While the Chinese lunar calendar may call it the Year of the Rabbit, the culinary world has dubbed 2011 “the year of the pie.” Everyone from Rachael Ray to restaurant marketing consultant Andrew Freeman has predicted that this will be the year when pie overtakes the cupcake to become America’s favorite sweet.
The historical roots of pie
Pie certainly isn’t a new food. Its origins date back to the ancient Egyptians, who shared this baked good with early Romans. It was the latter who published the first known pie recipe: rye-crusted goat cheese and honey pie.
We have the English colonists to thank for bringing pie to America. In England, pie typically contained a savory rather than sweet filling. As a result, the colonial American versions featured meats and/or vegetables and often possessed hard, inedible crusts. Hearty meals, they were baked in long, slender pans that resembled and were called coffins.
Once shortening and butter became common household goods, pie crusts improved and turned into a cherished aspect of the dish. Ingredients also became more varied. Crusts came not only from dough but also from mashed potatoes and the crushed crumbs of graham crackers and chocolate or vanilla wafers.
Along with better crust came sweeter fillings. Stone fruits, berries, apples, pears, custards, mousses and ice creams all showed up in pie pans. By the end of the 20th century, chocolate, peanut butter, caramel and coffee were among the favored flavors.
A new American classic
By the end of 20th century pie had evolved into a traditional American dessert. It symbolized hearth and home and all things American, i.e. “as American as apple pie.” A lengthy history doesn’t necessarily translate into trendiness. Yet, pie taps into the existing culinary movement toward cozy, comfort foods. It also satisfies a basic desire for wholesome, straight-from-the-oven goodies, ones just like mom used to bake.
“People have a lot of nostalgia about pie and find it comforting,” says Melissa Elsen of Four and Twenty Blackbirds in Brooklyn, N.Y. Elsen, who runs the shop and bakes pies with her sister, Emily, grew up in a Midwestern restaurant family where pie was a specialty. At Four and Twenty Blackbirds the sisters offer such unique pies as salted caramel apple and black bottom lemon, which features a layer of chocolate ganache under lemony custard.
“I think pies are the ‘it’ thing because a lot of comfort foods have already been covered,” says Michael Falcone, chef-owner of the suburban Philadelphia-based Funky Lil’ Kitchen. Falcone points out that burgers, sandwiches and macaroni and cheese have all had their day. He showcases both sweet and savory pies, such as veal pot pie, on his celebrated New American menu. Along with evoking warm memories of days gone by, pie has simplicity in its favor. Requiring few ingredients, it’s a one pot, or pan, meal.
The role of geography
At one time, where you lived determined what type of pie you ate. Southerners were known for their sweet potato, pecan, mud and chess pies while New Englanders were famed for their pumpkin and blueberry. In Florida folks ate tart key lime pies. In Pennsylvania, Dutch country molasses-rich shoofly pie reigned supreme.
Today the regional baking borders have blurred. I can as easily make or buy a sweet potato pie as I can whip together a shoofly. I certainly don’t need to fly to Florida to enjoy a refreshing slice of key lime.
Unsurprisingly, the flavors and forms have become more creative, too. Nowhere is this more evident than at Hill Country Chicken in New York. There I can order a whiskey buttermilk pie, cowboy pie or a salted margarita pie with pretzel crust. I can also enjoy a pie shake, a milkshake made from homemade ice cream and pie. With so many delectable types around it’s no wonder that pie is popping up on everyone’s menu.
Spiced Apple-Raisin Pie
- Preheat the oven to 425 F.
- Pour the lemon juice over the apple slices and toss to coat.
- Place the butter in a large saucepan and heat over medium. As the butter is melting, mix together the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves. Add the sugar and spices to the melted butter and stir until well combined. Add the apples and raisins and toss until all the fruit is coated. Bring the ingredients to a boil and allow them to cook, stirring frequently, 5 to 10 minutes until the fruit has softened slightly and a fairly thick sauce has formed. Pour the fruit and liquid into a large, shallow pan or dish and allow to cool slightly.
- Once the fruit has cooled, spoon the filling into the bottom pie crust. Wet the edges of the crust and lay the top crust over the fruit. Using your fingers, seal the edges of the two crusts together, cutting off any excess dough. Slice three or four steam vents in the crust and then slide the pie onto the lowest rack in your oven. Bake for 30 minutes at 425 F, then lower the temperature to 350 F, move the pie onto a baking sheet and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes. When finished, the pie will be golden brown with juices bubbling through the steam vents.
- Remove the pie from the oven and cool on a wire rack before serving.
Kathy Hunt is a syndicated food writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and VegNews, among other publications. She currently is working on her first cookbook. You can follow Kathy’s culinary adventures online @Kitchenkat and at kitchenkat.com.
Photo: Raisin apple pie. Credit: Kathy Hunt