter onto your top crust, or sprinkle some red or pink sugar crystals on.
Bake for 10 mins at 450º then reduce heat to 350º for another 40 mins or until crust is golden brown.
Let pie cool before serving (with vanilla ice cream of course). The longer you let your cherry pie cool the less chance it will be super juicy like this:
I am blaming the pie bird for this. Maybe we didn’t seal the base of it properly to actually help it funnel moisture and juice out its beak, or maybe there is a reason no one uses fucking pie birds anymore, but in this case we wanted to eat it still warm and the pie was a bit runnier than we hoped for. Such is life, and the overall eating experience was, as my dad’s old European hunting buddy used to say, “Excellent! It will make a good shit.”
That’s kind of all that matters right? That and being with your family. Pie power!