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THE HEALTHY PLATE: Recipe for mini cherry phyllo pies

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My all-time favourite dessert is cherry pie. Yes, I rank it higher than any chocolate concoction you can name. I even like the gluey, over-thickened versions served up in diners.

But I admit I felt slightly virtuous when I discovered recently that cherries are such a healthy ingredient, rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber. Naturally, then, I had a lot of fun whipping up a new version of this American classic, one that swaps out the buttery crust for less-caloric phyllo dough, a strategy that allows the eater to concentrate on the succulent fruit.

It wasn't until I began my life as chef that I understood that cherry pie is supposed to be made with sour cherries, not the sweet ones we pop into our mouths like candy. Why? Because sour cherries boast more flavour. Unfortunately, the season for sour cherries is very short, roughly two weeks a year.

And then there are those darn pits. Sweet or sour, you have to pit cherries. But you have to pit more of the sour ones to fill up a pie because they're smaller than the sweet variety. Back in my restaurant days, I'd have a prep cook do all the pitting. On my own now, developing recipes for home cooks, I reach for the sweet cherries, adding lemon juice and lemon rind to tart up their flavour.

There are of course plenty of kitchen gizmos for making easy work of pitting lots of cherries. I'm partial to the kind that does double duty as an olive pitter. If you don't own one of these little wonders, the best method is to whack the whole cherry with the side of a chef's knife, after which the pit slides right out. You've seen chefs on TV perform a similar operation with garlic. They whack the whole clove, then easily pull off the peel. Believe me, it beats using a paring knife and ending up with all that cherry flesh under your fingernails.

I thicken the filling with cornstarch rather than flour because I prefer the former's translucence to the latter's muddiness. The only trouble with cornstarch is that it breaks down and thins out if you boil it for too long, so you've got to keep an eye on the cooking time. Also, if you end up using frozen cherries, which tend to be watery, you'll probably need to increase the thickener.

As mentioned, I kissed off the usual pie crust in favour of phyllo dough, but I kept some of the butter, which adds flavour and crispiness. For extra crunchiness, I layered in almonds ground up with a bit of cinnamon-sugar. The finished crust, then, is less doughy and more flakey than the traditional kind.

Finally, as advertised, these pies aren't served by the slice. Rather, they are mini-pies, each the size the size of a muffin cup and served one per customer. Still, it turned out that a single cup was a little too mini, so I flipped the tin over and draped the phyllo squares on the backside, not the inside, of each cup. Now there's ample room for those cherries.

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MINI CHERRY PHYLLO PIE

Start to finish: 45 minutes

Servings: 8

For the filling:

1 pound sweet cherries, pitted

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/4 cup water

For the phyllo shells:

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons slivered or sliced almonds

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

8 sheets phyllo dough

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Cooking spray

8 small scoops frozen yogurt (optional)

Heat the oven to 350 F.

In a medium saucepan over medium-high, combine the cherries, sugar, lemon zest and juice. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer gently for 5 minutes. In a small bowl whisk together the cornstarch and water. Add the cornstarch mixture to the cherries in a stream, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to a boil, then remove from the heat. Let the filling cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, in a spice grinder, small blender or the small bowl of a food processor, pulse the almonds with the sugar and cinnamon until finely chopped but not pulverized. Transfer to a small bowl.

Fold the stack of phyllo sheets in half, then fold it in half again and trim off the edges (reserving the trimmings), to produce a stack of 32 squares, each 4 1/2-inches across.

Lay one phyllo square on a work surface, then use a pastry brush to lightly dab the square with a little of the melted butter. Sprinkle a teaspoon of the almond mixture on top, then set a second square over it. Brush the second square with a little more butter and sprinkle with another teaspoon of almond sugar.

Set a third square on top of the second at a 45 degree angle, forming an 8-pointed star. Top with one last square, brushing it lightly with butter. Drape the stack of phyllo over one cup of an overturned muffin pan. Mist the stack with cooking spray. Repeat this layering process to form another 7 stacks, also setting them over the muffin cups. Reserve a little of the almond mixture and butter.

Lay the phyllo trimmings flat and brush them with the remaining butter. Sprinkle them with the remaining almond mixture, then transfer them to a small baking pan.

Bake the phyllo shells and the scraps on the oven's middle shelf until golden brown, about 6 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool.

To serve, spoon the cherry filling into the shells, then top with the crispy scraps and the frozen yogurt, if using.

Nutrition information per serving: 190 calories; 70 calories from fat (37 per cent of total calories); 8 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 29 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 13 g sugar; 3 g protein; 95 mg sodium.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."

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