Cornel Vanilla Cream Pie
The Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is cultivated for its fruit in Eastern Europe down through Iran, but in the U.S. it’s usually planted as an ornamental. I’ve been riding by a whole grove of them on the bike trail for years without ever really registering it as food, but the other week when I’d gone further west than usual for a foraging expedition (looking for a particular stand of fennel) I stopped on my way back to check out the bright red fruit.
Oh man, I’m glad I did. For one thing, cornels are easy to pick. Once you’ve let them ripen off the tree, they have a tart-sweet berry flavor. They do have annoying pits (which one article claims are delicious in their own right) but those are easy enough to handle in a food mill.
I cooked my first cornels just long enough to soften them up for the food mill, and added as much sugar as it took to make them taste right. I think I might’ve been a little early with these – even after they’d spent a week on my counter turning deep red, they were pretty tart, and there was still a hint of mouth-drying astringency to them. Still, the sauce was pretty tasty. Different trees seem to be ripening at very different paces, even within the same stand, so there will be plenty of opportunity to go back for more.
The cornel sauce was a good balance for a rich vanilla cream pie.
I used my favorite base vanilla cream recipe, from The New Best Recipe. They recommend a bit of brandy; I used a couple tablespoons of orange muscat dessert wine and 1/4 tsp. orange blossom water for a double batch. I also added a couple dashes of clove powder and about 3 dashes of mace, and I think it came out a bit mace-heavy – I liked how the flavor worked with the vanilla and the cornels, but use a very, very sparing hand.
I spread a layer of cornel sauce on the bottom of the pie shell before filling it with vanilla cream, and tried to do some fancy swirly garnish stuff on the top, which probably would’ve worked out better if I’d piped from a plastic bag instead of just using a spoon. Whatever. It was a great pie and I’ll make it again.