Ah, the life of pie. Simple, sweet, and sometimes savory, pie has earned its admiration and its place on holiday tables across the world. But one thing we can really appreciate about this hearty staple is the many fascinating stories about it.
The holidays mean we have permission to dive into the tantalizing textures of sweet pies, from the fluffy, gooey goodness of Amish no-bake white Christmas pie to the crisp crunch of pecan pie. It’s also the time to turn out savory pies brimming with meats, cheeses, eggs, spices, and vegetables.
We love pie crust almost as much as I love the filling. But pie crust hasn’t always been so appetizing. Pie became the pie we know and love when its crust (known as coffyn and made from a hard, simple dough in centuries past) gradually took on an edible role. In England and the colonies, instead of simply functioning as a means of holding the filling together, cooking it, and preserving it, coffyn became less rigid and more delicious.
When making pie crusts, instead of trying to work cubes of cold butter into the dough, we find it easier to put the cold butter through a cheese grater before working it in. That way, you don’t overwork the dough and risk activating its glutens, which would make it too tough — like an unfortunate modern-day version of coffyn.
The Romans, known for their well-documented appreciation of a splendid repast, are said to have published the first pie recipe. The pie was made with a rye crust and a filling of goat cheese and honey, which sounds pretty fabulous. Centuries later, Italy would gift the world with ricotta pie, a sweet dessert pie often served for Easter. Its ingredients such as eggs and grains symbolize new life, rebirth, and the fruits of the earth.
If you love your pie filled with fruit, you have a variety of options. Tangy Nantucket Christmas cranberry pie pays homage to the cultivated cranberry’s Northeastern origins and typically also has a sugar crust to balance tart and sweet. If you’ve never tried a cranberry pie, you’re missing out on a unique pie experience. Plus, nothing screams holiday like cranberries! Another classic pie is key lime. Top this mouth-watering blend of tart and sweet with dreamy tufts of meringue for the perfect balance.
Of course, can you even talk about pie without mentioning the iconic apple pie? An American classic that can be prepared in a variety of ways: crumb top or a latticed dough to just name a few. The apple pie is widely known and loved for the sweet and gooey apple filling with a crispy crust. Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream and you’re living the American dream.
Do you have memories of a passed down pie in your family? Some examples are non traditional like a chocolate pudding pie or a cherry o’ cream cheese pie. These icebox pies are easy Southern favorites that only require a few ingredients and little to no time to bake. You can whip up a cherry cream cheese pie with a graham cracker crust, cherry pie filling, cream cheese, condensed milk, vanilla extra, and lemon juice. The first cherry pie is credited to a savvy chef during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England 400 years ago. Most commonly served on the Fourth of July, when the U.S. celebrates its independence from England, the cherry pie can be enjoyed at nearly any occasion.
Maybe a fruit pie isn’t your speed. Luckily, a Southern pecan pie is a lip-smacking option for those that prefer a nutty crunch when biting into their first slice. Members of local Native American tribes taught the French about the wonders of pecans after they arrived in the area of what was to become New Orleans. When the first recipes for pecan pie popped up, the pies were milk-custard based and made with molasses and other syrups. If you’ve never had pecan pie or have grown to love it, you simply cannot replicate the sweet, yet balanced, crunch of the pecan.
Sweet potato pie is another delicious option that many include during the holidays. It started out as a savory pie, originating from enslaved Africans in the Southern U.S. Today, in addition to sweet potatoes, the pie also includes nutmeg, cinnamon, eggs, sugar, and condensed milk.
A dollop or a scoop?
Although plenty prefer pie plain, we love toppings both cool and frozen. What’s not to love about a warm slice of pie topped with a dollop of homemade whipped cream or a scoop of ice cream? You can only immediately notice guests’ eyes invariably light up when they see that a topping is included.
Pie legend says that the first slice of pie a la mode was ordered at the Cambridge Hotel in Cambridge, New York, in the late 19th century. It happened when a man named Charles Watson Townsend boldly requested ice cream with his slice of apple pie.
However, the pie experts of Duluth, Minnesota, beg to differ. The pie, says the Duluth pie faction, was blueberry, and the restaurant was at Duluth’s Hotel La Perl. It was offered on the menu with vanilla ice cream in the 1880s, thanks to the culinary genius of the Swiss-born hotel owner, John Gieret.
The meat of the matter
The eternal inner pie debate: Which is more delicious, sweet or savory? Luckily, you can have it both ways with bobotie pie, a South African pie that doesn’t take sides as it includes both fruit and meat.
However, fruit pies actually began as a fruit-meat combo. Mince pies became popular fare for celebrations hundreds of years ago when the Crusaders returned to Europe with recipes for pies made with spices, meat, and fruit. One early recipe for pear pie calls for cooks to sandwich bone marrow between slices of pear. Fortunately, when sugar prices started dropping in the 16th Century, fruit pies got sweeter.
Australian meat pies are traditionally served as individual-size pies, a festive holiday option that gives celebrations a personal touch. And if your guests are anything like us, they secretly love the idea of having their very own pie.
Tourtière is a Canadian minced meat pie, that we love to dish up during Christmas and New Year’s Eve, following the cues of the Canadians. It gets its name from the pan it’s baked in and also includes potatoes, spices, and onions. When the occasion or time of year calls for stick-to-your-ribs fare, a fan favorite is shepherd’s pie, also known as cottage pie. This hearty savory pie originated in Ireland and the U.K., and is typically made with lamb or beef, vegetables, and mashed potatoes.
As you can tell, we’re big fans of pie and the stories behind all of the various pies that we love to eat around the world. Each pie tells a story by lovingly recreating traditions, adventurous experimenting with ingredients, and glorious sessions in the kitchen with flour, spices, fruits, meats, and butter spread over the kitchen counter. As with most pie stories, ours always end — and begin again — with sharing them with our favorite people.