Let them eat pie
Pie baking can become a daily event in summer, but quarts of cherry, blueberry and peach fillings, ready at a moment's notice, can make an easy dessert in deepest winter. Recipe: Blueberry Pie Filling
The New York Times
My brother was 8 years old when he requested blueberry pie for his July birthday. It was the usual backyard party, children squealing and jumping on a Slip 'n Slide, gifts, games and the denouement: pie and ice cream. No one noticed the lack of cake.
The scent of blueberry pie bubbling away in the oven is comforting and familiar, especially in high summer, when pie baking can become a daily event.
Just imagine that summery smell, and taste, in deepest winter.
These are the standouts in my pantry going into the fall: quarts of cherry, blueberry and peach fillings, ready at a moment's notice to become pie, crisp, cobbler or slump. Just empty the jar into a crust or a baking dish, cover with another crust or crisp topping and slide it into the oven. After an hour, dessert emerges smelling like a summer's day.
One potential pitfall: There is nothing worse than a soupy pie. That first piece emerges, and then all the glorious juices from the fruit pool in the pan as the slice collapses, wet on the plate. Pie bakers know the value of different thickeners and every baker has his or her favorite, but for shelf stability, cornstarch is the only choice.
A modified cornstarch called Clear Jel, which makes fillings shelf stable for a year, is the thickener recommended by the National Center for Home Food Preservation (http://nchfp.uga.edu/). It was never widely distributed for the home cook, though, and can be challenging to find.
But Dr. Elizabeth Andress, the head of the center and a professor of food safety, assured me that the recipe I have used for years with regular cornstarch from the grocery store is perfectly safe, and has a shelf life of about nine months.
So I will continue to use regular cornstarch, making only enough filling to last until April, along with a jar or two for gifts. Yes, there will be a few filling-free months, but my Thanksgiving menu is sure to include a blueberry pie. And cherry. And peach.
And my birthday in February? You can bet there will be pie.
BLUEBERRY PIE FILLING
Time: 1 hour, plus several hours for cooling
Yield: 2 quarts
1 cup sugar
½ cup cornstarch
Juice of two lemons
4 pints blueberries
1 teaspoon almond extract, optional
4 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur, optional
1. Fit a large pot with a rack, or line with a folded kitchen towel. Fill 2/3 with water and bring to a boil. Add 2 one-quart canning jars and boil for 10 minutes. Jars may be left in the warm water in the pot until ready to be filled. (Alternatively, you can sterilize jars by running them through a dishwasher cycle, leaving there until you are ready to fill.)
2. Place canning rings in a small saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Turn off heat and add lids to soften their rubber gaskets. Rings and lids may be left in the water until jars are filled.
3. In a large, heavy pot, combine 1 cup water with sugar, cornstarch and lemon juice, and whisk until smooth. Bring to a boil and add berries; the mixture will look gloppy. Smash some of the berries with a potato masher or the back of a spoon. Return mixture to a boil for 1 minute. Add extract and liqueur, if using, and stir well.
4. Remove warm jars from pot and bring water back to a boil. Ladle hot filling into jars just up to the base of the neck, leaving 1 inch at the top. Wipe jar rims clean with a damp towel. Place lids on jars, screw on rings and lower jars back into the pot of boiling water. The water should cover the jars; if not, add more. Boil jars for 30 minutes. Transfer jars to a folded towel and allow to cool for 12 hours; you should hear them making a pinging sound as they seal.
5. Test the seals by removing rings and lifting jars by the flat lid. If the lid releases, the seal has not formed. Unsealed jars should be refrigerated and used within a month, or reprocessed. (Rings and jars may be reused, but a new flat lid must be used each time jars are processed.) To reprocess, reheat filling to boiling point (as in Step 3), then continue as before.