For whatever reason–time of day and topic are two guesses near the top of my list–some requests on Twitter get way more responses than others. When I asked for non-pie ideas of what to do with the Ontario cherries that are now in season I received a deluge of good answers.
Between the suggestions of Steve Wilson, Allison Slute, Eric Vellend, Ivy Knight, Sherry Stone, Tonya Facey, Gav Martell, Jennifer Bylok, Sarah Hood, Sheryl Kirby, and Kat Tagart my list of ideas were: Clafoutis, Cherries Jubilee, crepes, pavlova, panna cotta, black forest cake, cherry-chocolate ice cream, coffee cake, cobbler, cherry soup with slivered almonds, and cherry popsicles. It seems appropriate to save the cherries jubilee for next year and while clafoutis did receive an impressive level of support (I made a winter version here) I decided to overrule the voters and stick with one of my initial inclinations: pan dowdy.
Pan dowdy (it is just as acceptable to spell it “pandowdy” but that causes the annoying red, squiggly line to appear in my editor so I’m sticking to the two-word spelling) is a rustic dessert that is baked in a cast iron pan (versus a pie plate) and only has a top crust that is broken partway through cooking so that some of the cherry juices soak through. It’s a lot like the skillet pie that I posted about here almost two years ago. As will become obvious from reading the recipe’s steps thsi is an exceedingly rustic preparation.
The Alice Waters cherry clafoutis recipe that Eric Vellend sent to me did inspire an idea. After waxing airily about dewy Central Valley cherries Alice does mention that the traditional clafoutis technique leaves the pits in the fruit and that gives the dish a pleasant, almond aroma. Eric thinks (quite rightly) that spitting at the table is uncouth so advised against leaving the pits in. I played the “cottage rules” card along with the “in the name of science” card and left the cherries intact.
The brilliant appeal of this dish is that it gets rid of two of the steps that may win cherry pies ribbons at state fairs but that make them considerably more annoying and don’t make them any more delicious. Specifically, one doesn’t need to pit the cherries and there is no need to roll and manipulate two finicky crusts into a pie pan.
I used a quart of fresh cherries and a pint of last summer’s vanilla brandied cherries that I made with Thomas Keller’s recipe. For this size of pan two quarts of fresh cherries would work just as well. Do as I did and sub in some or all home-preserved cherries or, as a very last resort, use jarred cherries meant for pie.
The pie dough recipe I used is this one from Cook’s Illustrated via Serious Eats. I forgot to buy lard (and would never use vegetable shortening) so just used all butter. I don’t own any vodka so used gin instead. The more flavourful spirit does the job of moistening the dough (to bring it together) without creating as much gluten as straight water would but makes the raw dough even less palatable (the flavour cooks out) and therefore cut down on my snacking.
The baked pan dowdy, served with vanilla ice cream, was absolutely delicious. Literally everyone at the table had a second serving. I didn’t notice any of the promised, distinct almond flavour but we found the cherry taste was more intense. Also, spitting the pits is fun and slows people down so that so that savouring the dessert is the default. The thick crust offers all the tastes that range from the soft, buttery and cherry-soaked bottom layer to the top bits that are browned and crunchy.
Cherry Pan Dowdy
Make one batch (they usually say they’ll make a top and bottom crust for one nine-inch pie) of your favourite pie dough at least two hours before you want to bake the pan dowdy so that the dough has time to refrigerate.
Butter a 12-inch cast iron skillet. Don’t skimp on the sides of the pan. We’re trying to make clean-up easier and it’s where the crust meets metal that the most sticking will occur.
Wash and de-stem cherries between one-and-a-half and two quarts of sweet cherries. Toss them with two large pinches of corn starch, a child’s handful of sugar, and about half a teaspoon of cinnamon. Spread across bottom of buttered skillet.
Roll the dough out so that it is at least as large as the skillet. Use the rolling pin to transfer the dough over the pan and then lay it out on top of the cherries.
Bake, for about an hour, in a cooling wood oven that is filled with the remnants of the maple smoke used to cook your dinner. This recipe doesn’t depend on the smoke for flavour (it was barely detectable the next day in a cold, leftover piece–conditions I think are conducive to more prominent smokiness) so I’d far rather substitute a home oven set at 375°F than a jury-rigged Weber or propane bbq smoker.
At about the thirty-minute mark you’ll want to pierce the crust in several places and rotate the pan so that the other side is exposed to the heat from the smoldering coals. Regardless of the time the pan dowdy is done when the crust has browned and the filling is bubbling up through the holds you’ve made in it.