I am a cook. Not a baker or chef. And as a cook, I enjoy the privilege of improvisation and substitution. I rarely follow a recipe; rather, I follow the whims and serendipity of whatever falls out of the kitchen cabinet. I attribute my recipe-reticence to the countless hours I spent in chemistry lab in high school and college, carefully measuring reagents in beakers and patiently waiting for the correct reaction to occur so I could be released to the sunny day I could see out the lab window. The result of this trauma is that I cook by taste and smell – with a dash of this and a dump of that. Ask anybody who has requested a recipe from me. I can’t reproduce anything. It’s all a unique taste sensation.
This approach to cooking has its downfalls. It does not work for baking or jelly-making. My husband, who grew up with a mother who bakes beautifully and is not bad at it himself, has tried coaching me, “Just follow the directions and you’ll have a reproducible result every time.” Once again, my devil-may-care method has proven to be my undoing. For the first time, we have a cherry crop. My husband’s young orchard is just starting to produce fruit and this year the cherry trees and bushes have produced a measurable crop. Even the birds left them alone for us. It seemed only appropriate to attempt a cherry pie with the sour cherries. Pie is fraught with challenges for me. My mother-inlaw makes perfect pie crust with whole wheat pastry flour. My attempts turn into sandy, cracker-like crusts — always tasty – great for apple pie, but not a flaky tender crust.
So, in an attempt to make a cherry pie, I followed the recipe in my trusty redand- white-checked Better Homes and Gardens cookbook to the letter. I made a small 8-inch pie using white flour and Crisco as directed. My only substitution (I couldn’t help myself) was butter and less sugar. It was a perfect pie! Tender, very pale crust burbling with molten cherries. Perhaps not blue ribbon, but a contender if it made it to the taste test.
That was too easy. My next attempt was larger because more cherries were ripe, and I used one cup of whole wheat flour with two cups of white flour. I just had to push it. This pie had the all-toofamiliar sandy texture and grainy crust. Dang! The taste was OK. . .but the crust kind of flattened the whole experience. My husband decreed that whole wheat pastry flour banned from the pantry.
With the profusion of sand cherries, aka Nanking or bush cherries, that are too small to pit, even with our nifty cherry pitting contraption, I decided to cook them down, pits and all, and strain the result to make jelly. I found a box of SureGel in the pantry and went for it. I dutifully read the directions on the box and decided after tasting the resulting cherry juice that it did not need all that sugar. Yes, I ignored the bold block letters NOT TO SKIMP ON THE SUGAR. And sure enough, my SureGel did not.
I had read someplace that you get a redo on jelly. You can add more pectin and sugar, re-cook the jelly mixture, and try to gel again. With that in mind I bought another box of pectin, a generic brand (an investment of only $0.99) and dumped the non-jelly into the pot with more cherries and the required amount of sugar. As I stirred this revised mixture, everything was sticky. It seemed like I was making candy, not jelly. Then it dawned on me, jelly is supposed to be sticky. I tried the freezer test and the test patch was not quite solid – but looked like it was going that direction. In the end, the second batch was more solid than the first, but not 4-H quality jelly by any means. I dubbed the first batch cherry syrup and the second cherry “jammy”, sort of a lumpy, runny jelly. In both cases, the taste was fantastic. It would win a ribbon in a blind taste test.
When one of the tasters of the jammy asked for the recipe, I just shrugged as usual, and said start with good fruit and ignore the directions on the Sure- Gel box.
Carolyn Dunmire is an award-winning author who cooks and writes in Cahone, Colo.