A properly thickened pie should have a filling that is strong enough to suspend the fruit but delicate enough to give easily when sliced. Great pie fillings won't run, but they will ooze just a little, slowly and seductively.
It's best to make sure the pies bake until the filling is noticeably bubbling, ensuring that the thickener has had sufficient time to cook through and activate. And give the pie sufficient time to cool after it bakes to give the filling time to set up. It can be hard not to slice into a temptingly fragrant pie as soon as it comes out of the oven, but give it time; patience is definitely a virtue here.
The type of thickener can also affect the flavor and harmony of the overall pie. When I first tried that sweet cherry pie, I used flour. While it worked fine to thicken the filling, I found that the flour muted the more delicate flavor of the sweet cherries; cornstarch was a better choice, as it allowed the cherry flavor to shine and gave the filling a nice gloss.
Conversely, I find flour to be the perfect thickener for a nectarine pie. I combine the fruit with a touch of almond extract (almonds go so well with stone fruit) and just enough sugar to lightly sweeten, then top it with a sweet almond crumble. The flour gives the filling a soft, almost creamy feel and matches perfectly with the bright, almost-lemony notes of the nectarines.
Sometimes the best summer fruit pies are the ones in which the fruit isn't cooked at all; it's just piled high in a pie shell and coated with a beautiful glaze.
Strawberries are a perfect example. As wonderful as they are cooked, strawberries can lose their vibrant color and end up with a mushy texture. Fresh strawberries are enticingly bright and vibrant, full of flavor.
To emphasize that, I toss the strawberries in a glaze combining fresh orange juice and rum steeped with a little mint as it cooks. I use cornstarch to thicken, adding enough to the glaze to give the berries a nice sheen without making them gummy. Chill the pie for a few hours to allow the glaze to set up, then serve. One bite and your mouth is hit with the fresh harmony of strawberry flavor complemented by bright notes of orange and rum, and a cool hint of mint. Perfect for even a blistering hot summer day.
And if I didn't know how easy it was to make, I might drive all day for a pie like this.
Buffalo Chips Emporium
14179 Main St.
Amador City, Calif.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday