Making a fruit pie is like walking a tightrope—it’s all a matter of balance. Fruit is finicky and filled to the brim with moisture, which makes it a challenge to get a pie filling to cook and set properly. There’s a secret ingredient to making a fruit pie with the right consistency that we talk about here, but in addition to making a pie with good structure, there’s a surprising element of pie making that is sometimes neglected: flavor.
I have a “nameless” relative who, without fail, succeeds in making the worst cherry pies in human history. They’re face-puckeringly tart—and she makes them every summer. Once, I found the courage to ask about her recipe and (not to my surprise) learned that she never changes it. That’s the problem.
You’ve probably heard at some point in life that you shouldn’t change a baking recipe. Generally, this is a good rule to live by because pastry making is a delicate chemistry and a recipe is often tested many times to make sure all the components work together. But with fresh fruit pies, strict adherence to this rule is dangerous since the fruit can vary so much in taste. A well-made fruit pie highlights the simple and elegant flavor of the produce. However, as with any dish, the raw ingredients often need help to taste their best—that’s called cooking.
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Cherries are a fruit that require a little extra “flavor attention” because a fresh cherry can be tangy and firm, soft and syrupy sweet, or anywhere in between. Generally, a fruit pie contains about ½ cup of added sugar. And the mistake often made is simply that no one tastes the fruit to adjust the sweetness of the recipe! It should be obvious, but in the delicate tightrope walk of pie making, we have to do a little work ourselves to balance the flavor. If your cherries are very tart, consider adding 2 more tablespoons of sugar to the filling; if the cherries are sweet and juicy, add an additional teaspoon of lemon juice and a little lemon zest to balance the sweetness with some acidity. Don’t change the thickeners like tapioca or cornstarch, but slightly adjusting the sugar level or adding a bit of lemon to the cherries is an easy way to avoid a cherry pie unfit for a summer gathering.