Almond-Scented Cherry Pie with Amaretti Cookie Crumble and Whole Wheat Pie Crust
My momma makes a nearly unbeatable classic cherry pie, delicately scented with almond extract and hugged by a pretty, pastry-crimped lattice top. Divine with a scoop of Bluebell vanilla ice cream, slices are best served sitting on the couch or porch reconnecting with family.
She says it’s a lot of trouble to make a pie, but I don’t know if I believe her. She always says it with a smile and quick-working hands that suggest it may not actually trouble her all that much (or maybe the reward just far outweighs the effort…).
It doesn’t matter whether you fill the crust with fresh-picked fruit from an orchard or canned summer fruit off the grocery shelf, cherry pie always tastes like love and laughs and joy. I think it’s because no matter what ingredients you use, pies are a bit of effort. Not too much, mind you – just enough. Like breaking a sweat hiking to reach a stunning mountain view, or digging in the garden under the summer sun to plant new flowers.
A little effort makes the reward sweeter.
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Cooking for the people I care about falls under that category of sweet effort, so I was thrilled when a friend requested a made-to-order birthday cherry pie – specifically with crumble topping. I wasn’t too sure about the crumble situation, being a lattice lady myself, but it seemed like a reasonable enough deviation (and, hey – it’s a birthday request. Give the people what they want!)
I set to finding a way to reinforce the flavors of my momma’s pie while giving it a Colorado birthday twist – a thick, fruity pie filling made with a mix of sweet and tart frozen cherries, surrounded by a nutty whole wheat crust and topped with a crumbly amaretti cookie crumble.
I love subbing nutritious whole wheat flour into my baked goods wherever its weight and flavor won’t detract from the dish, and pie dough is an excellent candidate. The whole wheat lends the crust a slightly nutty flavor and makes the final product pleasantly if only slightly more toothsome.
Whole wheat pastry flour is lighter and finer than typical whole wheat flour, so I use that cup for cup when replacing a percentage of the all-purpose flour in cookies or muffins or pie-crusts. A good rule of thumb is to substitute whole wheat pastry flour for half the total amount of all purpose flour to start – if you don’t notice the recipe having any adverse effects, bump it up to 75 percent and so on each time you try.
I like to substitute just enough to feel smug about the added fiber, but not so much as to believe the pie is now “healthy”…
One thing to note, though: whole wheat flour is thirstier than AP flour, so you may have to bump up the amount of liquid in your recipe slightly to accommodate. The thirsty flour is evident in this classic pie crust, which requires a few more tablespoons of water to be perfectly hydrated (5-7 versus the classic 3-5 tablespoons).
BECAUSE OF ITS HIGH MELTING POINT, SHORTENING HELPS YOUR CRUST HOLD ITS SHAPE BETTER DURING COOKING – HELPING YOUR EDGE CRIMPS OR DESIGNS LOOK THEIR BEST!
A mix of butter and shortening gives you the best of both worlds when it comes to crust – butter lends flakiness and shortening makes the crust tender and helps retain any shaping. You can use an all-butter or all-shortening crust, if you prefer, but I do not blind bake this particular pie.
Instead, I use a neat trick suggested by Cook’s Illustrated for creating a crisp-bottomed pie crust. It’s such a simple and clever solution – before preheating your oven, place a thick, foil-covered baking sheet large enough to hold your pie plate into the oven. Preheat as normal. The heated sheet will provide extra direct contact heat to the bottom of the pie, crisping the crust before the filling has a chance to make it soggy!
SKIP BLIND-BAKING FOR THIS FRUIT PIE – INSTEAD, PLACE YOUR PIE ON TOP OF A PREHEATED BAKING SHEET FOR A CRISP-BOTTOMED CRUST
The main thing to remember when making a pie crust with butter in it is the ingredients MUST remain cold. Pre-cube and freeze your butter for at least 15 minutes to fail-safe the process, and increase your odds of success by freezing your mixing bowl and flour beforehand, as well! This buys you a little extra time to work and helps the butter stay in small chunks throughout the dough. These discernible bits of butter are critical – as the solid butter melts during baking, it creates steam that lifts the layers of dough to create flakes.
Once your crust dough comes together, it needs to rest. The gluten in the mix is all tense and agitated from being mixed together, so you want it to relax and calm down before rolling out, as well as giving a chance for the water to more fully permeate the flour. After the first rest, roll out the dough and place in your pie pan – then back in for one last rest. Don’t roll your eyes! This rest is important too, for the same reason – tense dough means a tough crust, and a well-rested crust is less likely to shrink during baking.
TENSE DOUGH = A TOUGH CRUST. WELL-RESTED CRUST IS TENDER AND LESS LIKELY TO SHRINK DURING BAKING!
Use the time between rests to focus on your filling. I like to snip my cherries in half, because I have a weird aversion to round things popping in my mouth (grapes, blueberries, cherries, peas… I am fully aware this is a strange predilection). I would say this step is purely personal neurosis, but honestly, the chopped cherries make for a more consistent and packed filling. The addition of chopped dried cherries aids this as well, soaking up some of the juices and filling the gaps between halved cherries. The warm, fragrant kiss of almond extract enlivens the sweetness of the cherries – cherry/almond is one of life’s greatest flavor combos!
Crunchy amaretti cookies further reinforce the almond flavor in the crumble topping. These little sweets are crispy and hollow, pair perfectly with coffee or espresso, and taste like they’ve taken a syrupy bath in amaretto liqueur (I want to take this bath.)
You can get a box of “Trader Giotto’s” amaretti cookies at Trader Joes, but I’ve seen the traditional Lazzaroni imports in the specialty Italian food sections at my local King Soopers and Safeway, as well. They always come beautifully wrapped in special squares of decorative paper that I am yet to to find a use for, but inexplicably hoard in a drawer regardless. Crumbled and pulverized with oats, almonds, brown sugar and butter, these cookies add the perfect fragrance to complement the cherry almond filling and nutty notes of the pie crust.
It is not a lattice-top, but a fine riff that I’m going to file under an apples-to-oranges comparison, with both topping choices coming out winners…
Pie Crust Tips:
- Freeze your ingredients. Freeze cubed butter, your mixing bowl and flours – melted/fully incorporated butter before baking = tough crust.
- Skimp on the water. Use just barely enough water to bring the dough together. Too much ALSO = tough crust.
- Give it a rest! Rest your dough for at least 30 minutes any time you work it – that is one time after making it into a disk, and one time after rolling it out and placing in pie pan. If you skip this step, your crust will shrink when baking.
- Preheat a sheet. Preheat a foil-covered sheet pan in the oven, then place your finished pie on top to bake. This helps keep the bottom crust from getting soggy!
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour*
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup shortening
- 5 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 5-7 Tbsp ice water (or more, if necessary)
- Pastry cutter, mixing bowl, wax paper, bench scraper (optional)
- Dice the butter into small cubes, then place in the freezer (I usually just keep the cubes on the butter wrapper and gently lay them on the ice in my icemaker).
- Measure out your dry ingredients into a mixing bowl, then place the ingredient-filled bowl in the freezer as well. Leave the butter and bowl in the freezer for 15 minutes.
- While they chill, fill up a cup with ice and water and measure out the shortening. Tear a piece of wax paper big enough to wrap around a 6-8 inch dough disk and set aside. Lightly dust your rolling pin and rolling surface with flour.
- After the chilling period, pull out the flour-filled mixing bowl and place your shortening in the bowl. Using one hand, mix the shortening into the flour until the mixture is crumbly - you don't want any large, obvious chunks of shortening (unlike the butter!)
- When the mixture is crumbly, like loosely clumping sand, add the butter cubes from the freezer. Using a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour mixture until the largest bits of butter are the size of a small pea - unlike the shortening, you DO want to see small chunks of butter throughout the mixture.
- Sprinkle two tablespoons of water over the dough, then mix into the dough with a fork. Repeat until you've added 6 Tbsp ice water - you will likely still need more, but I've never needed less when using whole wheat flour in the crust! If the dough sticks together when squeezed, stop adding water. If there are sections of very loose flour that remain at the bottom, sprinkle more water in a Tbsp at a time, mixing with the tines of the fork each time. You actually do want the dough to be a bit shaggy and difficult to press together - if it rolls up easily and adheres to itself like a ball of playdough, you've added too much water!
- Dump the dough bits onto your rolling surface and mash together in a solid mound. You don't want to knead the dough, but rather press it into itself until it sticks together in a cohesive disk. it helps to cup the mound with one hand and press the dough firmly down into that hand with the heel or fist of your other hand.
- Once it starts to stick together, flip the dough and press the other side to ensure the dough is coming together. If you are having great difficulty, add a sprinkling of water with your fingertips and continue pressing.
- When the dough comes together into a 6-8 inch disk, wrap it with wax paper and place in the fridge for 30 minutes or more. (This is a good time to dethaw your cherries - place frozen cherries in a colander over a bowl to catch the juices. Thaw for 30 mins - hour, then place in your fridge.)
- After 30 mins, remove the dough from the fridge. Re-dust your rolling space with flour and set your pie plate nearby. Roll your dough out to 12 inches for a 9 inch pie plate - if the dough cracks, press the edges back together with your fingertips and continue rolling.
- To transfer the dough, place your rolling pin on the top edge of the dough circle, farthest away from you. Gently lift the dough edge and press to the top of your rolling pin, then roll gently toward you, gathering the dough around the rolling pin and scraping between the dough and the counter with a bench scraper if any bits begin to stick.
- When the dough is completely rolled, place the edge of the dough on the edge of your pie plate and unroll away from you to cover the pie plate.
- Using a knife, trim around the edge of the pie plate. Pinch pleat the edges or press with the tines of the fork around the circumference of the plate to decorate.
- Place the dough covered pie plate into the fridge for one hour or more (cover with plastic wrap if more than an hour) before filling.
- *Can substitute all-purpose flour to make an all-AP flour crust
- 1 Whole Wheat Pie Crust (recipe above), prepared, but unbaked
- 5 cups frozen cherries*
- Heaping 1/4 cup dried tart cherries, diced
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice (the juice of 1/2 lemon)
- 3 Tbsp cornstarch
- 1 tsp almond extract
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- Kitchen shears
- 1/4 cup oats
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 4 amaretto cookies
- 1/4 cup slivered almonds
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 stick butter (4 Tbsp), melted
- While pie crust is chilling in fridge, thaw cherries by placing in a colander over a bowl to catch juices. Thaw for 30 mins - hour.
- When mostly thawed, cut the cherries in half using kitchen shears (optional, but makes the filling more compact and consistent).
- Pour the cherries from the colander into a saucepan, reserving the drained juices in the bowl. Add the diced dried cherries, sugar and brown sugar, lemon juice and salt, then mix to combine. Turn burner on medium high, stirring occasionally.
- Take your reserved bowl of cherry juice and add the cornstarch. Mix into a smooth paste with a fork or whisk until no lumps remain. Pour into cherry saucepan and stir to combine.
- Bring the cherry mixture up to a boil, and let bubble for 5 -8 minutes or until thickened.
- Take off heat, then stir in extracts. Set aside to cool slightly (approximately 15-20 minutes).
- Add all ingredients into a food processor. Pulse until cookie crumbles are pea-sized and uniform, and mixture begins to clump together (the longer you pulse, the more it will clump).
- Dump contents into a ziploc bag, and squeeze mix with your hand to make a few large clumps. Place in fridge while oven preheats.
- Cover a sheet pan with foil and place into the cold oven. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees with pan inside.
- Pull out your chilled pie dough. Pour cherry filling into the dough.
- Sprinkle the crumble evenly over the surface of the pie - I like to break up any chunks larger than a half-inch.
- Bake for 20 minutes at 375 degrees, then reduce temperature to 350 and bake for 20 minutes more or until crust is toasty brown.
- Remove from oven and let cool 30 mins to an hour before slicing.
- *I used a mix of sweet and tart cherries - if you use all sweet, just reduce both the brown and white sugars by 1-2 Tbsp. each.
- **This can be done the night before and stored in the fridge - I always double the recipe and freeze the other half so I have crumble on hand for quick frozen fruit crumbles!