BY W. WAYT GIBBS
By late summer, the fruits hanging from vast groves of Prunus amygdalus trees in California have withered and split. Through cracks in their leathery rinds, you can see glimpses of the pale teardrop-shaped seeds they protect: almonds, ready for harvest.
By early autumn, fresh almonds are pouring into markets by the ton. It’s the perfect time of year to make this recipe for almond cherry cream pie, which works the subtle and complex flavor of almonds into all three layers: a crispy crust, a custard filling, and a sweet, crunchy topping.
The chefs in our research kitchen tested more than 40 versions of sweet and tart crusts to find the combination that, thanks to a bit of almond flour and powdered sugar, produces a container for the pie that has just the right balance of sweetness, strength, and buttery give. A thin coat of cocoa butter holds the cream filling away from the crust, so it stays crisp from the first bite to the last. And a dash of almond extract enhances the flavor of the almond flour.
The pie is filled with a simple pastry cream flavored by amaretto, the almond-flavored liqueur. Cooking the custard in a temperature-controlled pot of water ensures that the texture turns out right every time.
You can top the pie with caramelized almonds, which are easy to prepare and make an addictive snack on their own. And for a splash of color and a dash of tartness, we add canned Amarena cherries. Fresh cherries are even better, but hard to come by this time of year. Slices of fresh fig also work well as a topping.
The crust, filling, and caramelized almond topping for this pie can each be made separately and stored until you are ready to assemble the pie. The crust will keep for up to three months if you vacuum seal it and then freeze it before it is baked. The pastry cream filling will keep for up to two days in the refrigerator. The caramelized almonds will keep for up to a week when stored in an airtight container. If you are making the pie all at once, you can save time by making the pastry cream and caramelized almonds while the dough for the crust rests in the refrigerator.
TRIPLE-ALMOND CHERRY PIE
Start to finish: 3 hours, including 2 hours of unattended cooking, to make the crust, filling, and topping, and to assemble the pie
Makes one 12 inch pie
12-inch Double Almond Pie Crust, baked
4 cups (1 kg) Amaretto Pastry Cream
½ cup (60 g) Caramelized Almonds
12 Amarena cherries or fresh cherries, halved
2 Tbsp cocoa butter
Melt the cocoa butter over low heat or in the microwave, and brush a thin coat of the oil onto the interior of the baked pie crust. Allow the fat to solidify at room temperature, and then fill the crust with cold pastry cream. Smooth the surface of the filling with a spatula, and refrigerate the pie until it becomes firm, at least one hour. Top the pie with the crumbled caramelized almonds and cherry halves. Serve it cold.
DOUBLE ALMOND PIE CRUST
3-1/2 tablespoons (50 g) blended egg yolks (from 3 to 4 eggs)
1-1/2 cups (200 g) all-pupose flour
¾ cup (165 g) unsalted butter, very cold
¾ cup (80 g) powdered sugar
3/8 cup (30 g) almond flour
1 tsp (4 g) salt
¾ tsp (2.5 g) almond extract
½ tsp (2 g) baking powder
baking beads or dry beans, as needed
Fill a large stock pot with hot water, and preheat it to 153 F. Clip a digital thermometer to the rim of the pot, with the tip well submerged, to monitor the temperature. Place the blended egg yolks in a zip-closure bag, and slowly lower the open bag into the preheated water until the top is nearly at the surface of the water, and then seal it. The goal is to use the water pressure to squeeze as much air as possible out of the bag. Once sealed, the bag should sink.
Submerge the bag of yolks, and let them cook in the 153 F water for 45 minutes. Keep an eye on the thermometer and adjust the heat as needed to keep the temperature at or near 153 F.
While the yolks cook, dice the chilled butter, and combine it in a food processor with the flours, powdered sugar, salt, and baking powder. Pulse the food processor until the mixture takes on the texture of cornmeal.
Add the almond extract and cooked egg yolks gradually, while continuing to pulse the food processor. Continue processing until the dough starts to bind. Although it may look quite dry, it will cohere eventually.
Shape the dough into a ball, flatten it into a thick disk, and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. Put the wrapped dough into the refrigerator and let it rest for an hour. As it rests, the butter in the dough will harden and the gluten will grow more elastic. While the dough rests, you can make the pastry cream and caramelized almonds from the recipes below.
Preheat an oven to 375 F. Roll the rested dough into a circle that is about 1/8 inch think and about 2 inches larger in diameter than the pie pan. If you find that the dough is too sticky to roll, either chill it again or place it between two pieces of plastic wrap or parchment, and then roll it.
Line a 12 inch pie pan with the dough; do not trim off the excess. Instead, let the edges drape over the sides of the pan. Press the dough firmly into the pan interior. If you don’t need to use the crust right away, cover the unbaked crust in plastic wrap and store it in the refrigerator. For longer-term storage, vacuum seal it, and stick it in the freezer.
To prepare the crust for baking, prick it with a fork all over, and then press parchment paper over top to protect it during baking. The fill the pan with baking beads or dry beans, and press them against the walls so that the dough doesn’t droop while it is in the oven.
Put the pie pan on a baking sheet, and bake it in the preheated oven until it turns golden brown, about 12 minutes. Midway through the baking, rotate the pie pan a half turn so that it browns evenly.
Carefully remove the beans and parchment paper. If the crust still looks a little wet, return it to the over for another 2 to 3 minutes.
Cool the crust to room temperature, and then use a knife or vegetable peeler to trim any excess crust from the edges of the pan.
AMARETTO PASTRY CREAM
¾ cup (200 g) egg yolks, blended (11 to 12 yolks)
½ cup (110 mL) heavy cream
½ cup (100 mL) whole milk
¼ cup (50 g) unsalted butter, softened
5 tablespoons (64 g) sugar
1¼ tsp (6 mL) amaretto liqueur
pinch of salt
Fill a large stock pot with hot water, and preheat it to 176 F. Use a thermometer clipped to the pot to monitor the water temperature.
In a saucepan, combine the cream, milk, sugar, and salt. Whisk the mixture over medium-low heat until the sugar and salt have completely dissolved.
Strain the blended egg yolks into a zip-closure bag. Remove the air from the bag by slowly lowering it into the stock pot until the surface of the water almost reaches the seal, and then close it. The bag should sink into the water. Allow the egg yolks to cook in the water bath for 35 minutes; adjust the heat as needed to keep the temperature at or near 176 F.
The yolks should now be firm and fully set. Transfer them immediately from the bag into a blender, and puree them at low speed. Do not allow the yolks to cool before blending, or the pastry cream will become grainy.
While the blender is running, gradually add the amaretto and the warm cream mixture.
Increase the blender speed to high, and gradually add the softened butter. Blend until the mixture becomes smooth and creamy.
If you will not be using the pastry cream right away, press plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the custard to prevent a skin from forming, and store it in the refrigerator.
½ cup (50 g) sliced almonds
2-1/2 tablespoons (25 g) sugar
2-1/2 teaspoons (10 g) egg white, blended
pinch of salt
Preheat an oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Mix the almonds, sugar, egg white, and salt well, and then spread them evenly across the paper.
Bake until golden brown, about six minutes. The color of the almonds can change quickly, so keep an eye on them.
Cool the almonds to room temperature, and then crumble them into large pieces. If you will not be using them immediately, store the almonds in an airtight container.
Photo credit: Melissa Lehuta, Modernist Cuisine, LLC