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, yet complex flavour 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 flavour of the almond flour.
The pie is filled with a simple pastry cream flavoured by amaretto, the almond-flavoured 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 colour 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.
TRIPLE -ALMOND CHERRY PIE
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.
Start to finish: 3 hours (1 hour active)
Makes one 12-inch pie
2 tablespoons cocoa butter
12-inch double-almond pie crust, baked (see recipe below)
4 cups amaretto pastry cream (see recipe below)
1/2 cup (60 grams) caramelized almonds (see recipe below)
12 Amarena cherries or fresh cherries, halved
In a small saucepan over low heat or in the microwave, melt the cocoa butter. Brush a thin coat of the cocoa butter over the interior of the baked pie crust. Set aside to allow the fat to solidify at room temperature.
Fill the crust with the cold pastry cream, smoothing the surface with a spatula. Refrigerate the pie until it becomes firm, at least 1 hour.
Top the pie with the crumbled caramelized almonds and cherry halves. Serve cold.
DOUBLE-ALMOND PIE CRUST
3 1/2 tablespoons (50 grams) egg yolks (from 3 to 4 eggs), whisked
3/4 cup (165 grams) unsalted butter, very cold
1 1/2 cups (200 grams) all-purpose flour
3/8 cup (30 grams) almond flour
3/4 cup (80 grams) powdered sugar
1 teaspoon (4 grams) salt
1/2 teaspoon (2 grams) baking powder
3/4 teaspoon (2.5 grams) almond extract
Baking beads or dry beans, as needed
Fill a large stock pot with hot water, then set over low heat and bring to 153 F. Clip a digital thermometer to the rim of the pot, with the tip well submerged, to monitor the temperature.
When the water reaches 153 F, place the egg yolks in a zip-close plastic bag. Slowly lower the open bag into the heated water until the top is nearly at the surface of the water, 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 both flours, the powdered sugar, salt, and baking powder. Pulse 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, then 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.
When the dough is nearly finished chilling, heat the oven to 375 F.
Unwrap the dough and roll it into a circle that is about 1/8 inch think and about 14 inches around (or 2 inches larger in diameter than your pie pan). If you find that the dough is too sticky to roll, either chill it again or place it between 2 pieces of plastic wrap or kitchen 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, then press kitchen parchment over the top to protect it during baking. 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.
Place the pie pan on a baking sheet, and bake 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. If the crust still looks a little wet, return it to the oven for another 2 to 3 minutes.
Cool the crust to room temperature, then use a knife to trim any excess crust from the edges of the pan.
AMARETTO PASTRY CREAM
1/2 cup (110 millilitres) heavy cream
1/2 cup (100 millilitres) whole milk
5 tablespoons (64 grams) sugar
Pinch of salt
3/4 cup (200 grams) egg yolks, blended (11 to 12 yolks)
1 1/4 teaspoons (6 millilitres) amaretto liqueur
1/4 cup (50 grams) unsalted butter, softened
Fill a large stock pot with hot water, and heat it to 176 F. Use a thermometer clipped to the pot to monitor the water temperature.
In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the cream, milk, sugar, and salt. Whisk the mixture until the sugar and salt have completely dissolved.
Strain the blended egg yolks into a zip-close plastic 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, 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.
1/2 cup (50 grams) sliced almonds
2 1/2 tablespoons (25 grams) sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons (10 grams) egg white, blended
Pinch of salt
Heat the oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with kitchen parchment.
In a small bowl, mix the almonds, sugar, egg white and salt. Spread the almonds evenly across the prepared baking sheet.
Bake until golden brown, about 6 minutes. The colour of the almonds can change quickly, so keep an eye on them.
Cool the almonds to room temperature, then crumble them into large pieces. If you will not be using them immediately, store the almonds in an airtight container.
EDITOR'S NOTE: W. Wayt Gibbs is editor-in-chief of The Cooking Lab, the culinary research team led by Nathan Myhrvold that produced the cookbooks "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking" and "Modernist Cuisine at Home." Their new book, "The Photography of Modernist Cuisine," will be released in October.