The Black Family Reunion Cookbook (1991) is one of the books in my collection that I’ve read cover to cover but have never done much cooking from. It’s not that the recipes aren’t intriguing or delicious, it’s that the stories that accompany them are compelling and essential reading. The titular “Black Family Reunion” is an annual event celebrating the power and traditional values of Black American families. The event is organized by the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), a group that promotes education, advocacy, and empowerment of and for Black women and their families. The book opens with a poem by Maya Angelou and individual recipes are peppered with boots-on-the-ground stories of the civil rights movement (think “when I had lunch with Dr. King…”). It’s just plain fascinating.
The Black Family Reunion Cookbook devotes nearly sixty of its two hundred pages to sweets, and these recipes aren’t messing around. They represent a wide variety of African-American traditions, from rich Southern dessert to Jamaican specialties to a chocolate chip cookie recipe provided by then-DC mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon. And pies. Lots and lots and lots of pies. So when Pi day rolled around this year I knew exactly which cookbook I was going to use. Now the bad news is I’m not very good at making pies. They usually taste great, but – as you’ll see in the pictures – they’re rarely much to look at. And so I hope the fine women at the NCNW forgive my humble attempt to recreate some of their heirloom recipes.
The first pie I made was a simple Sour Cherry Pie. The recipe is presented without attribution or context, but didn’t need a historical narrative to draw me in. I’ve reached the age where the usual cloying and gooey cherry pies don’t really do it for me anymore – my sweet tooth gave up about the same time as my metabolism. At the risk of becoming a cliché, I honestly believe that the best desserts are “not too sweet”. There’s still a cup and a half of sugar in this pie, so it’s not exactly low calorie, but it’s just enough sugar to keep the cherries from puckering your lips. It’s not quite Sour Patch Kid sour, but it’s a little bit more refined than your usual cherry pie.
There are two keys to getting this recipe right: make sure you buy the right kind of cherries (tart, not sweet), and make sure the filling gels up before you fill the pie. On my first goaround I expected that the cornstarch would thicken up the filling during the cook, but it didn’t quite work that way. The consistency you get when cooking the filling is more or less the same as you’ll get with the final pie. I’ve made a couple of simple adjustments – I’ve backed off on the added sugar and omitted the sugar sprinkles on the crust. This is because I’m an old fuddy-duddy who can’t abide sweet things anymore, but feel free to adjust to your own personal tastes. I’ve also substituted cardamom bitters for the almond extract, for no other reason than I like cardamom. Citrus bitters would work just as well.
This pie was a big hit at the Pi Day celebration – even though we were late to arrive it was one of the first to disappear. Rich and sour and delicious. The usual accompaniments – whipped cream, ice cream, etc. – will work just fine, but I found it perfectly satisfying on its own. If you want many, many more delicious pies (plus many, many more delicious everythings) The Black Family Reunion Cookbook is still readily available, new or used, from Amazon and elsewhere. Enjoy!
- Preheat the oven to 400º F
- In a small saucepan, stir together 1 cup of the reserved cherry juice, ¾ cup of the sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Heat over medium heat, whisking frequently, until mixture starts to boil. Whisk in the butter and cook until thickened and bubbly.
- Remove from heat and stir in drained cherries. Add the bitters. Stir. If needed, return to the stove over low heat to thicken mixture until set.
- Place bottom pie crust in pie pan. Spoon in filling. Moisten the edges of the crust with water, then lay second crust over the top. Press edges together to form a tight seam, then scallop and/or flute as desired to make things pretty. Cut a few vents in the top and glaze with milk to facilitate browning.
- Place in the oven for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350º F and continue cooking 30-35 minutes until crust is lightly browned around the edges. Allow to cool at least one hour before serving.