A little piece of me dies when businesses like the Milk Pail in Mountain View and C.J. Olson Cherries in Sunnyvale shutter.
I know, I know, it’s all in the name of progress in the Valley of Heart’s Delight, where tech companies have long ago supplanted farms and orchards.
Tech may (or may not) make my life easier. But quaint family-owned farm stands and gourmet open-air markets make my spirit soar.
In too short of a time, C.J. Olson Cherries went from being an expansive cherry orchard to a small fruit stand in a spanking new retail mall to merely a mail-order company now whose products are also stocked at a couple of local stores.
When it still existed as a fruit stand, I would buy not only fresh cherries but other stellar locally grown fruit. And at least once a year, I would splurge on one of their famous cherry pies. They were not inexpensive. But once you tasted one, you realized they were worth every penny. While other pies may be filled with a lot of sugary jam or nondescript pureed fruit, Olson’s featured nothing but whole, pitted Bing cherries — and a ton of them at that. As a result, it was a pie that celebrated cherries exuberantly.
Deborah Olson, whose father started the orchard, is a trained pastry chef who was responsible for creating those dreamy pies made with both a top and bottom golden, flaky crust.
So when the fruit stand closed last year, I mourned the loss of not only it, but my favorite pie.
Fortunately, at least a part of that lives on — in Deborah’s pie recipe that can still be found online. To keep my cherry pie tradition alive, I knew this year I had to make it, myself.
This year’s local Bing crop was unfortunately small and short. So I had to make do with local Sweetheart cherries, which are as large as Bing’s, though more bright red in color. The recipe calls for 8 cups (about 3 1/2 pounds) of cherries. After forking over about $22 for that amount at the farmers market (cough, cough), I was ready to get into serious pie mode.
Because pitting all those cherries can be a chore, Deborah suggests preparing the cherries on one day, then baking the full pie the next day, just to give yourself a little break. Or you can do what I do, which is cajole your husband into doing the deed instead with the promise of homemade pie for all that labor. It does the trick, let me tell you.
The crust is made with both butter and shortening, and a perfect amount of salt that provides a nice contrast to the sweetness of the fruit. The cherries get tossed with a little flour and sugar, then get sprinkled with tiny cubes of cold butter and a little almond extract before being baked.
Eight cups of cherries is quite a lot. Perhaps too much, as it made for a huge mounded filling, more than what I recall in the Olson pies that I bought. Also, after cooling the pie for two hours, I found that when I cut into it, the filling had too much liquid, causing the cherries tumbled out of a cut slice. Even so, the whole cherries were still plump yet tender, plenty juicy still, and just incredibly delicious.
Next time I make this, I will probably cut the amount of cherries back to 7 cups at most, which is what I changed in the recipe below. That will not only save you a little money, but also a little time pitting.
Making a two-crust, loaded cherry pie from scratch does take time. I won’t lie. But I guarantee this one will beat nearly any other already-made cherry pie you buy elsewhere.
So take the time. Make the effort. And in so doing, remember lovingly a business that had such a special place in our community for so very long.
ADDENDUM: Good news for pie lovers! Deborah Olson emailed me after this post went up to let me know that Olson’s pies are available at Zanotto’s market in Sunnyvale, and soon will be at more locations in the South Bay.
Deborah Olson’s Classic Cherry Pie
(Makes one 9-inch two-crust pie)
For the pastry:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon cold butter, cut into small cubes
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon shortening
4 to 6 tablespoons ice water
For the filling:
3/4 to 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar (depending upon the sweetness of the cherries and your own preference)
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
7 cups cherries (about 3 pounds), pitted
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small cubes
To make the pastry: Place flour and salt into a medium mixing bowl or the bowl of a food processor. Cut in shortening and butter with a pastry cutter or pulse in the food processor until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.
Sprinkle in ice water, 2 tablespoons at a time, mixing with a wooden spoon until all flour is moistened and forms a ball. Do not overwork the dough. Divide into two balls or two thick disks. Wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until the dough firms up, about 45 minutes.
To make the filling: Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, stir together sugar and flour. Add cherries and gently mix well.
Roll one ball or disk of pastry out on a lightly floured board. Because you are using a 9-inch pie pan, you want to roll out the dough to at least 10 inches in diameter. Place rolled dough in the bottom of the pie plate. Spoon in the cherries. Sprinkle cherries with almond extract, and dot with butter pieces.
Roll out the remaining dough ball or disk, again to at least 10 inches in diameter. Cover pie with this top crust, crimping the edges, and cutting slits or a hole in the top to allow steam to escape.
Cut one or two pieces of aluminum foil about 3 inches wide and cover the edges of the pie to prevent excessive browning. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes (removing the foil during the last 15 minutes of baking) or until crust is brown and juices are bubbly. Cool pie on a rack before serving.
Adapted from a recipe by Deborah Olson