On the surface, pie is a humble food.
In its most basic form, a pie is a pastry shell made from flour, butter and water, stuffed with a flavorful filling.
But this dessert staple is more than just the sum of its parts.
“There is an emotional component to pie for a lot of us,” says Lee Ann Adams, associate professor of baking and pastry arts at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. “It brings back memories of childhood and family celebrations. Nothing says home cooking and comfort like a pie.”
Pie has long been an American dessert favorite. But since the 17th-century pilgrim prototypes, which Adams describes as pumpkins filled with dried fruits and nuts, and baked in the ground, pie has evolved greatly. It has transcended its unassuming roots, becoming an art form.
“You have at least two, sometimes three, completely separate canvasses that somehow have to combine and make sense in one bite,” says Victoria Dearmond, pastry chef at Underbelly in Houston.
A pie masterpiece requires beautiful aesthetics and delectable flavors. But there’s an elusive element that separates an amateur’s effort from a professional’s achievement—harmony.
“Everything has to balance perfectly,” says Dearmond. “The crust, which most people completely disregard on a pie, should be flaky and crunchy, but not too hard. The filling should be just tart enough to balance out the sweetness and be the perfect accompaniment to the crunch of the crust.”
For the third canvas—the top crust—whether it’s a flaky layer that mimics the bottom crust or a sweet, nutty crumble, Dearmond insists that it also must harmonize with the other elements.
Adds Adams, “If you didn’t have balance, the experience of eating the pie would be one dimensional. With contrast brings interest.”
Concord Grape Pie with Almond Frangipane and Vanilla Sable Crust
Recipe courtesy Dominique Ansel, owner, Dominique Ansel Bakery, New York City
Vanilla Sable Crust (see "Gettin' Crusty Wit' It," below)
2 sticks unsalted butter
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1⅓ cups almond flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons gold rum
1½ cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
2 teaspoons apple pectin (found at most grocery stores)
2 cups fresh Concord grape juice
2 cups Concord grapes, deseeded and roughly chopped
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
Caramelized almonds, for garnish (optional)
Preheat oven to 350˚F.
Roll the chilled dough on a floured surface until it’s about a 1/8-inch-thick circle. Line a 9-inch glass pie dish with the dough, using a knife to cut off the excess. With your hands, roll the scraps into pea-sized balls and reserve.
Using a stand mixer equipped with a paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Slowly add the eggs, and then incorporate the almond flour, cornstarch and rum to make the frangipane.
Spread a thin layer of the frangipane into the unbaked pie shell and chill for about 20 minutes in a refrigerator. Once set, bake the pie until golden brown, about 15 minutes (the frangipane should rise about halfway up the pie).
In a small bowl, combine the 2 tablespoons of sugar with the apple pectin. Bring the grape juice to a boil in a small pot. Add the sugar-pectin mixture, and allow ingredients to return to a boil. Slowly incorporate the remaining sugar, stirring constantly, until the mixture reaches 221˚F on a candy thermometer. Add the grapes, lemon juice and zest to the saucepan, and stir until well combined. Pour the hot contents into the baked pie shell, and allow it to sit at room temperature for about 1 hour.
To finish, on a baking sheet lined with parchment, bake the reserved pie-crust balls for about 5 minutes, or until golden. Top the pie with the balls, and sprinkle with caramelized almonds. Serves 6–8.
Dominique Ansel, a 2013 James Beard Award semifinalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef, recommends serving this pie with the Asahi Shuzo Dassai 23 Junmai Daiginjo saké from Yamaguchi, Japan. He says that the saké’s acidity cuts through the marmalade’s sweetness, and the frangipane balances the nuttiness from the saké’s subtle rice flavor.
Pear Crumb Pie
Recipe courtesy Victoria Dearmond, pastry chef, Underbelly, Houston
8 pears, peeled, cored and diced
1½ cups brown sugar, divided
1½ teaspoons salt, divided
Pear Pie Crust (see "Gettin' Crusty Wit' It," below)
1½ cups white sugar, divided
¾ teaspoon ground ginger, divided
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1½ cups plus 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided
1 cup butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Juice of 2 lemons
½ cup pecan pieces
½ cup butter, cold
In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, combine the pears, ½ cup brown sugar, 1 teaspoon salt and 1½ cups water. Stirring occasionally, cook the mixture until the pears are soft, about 15 minutes. Let the mixture cool slightly, and then mash with a fork into a chunky pear sauce. This can be made 2–3 days in advance if stored in a refrigerator until use.
Preheat oven to 350˚F.
Roll the chilled dough on a floured surface until it’s about a ¼-inch-thick circle. Carefully transfer it to a 9-inch pie dish.
In a small bowl, combine 1 cup brown sugar, 1 cup white sugar, ½ teaspoon ground ginger, 1 teaspoon cinnamon and 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour, making sure to break up any brown sugar clumps.
In a separate large bowl, whisk the eggs, and then add the dry mixture. Slowly whisk in the melted butter, mixing constantly to prevent the eggs from cooking. Stir in the vanilla, lemon juice and pear sauce, and then pour the mixture into the pie shell.
In another large bowl, combine the remaining dry ingredients. Add the butter, and cut it in until the crumble topping looks like gravel.
Bake until the pie is just set, approximately 35 minutes, then add the crumble topping. Bake the pie another 10–20 minutes. Let the pie cool slightly before serving. Serves 8.
Matthew Pridgen, Underbelly’s general manager and sommelier, says the pie sings with Marenco’s Scrapona Moscato d’Asti from Piedmont, Italy. “The pear and stone fruit on the palate, the delicate sweetness and the mouthwatering acidity meld perfectly with the light spice and the sweetness of the dessert.”
Honey-Glazed Fig with Mascarpone Pie
Recipe courtesy Patrick Fahy, executive pastry chef, Sixteen, Chicago
Fig Pie Crust (see "Gettin' Crusty Wit' It," below)
½ cup sugar, plus more to sprinkle on crust
1 tablespoon butter
2 cups mascarpone
2 eggs plus 1 yolk, divided
12 fresh figs, destemmed and quartered
½ cup honey, warm
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. Sprinkle some flour on a cutting board, and using a rolling pin, roll the dough into a roughly ¼-inch-thick circle. Grease a 10-inch pie dish with the butter, and gently press the dough into the dish. Trim off excess dough with a paring knife. Sprinkle the edges of the crust with sugar. Using the tines of a fork, poke many holes along the base of the pie shell. Place the pie dish into the refrigerator until chilled.
Preheat oven to 400˚F.
Bake crust for 25 minutes, or until it has a faint golden color.
Lower the oven temperature to 350˚F.
In a small bowl, whisk together the mascarpone, ½ cup sugar and 2 eggs until incorporated. Fill the prebaked pie shell with the mascarpone mixture. Using a brush, coat the rim of the pie shell with the remaining egg yolk.
Bake for 20 minutes, or until deep golden in color. Remove from the oven, and let cool.
To finish, place the figs skin-side down in a circular pattern on top of the mascarpone, and brush the figs with the honey. Serves 6–8.
Sixteen’s sommelier, Nathan Cowan, says Domaine Singla’s 2005 Héritage du Temps from Rivesaltes in France’s Roussillon region “balances perfectly with the honey, mascarpone and especially the crust. The lightness of the wine also balances beautifully with the lightness of the figs.”
Pie Before Dessert: How to Pair Savory Pies with Wine
Fred Dexheimer, master sommelier and owner of Juiceman Consulting, offers tips for pairing wines with savory pies.
For chicken pot pie, select a rich, lightly oaked Chardonnay from California’s Russian River Valley or Sonoma Coast. It will match the pie’s decadence and creaminess.
For shepherd’s pie, try an earthy Chinon from France’s Loire Valley. It will complement the meatiness of the pie, and the Cabernet Franc’s freshness will contrast the dish’s richness.
For lobster and leek pot pie, choose a wine that’s equally sinful, like vintage Champagne with several years of age. The one-two punch of the wine’s richness and acidity will rock this dish.
For tofu and root vegetable pot pie, try the ultimate vegetable-pairing wine: Smäragd Grüner Veltliner from Austria. Grüner’s herb and veggie notes, as well as the Smäragd-level richness, make this a sure-fire match.
For goat cheese, heirloom tomato and rosemary pie, try a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or Chile, which will complement the tanginess of the goat cheese and unify the pie’s herb note.
For rabbit, prune and caramelized onion pie, choose a medium-bodied Rioja reserva from Spain to complement the dried flavor of the prunes and the vanilla-like sweetness of the onions.
For turkey, roasted parsnip and fennel pie, grab a Fiano from Campania in Italy. It has the body to match the pie’s weight, and it will do magic with the parsnip and fennel components.
For creole shrimp pie, consider a Spanish Cava rosé, a fun, fruity sparkling wine with medium body and medium alcohol. Besides, when in N’awlins, a little celebration is always in order.
Getting Crusty Wit’ It
True pie artistry demands customized pastry crusts. These were designed by the contributing chefs to complement the recipes here, but each could serve as a base for your own creations.
Vanilla Sable Crust
2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
¾ cup confectioners’ sugar
Pulp of 1 vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup almond flour
6½ tablespoons cornstarch
1½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling dough
In a stand mixer equipped with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until aerated. Incorporate the eggs one at a time. Stir in the vanilla, almond flour, cornstarch and salt, and mix until combined. Add the all-purpose flour, and stir slowly until barely incorporated. Form the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for about 1 hour.
Pear Pie Crust
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling dough
⅔ cup cornmeal
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
½ cup butter, cold, cut into 1-inch pieces
⅓ cup shortening
1 egg yolk
½ teaspoon white vinegar
In a large bowl, mix together all of the dry ingredients. Cut in the butter and shortening to achieve pea-sized pieces.
In a separate bowl, stir together the egg yolk and vinegar, and then add it to the dry mixture.
Add 4–6 tablespoons of ice-cold water, one tablespoon at a time, until the dough just comes together.
Form the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for about 1 hour.
Fig Pie Crust
2½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling dough
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, cold, cut into small pieces
In a large bowl, mix together the flour, salt and sugar. Cut in the butter until the texture resembles sand. Add ¼ cup cold water, and mix until the dough comes together. Form the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 12 hours.