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Tender Serviceberry Pie (Inclusive of Any Berry in Season)

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Tender Serviceberry Pie (Inclusive of Any Berry in Season)

Berry season is hurtling down the June highway. While it’s exciting to see real, seasonal strawberries and raspberries arrive at local markets, it’s the serviceberries (juneberries, saskatoon) that I have been waiting for, impatiently. These native North American fruits are produced by trees and shrubs of the Amelanchier genus, and are seldom sold at market; they must be foraged or home-grown. I pick them from a row of particularly sweet trees growing in full sun in Brooklyn. For a quiet hour I collect clusters of the red to purple pomes (serviceberries are related to apples, and all the rose family fruits), and convert curious passersby as I work. Everyone who tastes the serviceberries walks away smiling. Then I head home, anticipating the first serviceberry pie of the season.

The recipe that follows is amenable to any berry, as well as to cherries.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: Like their apple cousins, serviceberries are pomes (identified by the coronet at the base of the fruit).

When they are good, serviceberries are very, very good, tasting like a child of apple sauce and red summer fruits.

Above: The heat of baking releases the flavor of marzipan from serviceberries’ seeds.

While I love eating the fruit raw, serviceberry pie is deliciously marzipan-adjacent. The flavor is released by heat from the fruits’ small seeds.

Above: Red fruit is ripe; purple fruit is riper.

Trees growing in full sun produce the sweetest serviceberries, while shadier locations yield a much milder, or bland, pome.

Above: Cedar apple rust on an affected serviceberry.

In some locations cedar apple rust can be a problem for serviceberry trees. This fungal pathogen requires two hosts: tree-members of the Rosaceae family (including serviceberries, crabapples, and apples) and any juniper, but often eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana).  If you  see a fruit that looks like an orange COVID virus landed on it, that’s cedar apple rust.

Above: Serviceberries are borne in clusters, which are easy to collect.

To collect serviceberries, pick entire clusters. They nip off easily between your fingers.

Above: Ready for pie.

At home, leave the serviceberries unwashed and on their stems until you are ready to use them. Stored in a bowl in the fridge, still attached to their stalks, they last as long as two weeks. When you need them, wash them, and only then pick them clean.

Above: Raspberry, blackberry, and serviceberry pies.

About the pie, and the fruit:  If you don’t have any serviceberries, you can substitute or combine strawberries, mulberries, raspberries, cherries, blackberries, and/or blueberries.

Above: Muffin-sized pies ooze juice.

The pie pastry I like best for fruit pies is one a grew up with, when it was always deployed as “Molly Bolt’s apple pie.” She was a friend of my grandmother’s in Bloemfontein, South Africa, circa the 1960s, and Mrs Bolt’s recipe called, (un)naturally, for margarine. That great, healthy fat. I use butter. It also uses baking powder, an old-timey trick that I think is brilliant: It delivers a very tender pastry. You’ll see. I never met Molly Bolt, and I wonder what she would think of foreign serviceberry pie, or how far her recipe has traveled.

Above: Mixed berry hand pies.

Unusually, the buttery pastry does not need to rest and chill before being rolled out. And it is not baked blind. You mix, roll, and go. It is also surprisingly forgiving: If you tear it, it patches very easily. The pastry is versatile. I use it for pies small and large: a single pie in an 8- or 9-inch spring-form cake pan; 12 individual pies in a muffin tray; 12 hand pies; a rustic galette baked on a sheetpan; or simply a flat disk baked ahead and topped with heaps of your fruit, and cream.

Above: Serviceberry pie, picnic-bound.

Serviceberry Pie (Fit for any Berry)

Makes 12 muffin-sized pies; 12 3¾-inch hand pies; or 1 large 9-inch pie (baked in a springform pan)

Summer is picnic-friendly, and having a serviceberry pie all to yourself feels special. So I’ll bake these little pies in muffin trays, to pack and carry.  You’ll need a muffin tray with 12 slots, and two cookie cutters:  3¾-inch for the bases, and 2½ -inch for the lids. The recipe doubles very well, if you are baking for a crowd.

If you choose to bake a single, large pie, increase the quantity of fruit to 6 cups, with 3 teaspoons of cornstarch. Sugar says the same: ½ cup.

Filling:

  • 3 cups (about 12 oz) ripe serviceberries (or mixed berries), stems removed
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons corn starch

Molly Bolt’s Pie Pastry:

  • 1 Tablespoon butter for the tray
  • 6 oz butter, at room temperature
  • 2.5 oz sugar
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 10.5 oz flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt

To finish:

  • ¼ cup cream or whole milk

For the filling: In a bowl combine the serviceberries or other berries, the sugar, and the cornstarch. Toss together well.

For the pastry: Lightly butter the slots in your muffin tray.

In a mixing bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg. Beat again with a dusting of flour. Gradually beat in the rest of the flour, the baking powder, and salt. When the pastry is cohesive, divide it into two discs: one that contains 2/3’s of the pastry, one that is 1/3.

Dust flour onto your work surface and roll out your larger pastry disc thinly. Press out 12 pie bases using the 3 ¾-inch cutter. Loosen and lift each base with a dinner knife or a long spatula, and gently press it into the buttered muffin tray. Patch any tears with a pinch of extra pastry. Transfer the tray to the fridge while you roll out the second disc. Press out your lids using the smaller disc.

To assemble: Remove the tray from the fridge and spoon the fruit filling into each pie base – about 2 tablespoonfuls each. Place the pie lids on top of the filling and press down lightly (no need to crimp) and return to the fridge for 10 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Remove the chilled pies from the fridge. Pierce a steam vent in the top of each with the tip of a sharp knife. Brush each pie with a little milk or cream. Bake for 20 minutes, until the pastry is turning golden and the pies are oozing red juices. Remove the tray to a cooling rack and allow to cool for 5 minutes (they become less fragile as they cool) before loosening each serviceberry pie in its slot by running a knife around the edges, gently. Carefully lift each pie from its slot, and transfer to a second cooling rack.

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