Bonnard's Cherries (And A Pie Recipe!)

Mary Ann Caws on Pierre Bonnard's "Picking Cherries," 1946

Welcome to the latest issue of Weekly Special, a food-art newsletter by Andrea Gyorody.

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This week we have a very special guest post by Mary Ann Caws, Distinguished Professor Emerita in Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, and author of The Modern Art Cookbook, a touchstone of food-art literature I’ve referenced many times. Thanks to an introduction from our mutual friend (and fellow art historian) Susan Power, Mary Ann and I struck up a correspondence following the first issue of the newsletter back in May, and she immediately agreed to write something that I could share.

Below, you’ll find a midsummer treat—Mary Ann’s gorgeously crafted words on Pierre Bonnard’s late painting, Picking Cherries, accompanied by a recipe for cherry pie from an Oberlin friend and colleague who has been my best eating (and cherry- and blueberry-picking) buddy over these last four-and-some years in northeast Ohio.

This Week’s Special

Pierre Bonnard

Picking Cherries, 1946

Oil on canvas

Private collection

What first strikes you about this picking in a painting is certainly not the cherries: how many cherries do we in fact see? One, if I am looking at this correctly. It is the small dark object pinched between the cheerful high-reaching woman’s forefinger and thumb. How could we even invent the plural object named “cherries” for the singular tiny thing? Or imagine that great upward thrust of the really plump arm, swelling towards its bottom, like a leg more than an arm, from the bright dress, with its dark cherry-hued oblongs against the orange-yellow? Another arm echoes, smaller, the shape of the reaching arm, and this one simply props up the head we are admiring in its sideways sloop. Those patches are echoed in the lower left corner by the same colors and tree-shape against the yellow-orange dress exactly the same color as her hair. Amazingly, the bright squares of purple and yellow on the tree trunk against which the dress fits so perfectly have an elevating pose. A line of the same color itself reaches around above the cherry maid (if I may put it like that) down to the nourishing ground to frame the action.

Now the roundness of the tree not only imitates a cherry shape, but is itself framed and dotted around by minuscule orange splotches, like some perfect form. We could, of course, invoke the suggested final result of the action, and indulge a yearning toward such aforementioned cherries in Bonnard’s Cherry Tart or in the several cherry offerings the painter has generously created for the fortunate onlooker. 

But what most sticks with me upon re-looking is the pure ecstasy of the woman’s face. Of course she has near her a larger square echo with the same colors, so that she is literally surrounded by an obvious order-giving to her action as well as undertaking it. In fact, the entire unfolding of the action and its result is a celebration not just of the fruit but everything that consecrates its undoing—picked or gathered—and then assumed into something dessert-like and pie-shaped.

What most elates the observer of such truly flourishing action is the gorgeous round treeness of the image and how it so grandly responds to the essential roundness of the cherry: I cannot imagine a more luscious or more succulent response. And is this not the point of all Pierre Bonnard’s post-impressionist productions, the answer in art to nature, the reception by his vision of what is offered to it? Any of our own critical responses to our private and in some cases public consumption of a cultivated and then free-growing fruit might well gain wisdom from such human creation of ecstatic representation: the way we receive that juicy circular purpleness has never been, in my view, better portrayed. 

The kind of bright joy we might well want to pass on to our friends, quite like offering a bowl of cherries, such as Bonnard depicts in his several cherry paintings or in the again circular shape of a pie before its triangular apportioning, seems in itself the ideal response to both fruit and representation. Consuming the very picture of delicious ripeness brings necessarily to mind another never greater answer to nature and the human from Shakespeare himself, no mean representer of life and art: 

       Ripeness is all.

And elsewhere:

       Readiness is all. 

It is all about giving whatever we take.

For Further Eating

During nature's relatively short cherry season, there’s nothing better than a bowl of fridge-cold cherries on a hot day—except, that is, for sour cherry pie, preferably à la mode. (Does anyone else mentally pronounce that as “ah la mo-dee,” from the diner scene in Little Miss Sunshine? It has the same hold on me as the epic mispronunciation of “Versace” in Showgirls. There must be a very long German word for this phenomenon.)

Nobody I know makes sour cherry pies as beautifully as my friend and colleague Bonnie Cheng, an Oberlin professor of art history and East Asian studies, who was glad to share her pie secrets with readers of Weekly Special. I tried my best to capture the various details of Bonnie’s most recent Peach Cherringbone Pie, which combines sliced peaches and sour cherries under an impressive herringbone crust (hence the punny name). Bonnie’s crust is adapted from this Ina Garten recipe, while her filling is a modified version of a Serious Eats recipe by Stella Parks.

With a cross-country move just two weeks away, I could not muster the will to attempt a complex woven crust, and so made a version of this pie with a store-bought gluten-free crust and an oat crumble top, which was still delightful. But if you’re in a better place, I hope you make the effort! It’s so gratifying to pull a bubbling, mahogany-edged pie from the oven—and so hard to wait the 3 hours (or more) necessary for the filling to cool and come together. Resist the temptation to cut it prematurely, though. At all stages of this bake, patience, as Bonnie reminded me, is key.

Peach Cherringbone Pie

Serves 6-8

For the crust:

2 sticks + 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon very cold unsalted butter (or 1 ½ sticks butter + ⅓ cup very cold shortening, per Ina G.) 
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
6 to 8 tablespoons (about 1/2 cup) ice water
additional sugar for top (optional) 

For the filling:

5 heaping cups fresh or frozen pitted sour cherries, from about 2 pounds whole fruit
2 cups fresh or frozen sliced peaches
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (juice of one lemon)
1/2 to 1 cup sugar (depending on the sweetness of your fruit / how sweet you like your pie)
3/4 teaspoon (3g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume or use the same weight
1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon tapioca starch, such as Bob's Red Mill

For the egg wash:

1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon (1/2g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume or use the same weight

1. To make the crust: Dice (or slice) sticks of butter and return to the refrigerator while you prepare the flour mixture. Place the flour, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse a few times to mix. Add the butter (and shortening, if using). Pulse 8 to 12 times, or until the butter is roughly pea-sized. With the machine running, pour the ice water down the feed tube and pulse the machine until the dough begins to form a ball. Dump out onto a sheet of plastic wrap and use the wrap to gather the dough into a ball. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. 

2. While the dough chills, make the filling: Combine pitted cherries, sliced peaches, lemon juice, sugar, salt, and tapioca starch in a large bowl, folding with a flexible spatula until well combined. Set aside.

3. Remove dough from the fridge and cut in half. (If making a herringbone design—see below—divide so the top crust portion is slightly bigger.) Re-wrap one half in plastic wrap and place back in the fridge. On a well-floured surface, roll remaining dough into a circle roughly 12” in diameter, rolling from the center to the edge, turning and flouring the dough to make sure it doesn't stick. Fold the dough in quarters, place in a 9” pie pan, and unfold to fit the pan. (You can do this step in advance and put the pie pan with crust into the fridge until you are ready to bake.)

4. Remove remaining dough from the fridge and pick your top crust poison:

  • Easiest: Roll dough into a 10” circle, fold in quarters, unfold on top of the fruit filling. Trim extra dough, join top and bottom crusts with whatever edge meets your fancy, and cut a vent into the center of the top crust.

  • Little bit harder: Traditional Lattice Top

  • Expert level: Herringbone Lattice Top (complicated, yes, but it gives this pie its name!)

Bonnie’s pro tip: If you opt for a traditional lattice or herringbone top, roll out the dough and cut into the desired number of strips, place on a parchment paper-lined half sheet pan, cover with plastic wrap, and return to the fridge for 30 minutes to keep the strips from getting soft (and your pie from looking sad) when you weave the top crust. When the strips are chilled, weave your lattice directly on the parchment-lined pan and return to the fridge for another 30 minutes (yup, again) to firm it up.

5. Scrape fruit mixture into the center of the pie pan and pat into an even layer.  Cover with top crust (whatever style you chose), then refrigerate the pie to ensure the top crust is chilled, about 30 minutes. (If you’ve already twice chilled a lattice top, you can skip this step, unless your kitchen is hot and the dough has gotten soft again, in which case chill that pie again, baby!) Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat to 400°F.

6. For the egg wash: Whisk egg, egg yolk, cream, and salt in a small bowl. Brush over the chilled top crust in a thin, even layer. Sprinkle sparingly with sugar if desired.

7. Place chilled pie on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until crust is golden, about 1 hour, then loosely cover with tented foil. Continue baking until filling is bubbling in the very center of the pie, about 15 minutes more. (If you opted for a crust that completely covers the filling, bake until pie reaches an internal temperature of 213°F on a digital thermometer.) The time can vary considerably depending on the thickness and type of pie plate, the amount of top crust, how long the pie was refrigerated, etc., so use bubbling and/or temperature as your marker of doneness. If your oven runs hot, you may want to cover the edge crust with a pie shield (which you can make from aluminum foil) after 30 to 40 minutes. 

8. To serve: Cool pie until no warmer than 85°F on a digital thermometer, about 3 hours (depending on a wide range of factors). Slice into 6-8 wedges with a sharp knife, pressing firmly against bottom and sides of pie plate to ensure the bottom crust is completely cut. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next week!