Peak travel season once involved piling into a wood-paneled station wagon, rolling down the windows, and fighting over control of the radio dial. Sitting in the passenger seat required the ability to decipher intricately folded paper maps and simultaneously dole out snacks to appease the growling stomachs in the back seat. And one of the most eagerly anticipated treats—including by me—was a handful of fresh cherries, jewel-like with a sweetness as indelible as their crimson juice.
A summer poised for a vacation comeback finds us on the road once again, exploring our preferred ribbons of highway. According to a 2021 trend report from VRBO, post-pandemic travelers favor automotive travel, with 59 percent of families saying they are more likely to drive instead of fly for their next trip.
While regional gas station grub has a special place in our food memories, it’s time to consider a treat that can be navigated with one hand while capturing the essence of summer. Cherry hand pies, with their perfect ratio of buttery crust to jammy filling, are the ideal on-the-go snack. Offering the very best part of a pie without the need for utensils, the simplicity of the hand pie makes it ideal travel fare. Before you take to the open road, here are some tips for navigating the array of cherries bursting onto the landscape, along with a few hand-pie how-tos.
The Irresistible Stone Fruit of Summer
For many of us, cherry pie just tastes like a holiday. Throughout the United States, peak cherry season aligns with the carefree days of summer. Beginning in May and culminating in August, the highly anticipated fruit falls under three distinctive categories:
- Dark Sweet (heart shaped, juicy, and intensely flavored such as Bing and Schmidt)
- Light Sweet (light yellow or gold with a rosy blush, such as Royal Ann, Rainier, and Napoleon)
- Sour, or tart or “pie” cherries, (juicy and naturally low in sugar, such as Montmorency)
With a much shorter growing season than their sweet cousins, sour cherries hang heavy on trees during the middle of June in warmer locales and as late as July and August in colder regions. Sour cherries like the Montmorency “pie cherry” make up the bulk of the world’s cherry harvest and are highly sought after by pie bakers. Their popularity is driven by a characteristic tartness that delivers a bright, intense punch of flavor. Additionally, sour cherries boast a vibrant color and definitive shape, even after exposure to stove-top and oven heat. Michigan ranks first in the nation for tart cherries, and fourth for sweet cherries. The Montmorency also flourishes on the Door Peninsula of Wisconsin. Surrounded by Lake Michigan and Green Bay, which moderate the climate providing ideal growing conditions, Door County has become synonymous with cherries. Should your road trip run shy of this cherry destination, consider mail ordering from Hyline Orchards in Fish Creek, Wisconsin; the family run business will happily ship frozen cherries to your doorstep.
Consider Other Grains
While classic pie dough works beautifully for hand pies, incorporating other grains like whole-wheat, oat, and buckwheat adds both interest and flavor. Rye flour in particular pairs well with tart cherries, complementing the juicy fruit with a nutty, malty flavor. And since rye is naturally low in gluten, pie dough cut with rye flour bakes up particularly delicate and flaky. The addition of acid, in the form of sweet-and-savory balsamic vinegar, further inhibits gluten formation while also complementing the flavor of the filling.
Best Hand Pie Practices
It is important to allow pie dough time to rest and hydrate in the fridge after mixing. Despite our enthusiasm to create a generous hand pie, resist the temptation to over-fill the pastry; two tablespoons are plenty of filling for a six-inch pie and a light hand will prevent ruptures during baking. Lastly, set aside time to let the assembled pies rest again in the freezer before baking. This will help the pies to hold their shape in the oven, curbing the potential for hand pie explosions.
Proper Cherry Care and Pitting Protocol
Fresh cherries are best kept unwashed with their stems attached, preferably in a paper bag or a loosely covered container in the refrigerator. For longer storage, it’s best to pit and freeze the fruit. There’s no need to defrost frozen cherries before baking, but it is a good idea to dab away excess ice crystals which may water down your filling. If you purchase cherries that are frozen in syrup, let the fruit thaw briefly so you can strain off excess juices. (But save that flavorful liquid for use in cocktails or juicy desserts.)
In a pinch, the narrow end of a chopstick, an opened paper clip, or the end of a pastry icing tip will serve as a makeshift cherry pitter. Better still, the OXO Good Grips cherry pitter deserves a place in your baking tool kit. Dress appropriately (skip the white linen) and don a pair of foodservice gloves to prevent stained fingertips.
The components for these cherry hand pies can be prepared well ahead of time. The filling holds up well in the fridge for up to three days in advance, while the dough may be frozen for up to a month. Once assembled, unbaked hand pies can be wrapped in plastic and frozen as well. (No need to defrost them before baking; simply go from the freezer to a hot oven.) Requiring far less time to bake than a full-sized pie, these pocket-sized pastries also cool quickly and can be easily packaged for transport. Food-safe Kraft paper bags make perfect hand pie “carry-ons,” or if you’re feeling crafty, fold sheets of parchment paper into tidy envelopes for cradling hand pies snugly. Sealed with twine, these individual package protects the pie, offering a safe haven for wayward crumbs.
A road trip is very much about the journey, whether you spend the time quibbling over the radio station, wondering if the exit you passed a few miles back was the one you wanted, or simply soaking in the landscape. You needn’t argue about the perfect road snack however, because you’ll be holding it in one hand, celebrating summer with each bite.