When I was a girl February meant Cherry Cheese Pie. Every year as mid-February approached, Aunt Hen would make a beautiful Cherry Cheese Pie with a delicious buttery graham cracker crust, a smooth and luscious white cream cheese filling and a glistening red cherry topping.
When Aunt Hen made her annual announcement that it was time to make this pie my reaction was mixed. I always liked to help out in the kitchen when she was making something special. What I didn’t like was cherry topping. It was mushy and sticky and seemed to have a rather strong flavor in my childish opinion. While I knew, from taking a choice taste of my father's piece, that not only the sweet graham cracker crust was delicious but that the white filling beneath the cherries was a special treat too, the cherry topping discouraged me from indulging in this annual delight.
While my aunt often accomodated my picky tastes when she made desserts it was hard to justify a Cherry Cheese Pie without the cherries. After all, the cherries were actually the point. The reason she made this pie every February was to celebrate George Washington’s birthday. As every school child once knew, George Washington's fame for owning up to the fact that he had chopped down a cherry tree his father prized was only eclipsed by his exploits in the Revolutionary War and the fact that he was the first president of the United States. Yet even though she always made the Cherry Cheese Pie with the same canned cherry pie filling glistening on top, my Aunt Hen would often make a small tart sized portion of her pie without the cherries, just for me.
Now George Washington’s Birthday, once celebrated on the day of his birth, February 22 on the Gregorian calendar, and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, once celebrated on February 12, have been lumped together into what many call President’s Day, celebrated on the 3rd Monday in February. This holiday has become, for the most part, another three day weekend, an opportunity to plan a short getaway or to check out sales at the local department stores. I’m not sure if the lessons once learned by observing Goerge Washington’s character and the sacrifices made for his country, and once studied by every school child across the United States, are still studied or even revered.
In recent years many wonderful stories I learned in school have been scrutinized and dismissed by historians, from Christopher Columbus' discovery of America to Washington saying "Father, I cannot tell a lie." This story about young George and the cherry tree is now claimed to be false, a fabrication woven by biographer M. L. Weems in an effort to make a point about Washington’s character.
Did George Washington really chop down a cherry tree? Maybe. Maybe not. In any case, I still like to remember the story. It is as good a reason as any to make a Cherry Cheese Pie and remember my aunt’s affection each February. I want to hand down the tradition, though in the transmission I am also prone to changing a detail or two.
The truth is, my aunt's recipe in her own handwriting, reads like this:
Though I remember this recipe making a wonderful pie, I elected not to use Dream Whip. I preferred to make the pie using real whipped cream. What's more, I chose to add brown sugar instead of powdered sugar and to use a lot less of it. I also made my own cherry topping after finding an appealing jar of Morello Cherries at Trader Joe’s. The pretty oval jar alone convinced me to give them a try. What's more they have a wonderful flavor. In fact I tried two different toppings using these cherries, one made with the light syrup from the jar and another one, one my aunt would have never tried but sounded tempting to me, using tawny port. The pie was delicious with either topping.
I do love tradition but I also enjoy adapting traditions so that they remain relevant to our lives today and the resources we now have at our disposal. Whatever your preference, the traditional recipe my aunt copied and shared with me or an updated version using whipping cream and a great new product from Trader Joe's, why not make a Cherry Cheese Pie of your own this February? I think you and your family will be glad you did.
1¼ cups graham cracker crumbs (1 inner packet), crushed
3 Tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup whipping cream, whipped
1 Jar (24.7 oz) Trader Joe's Dark Morello Cherries in Light Syrup
1 cup cherry syrup from jar or ¾ cup tawny port
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
1 Tablespoons water
1/2 vanilla bean
To make the crust:
Mix together the graham cracker crumbs, sugar and melted butter. Firmly press the mixture into the bottom and up the sides of a lightly greased 9 inch pie plate.
Bake at 325 degrees for 10 minutes. Cool completely.
To make the filling:
Beat cream cheese with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add brown sugar and vanilla, mixing until well combined.
Fold the whipped cream into the cream cheese mixture until well combined.
Spoon filling into the prepared crust. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours.
To make the topping:
Mix together the cornstarch, lemon juice and water. Set aside.
Mix the cherry liquid or tawny port with the sugar in a small saucepan. Drop in the vanilla bean. Heat over medium heat until sugar dissolves and mixture starts to boil.
Slowly stir in the cornstarch mixture and add the cherries. Continue to boil, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens, about 1 minute.
Remove from heat to cool.
When mixture is cool enough to handle remove the vanilla bean. Split the pod lengthwise and scrape seeds into the mixture. Discard the hull.
When mixture is cool, spread it on top of the chilled pie filling.
Return pie to the refrigerator until ready to serve.