My all-time favorite dessert is cherry pie. Yes, I rank it higher than any chocolate concoction you can name. I even like the gluey, over-thickened versions served up in diners.
But I admit I felt slightly virtuous when I discovered recently that cherries are such a healthy ingredient, rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber. Naturally, then, I had a lot of fun whipping up a new version of this American classic, one that swaps out the buttery crust for less-caloric phyllo dough, a strategy that allows the eater to concentrate on the succulent fruit.
It wasn't until I began my life as chef that I understood that cherry pie is supposed to be made with sour cherries, not the sweet ones we pop into our mouths like candy. Why? Because sour cherries boast more flavor. Unfortunately, the season for sour cherries is very short, roughly two weeks a year.
And then there are those darn pits. Sweet or sour, you have to pit cherries. But you have to pit more of the sour ones to fill up a pie because they're smaller than the sweet variety. Back in my restaurant days, I'd have a prep cook do all the pitting. On my own now, developing recipes for home cooks, I reach for the sweet cherries, adding lemon juice and lemon rind to tart up their flavor.
There are of course plenty of kitchen gizmos for making easy work of pitting lots of cherries. I'm partial to the kind that does double duty as an olive pitter. If you don't own one of these little wonders, the best method is to whack the whole cherry with the side of a chef's knife, after which the pit slides right out. You've seen chefs on TV perform a similar operation with garlic. They whack the whole clove, then easily pull off the peel. Believe me, it beats using a paring knife and ending up with all that cherry flesh under your fingernails.
I thicken the filling with cornstarch rather than flour because I prefer the former's translucence to the latter's muddiness. The only trouble with cornstarch is that it breaks down and thins out if you boil it for too long, so you've got to keep an eye on the cooking time. Also, if you end up using frozen cherries, which tend to be watery, you'll probably need to increase the thickener.
As mentioned, I kissed off the usual pie crust in favor of phyllo dough, but I kept some of the butter, which adds flavor and crispiness. For extra crunchiness, I layered in almonds ground up with a bit of cinnamon-sugar. The finished crust, then, is less doughy and more flakey than the traditional kind.
Finally, as advertised, these pies aren't served by the slice. Rather, they are mini-pies, each the size the size of a muffin cup and served one per customer. Still, it turned out that a single cup was a little too mini, so I flipped the tin over and draped the phyllo squares on the backside, not the inside, of each cup.