I love cherries. A lot. And I just adore French pastry chef extraordinaire Pierre Hermé. A lot. So when I saw this Pierre Hermé Cherry-Pistachio Tart posted on pastry luminary Dorie Greenspan’s website, it was the pastry equivalent of Bogey and Bacall for me.
I am not usually the kind of pastry cook who likes to exactly reproduce recipes. I buy cookbooks for inspiration and reference. I’ve never understood the wildly popular undertaking of baking or cooking one’s way through an entire cookbook and blogging about it. Simply recreating another cook’s recipes, from beginning to end, step by step? I can’t imagine a more boring undertaking.
When I assist at L’Academie, part of my job is to scale all of the ingredients for each student and for the chef instructor in advance, put each labeled ingredient for each recipe on a separate half sheet tray, and pull out the trays and pass them out as the chef moves from recipe to recipe during the course of the class. Or, sometimes I’m required to bake something in advance, or start a recipe to be finished by students if there isn’t enough time to complete an entire recipe within the allotted class time. Under these circumstances, perfectly following the chef’s recipe is vital.
But when I’m in my own kitchen, baking on my own time, it’s all about my creativity and my own fun and whimsy. However, playing with a Pierre Hermé tart recipe seemed almost sacrilegious to me. So, I made the decision to not alter this recipe more than necessary.
For those who don’t know, Pierre Hermé is a pastry god. When I finally get a chance to visit Paris, his shop will be my first stop. Before the hotel. Before The Louvre. Before anything else. Until then, I can at least bake his tart in my own kitchen. First, I paid a visit to my local Indian grocer, who has the best stash of nuts in town, for pistachios (and a huge container of mango kulfi for snacking while pie baking — it was hot out, okay!). Then, I bought some more sour cherries at my local farmers’ market. And I spent an entire afternoon searching fruitlessly for bitter almond extract, and ended up settling for Penzey’s (which worked great). I was ready to spend my weekend making the Pierre Hermé tart.
Then I remembered I had promised a good friend that I would bake her a traditional cherry pie, because she (and her pick-up truck) helped me dispose of an old picnic table that had seen better days. And she’s not exactly a Pierre Hermé Cherry-Pistachio Tart kind of gal. So that would mean having to bake two cherry pies. Oh, well, I was up for the challenge.
First up was my yearly sour cherry season pie tradition. The recipe is appropriately called Old Fashioned Cherry Vanilla Pie, and it first appeared in a 1997 Gourmet magazine. (GOSH, I do miss Gourmet). I’ve been baking this pie every summer since the magazine first appeared in my mailbox. I think it’s the best sour cherry recipe ever. (I’ve never used the crust recipe, though. I use my own.) I doubled the recipe and made two. One for me, and one for my friend with the pick-up truck.
I had purchased a flat of sour cherries at the Takoma Park farmers’ market two weeks earlier, and stayed up until midnight pitting and freezing them. The idea of pitting more cherries did not thrill me, but nor did the idea of disturbing my little winter horde of sour cherries so soon after I found room for them in my freezer. So, I broke down and bought more sour cherries at this Sunday’s market, and I bought some sweet cherries at Whole Foods and I pitted them all. And now I’m pretty darned tired of pitting cherries.
I got up early and made two Old Fashioned Cherry Vanilla Pies before 10 a.m. I had purchased some black raspberries at the farmers’ market from the same vendor from whom I had purchased the sour cherries, and I threw them in at the last minute. It was an awesome addition.
While the cherry vanilla pies were cooling, I embarked on Pierre Hermés’ tart. The night before, I had macerated the cherries and made enough sucre pastry for three pies and two mini tarts.
I only have one tart ring, and it is 8″, so I baked one 8″ tart and two individual tarts. I guess I could have used a tart pan with a removable bottom (I have one of those in every size imaginable) but I wanted to use my ring since I have so few occasions to do so.
I used Penzey’s almond extract after a search for bitter almond extract turned up short. It’s on my list of things to find the next time I’m in New York. Pounding the pistachios and extract into a paste using a mortar and pestle just about killed me, so I’m sorry Dorie, but next time I’m pulling out the mini Cuisinart. That was just, plain tedious. I pounded those pistachios through an entire Law and Order rerun. (Aside: I once spotted Sam Waterston eating pierogies at 3 a.m. at Veselka, while I was wearing a red silk corset and was in the process of fishing chopped beets out of my cleavage — but that’s another story.)
Also, I do not have the book that Dorie references which contains the original recipe for this tart, and I just could not visualize using the large grid rack that fits in my half sheet pan (which doubles as my cooling rack) to shred the streusel. I used a box grater instead.
I don’t think that my tart came out looking as pretty as the one in Dorie Greenspan’s photograph, but I am certainly not unhappy with the results.
I gave a slice of both the Pierre Hermé tart and the Old Fashioned Cherry Vanilla Pie to some friends, and asked for a comparison. Most people preferred the Old Fashioned Cherry Vanilla Pie. I think it’s a nostalgia thing. We are in the middle of in intense heatwave — the hottest June on record in Washington D.C. according the news — so what could be better than a slice of traditional cherry pie topped with vanilla ice cream? French pastry doesn’t stand a chance!
You’d think I’d be done with baking cherry pies after that marathon cherry pie baking session, but with such a short cherry season I’m still ready for more. So, I think I’ll buy more cherries at a weekday market next to my office on the way home tonight, and I’ll be up tonight pitting them and making sucre again, I suppose.
And I will make the Pierre Hermé tart again, but I think that next time I will get a little more creative. I’m thinking some apricots, gently poached in sugar and vanilla, with hazelnuts instead of pistachios, might be nice when cherry season is over. I just can’t help myself….