I began this week's column by taking an informal poll of some foodie friends and dessert fiends. I wanted to know: when it comes to cherry pie, which do you prefer, sour or sweet cherries in the filling? I'd assumed that sour (my personal favorite) would win by a landslide, so I was surprised when the numbers came in at a 50:50 split.
The cherry pie divide seems to boil down to limited availability of sour cherries (some in my poll had never tasted the sour, but everyone had tried sweet). Sweet cherries are grown commercially in only a handful of states (mostly the Pacific Northwest, California, and Michigan, and New York), but are available in grocery stores nationwide. For New Yorkers, the season for both sour and sweet is limited to July and August, but we begin to see sweet cherries in grocery stores around the end of May thanks to West Coast growers, giving us a decent window of time to enjoy sweet cherries.
Sour cherries, on the other hand, are elusive and sought-after. I've never once seen them in mainstream grocery stores (not even Whole Foods), which means that folks fixing to make a pie from sour cherries must purchase them at a farmers' market. In my experience, they sell out fast, so there is some strategy required. In fact, I had intended to make this pie of the week sour cherry, until I got to the market and discovered I was too late. I'll be back (early!) to try again for next week.
You'll most likely find the Rainier or Bing varieties in stores, which are a deep glossy maroon color, but any cherry variety that tastes sweet and delicious when raw may be used for making pie. Choose cherries with a firm, almost bursting texture and shiny exterior, and avoid those that are bruised, which can promote decay that spreads quickly to others in the same container.
My recipe for sweet cherry pie includes the option of adding either lemon zest or the seeds of a vanilla bean. Both flavors work well with cherries, so I recommend making two pies and trying both!