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Everything You Need to Know About Classic American Pie

A practical guide to the whats, whys, and the where-to-eats of pie

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That phrase, "Easy as pie"? It’s a load of summer garbage. Good pie is hard. It requires patience and skill, time and temperament, season and substance. Bring up the subject of pie and in some circles brows will furrow and men and women will grow fierce. Pie is personal. Blessed with its own idiom — "as American as apple pie" — it’s been an icon of our foodways since before the Revolutionary War. But there are as many exceptions to American pie styles as there are to the English language, and like a good book, the beauty of pie lies not in its individual letters but in its composition and exposition.


The oral history of pie predates its written record, and cooks across the country swear by family secrets scrawled on stained index cards. Today, pie is eaten for breakfast, with lunch, and for dessert after dinner. It’s also often its own occasion. It’s rarely a celebration-worthy dessert — that’s what cake is for — but in many ways it’s more prized. Because it takes time and will, a slice of pie carries more importance than a cookie, but is less fussy than cake. So how did it earn its place at the American table? Here now, a guide to sweet American pie styles, from crust to shape to filling, with a dollop of history on top.

Pie delivery trucks circa 1926. Photo:  Buyenlarge/Getty Images

American pie trucks in 1926. Photo: Buyenlarge/Getty Images

The written record tells us that food was baked in dough in Ancient Greece, and according to the American Pie Council, the first recipe for pie, "a rye-crusted goat cheese and honey pie," was published by the Romans.

Today, most American pie is a round pastry with crust that envelopes a (usually sweet) filling, prepared in a pan with sloping sides and a small lip. Pies come in many shapes and sizes — there are hand pies and slab pies, fried pies and crumble-topped pies — but the most traditional American pie is a nine-inch round pie, a shape that originated in Medieval Europe. Crude doughs were formed to package savory food; cooked within these round or oblong pockets — called "coffyns," according to the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets — early pie crusts served as both the food's bowl and storage container. Early crusts were made only from hard-grain flours (rye or whole wheat) and water. Eventually, bakers added fat — probably lard or suet, and at some point butter — which softened the dough considerably. Bakers in Cornwall, England have made and sold meat-filled hand-pies known as pasties — the origins of which may be French — since at least the 13th century.

"A good slice of pie transcends Americana clichés — it expresses region and family history. There’s specificity to pie."

Pie certainly came to America with the pilgrims, and pies remained exclusively savory until settlers realized how well sweet English apple varieties thrived in the New World. The apple's success as an early crop in the colonies paved the way for apple pie's place in Americana today. The first recipe for "American apple pie" appears in print in 1881; by 1913, author Henry Finck wrote in his book Food and Flavor: "The apple pie is ours as much as our flag." Finck went on to explain why English apple pies could never match those of American bakers:

"You can make a fruit pie in the American style in Great Britain or on the Continent, but you cannot duplicate its excellence, for the simple reason that European fruit is rarely as tasty as American fruit."

By World War II, US soldiers on the battle lines were telling journalists they were fighting for "mom and apple pie." But pie evolved as America embraced its Manifest Destiny: Berries, stone fruit, and rhubarb also found their way into pie fillings. Pumpkin and sweet tubers, too. When there was no fruit, there were sweet syrups and eggs for chess pie, a common style in the South. In early America, dairy was only available within the vicinity of a cow, but by the 1800s chemists in France and the US had figured out how to condense and can milk, making it easy to transport and store. This opened up a whole new world for custard pie. Regional ingredients — from lemons and peanut butter to Key Limes and pineapple — all eventually found their way into pie shells.

The perfect pie is built from two things: 1) A well-made crust with a flaky texture and deep golden color; and 2) A fresh, well-set, flavorful filling. Pie's filling is how we will categorize these sweet American pie styles. But first,

... a note about pie crust

In Italy it's called pasta frolla, includes eggs, and is made on a board like pasta dough; in France it's called pâte brisée and requires a motion called fraisage, which means to work the butter into the flour by rubbing it against a flat surface. There are pie crusts made from crushed cookies and nut crumbles, but there's only one real, true American pie dough. When the right formula of flour, salt, water, and fat (in the US, the most commonly used fats are butter and shortening) meets the oven, the resulting crust can be unspeakably tender and seem impossibly flaky. No other pastry crust has these specific ideals. Short, but not brittle, pie crust gently guards its contents and enhances their flavor. Once a finished pie emerges from the oven, the connection between filling and interior crust yields its own texture, a sweet tar of warm, jammy richness. Pie crust is precisely half the equation of an exceptional pie. Here's the other half, by category:

Fruit, bakes & fresh

Baking fruit, which condenses its sugars and reduces its liquid, is as old as time. Fruit baked between two crusts is the most common pie found in the US today, and apple is the most common fruit in use. Pears, cherries, berries, grapes, raisins, and stone fruits are baked into pies. (The lemon and lime are exceptions which, because of their thick rind, are usually used only for their juice.) The varying sugar and water content in fruit means it requires both a sweetener and thickener in order to make a good baked pie — usually sugar and either cornstarch, flour, or tapioca. With few exceptions, fruit pies are baked inside traditional American pie dough. Pies are often categorized as single-crust pies (wherein there is only a crust on the bottom, or in the case of a deep-dish pie, there is only a crust on the top); and double-crust pies, where a crust lines the top and bottom of the filling. Decorative elements such as lattices or cut-outs are simply more beautiful forms of the double-crust pie.

Fresh fruit pies, meanwhile, are not as common at pie shops in the US, perhaps because of their short shelf life. Here, the fruit — often blueberries or strawberries — is bound by a jam or flavored gelatin in the same or a complementary flavor and dished, uncooked, into a pre-baked pie shell. It is allowed to set in a cool place and served cold. The key to a great fresh fruit pie is simply great, fresh fruit.

Where to eat it:

At Royers Pie Haven in Austin, the junk berry pie is often pitted against the pecan pie for fan favorite. Royers junk berry pie is actually made from apples and peaches, plus raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries. Before the top crust is affixed to the pie, a layer of sour cream tops the fruit mixture, adding a creamy component to the sweet fruit filling.
Eater's roving restaurant editor Bill Addison had to stop for blueberry pie when he was in Maine. Of Eventide Oyster Company's blueberry pie, Addison wrote: "It ably demonstrated why Maine's tiny blues are indeed superior to their plump cousins, with a flavor that was more intense and nuanced, and almost piquant, against the flaky crust."
The fruit pies at Seattle's A la Mode Pies are standards of the form, thanks in no small part to the sweet crust and piles of locally-sourced apples, cherries, pears, and marionberries (a Northwest treasure). Indeed, the marionberry pie is worth a taste when the fruit is in season; the finished pie smells like toasted butter and light, freshly-bloomed cherry blossoms. 
SF's Mission Pie has two goals: Supporting the community and making great seasonal pie. Come spring-time, try a slice of strawberry-rhubarb by the slice and savor the complex combination of floral rhubarb and bright, vivacious strawberry.

CREAM

Also called an icebox or refrigerator pie, a cream pie is based on whipped cream. The filling is sweetened with sugar and often another key ingredient, like chocolate (chocolate silk), fruit (berries are common), or flavors like vanilla or rum. It is traditionally not thickened with starch, eggs, or gelatin. An ideal cream pie should be fluffy like a mousse, and freshly made so that the filling does not leave the crust soggy. Ice cream, or Eskimo pie, fits in here, though it’s a bit of a cheat — it usually involves filling a cookie crust with pre-made ice cream and sticking the whole thing into the freezer.

Where to eat them:

The basics at downtown LA's Pie Hole — apple, pecan, lemon meringue — are great, but it's the unexpected flavors that are worth seeking out, including an Earl Grey tea cream pie with white chocolate. The way the cream picks up the tea's hint of bergamot speaks to all seasons and temperaments. It's interesting, but not arresting.
One of the best-known pie shops in Dallas, Texas, Emporium Pies makes dozens of varieties, but the Smooth Operator — a chocolate silk with pretzel crust — is ideal on a hot, humid Dallas day.

Custard

The definitions for custard vary widely, but for the sake of sanity we'll call a custard pie one with a dairy base, set with eggs or starch. An ideal custard pie tastes like its flavor — be it cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate, or lemon — with a strong hint of the dairy within; it should never be eggy, though it may be tinted golden if fresh egg yolks are used. Usually, the dairy base is milk or cream, as in the case of a pudding pie, Bavarian pie, egg custard pie, the popular Midwestern Hoosier pie, and Amish Bob Andy pie, both of which are a sweetened, spiced milk-based custards thickened with flour. Sweet potato, squash, and pumpkin pies are custard pies in which most of the liquid is pureed root or gourd.

There are three popular custard pie variations: For a chiffon pie, a pie common in the Southern US, a custard is stabilized with gelatin and lightened with whipped egg whites. The mousse is then poured in a pre-baked pie crust and placed in the refrigerator to set. Bavarian pie is a custard-based pie that is set with gelatin. Sometimes it is also lightened with whipped cream.

Key Lime Pie, a custard-based pie topped with cream, would not exist if it weren't for the invention of sweetened condensed milk. Gail Borden, Jr., is credited with condensing and packaging milk in the United States in 1853. In the early 1900s, cookbooks began listing the ingredient; Key Lime pie, made with sweetened condensed milk, appears in a cookbook in 1930, though some sources suggest its history predates the availability of milk to the Keys. Other classic custard pies include bean pies (with a base of pureed Navy beans), cream cheese pies (often built like cheesecakes in a cookie crust), and Shaker Lemon pie, the only common pie made with whole citrus. Lemon pies are almost always built from a lemon curd custard base.

Where to eat them:

Pepe's Pies, a small shack in the Florida Keys, still draws a mix of tourists and locals after more than 100 years in business. Pepe's Key Lime pie has a nuance that exceeds the sweet-tart of most citrus-based desserts. Topped with freshly whipped cream, it's an ideal foil for a hot day.
Brooklyn loves Four & Twenty Blackbirds, where the menu changes seasonally and the delicate, buttery, flaky, crisp-on-the-bottom crust stays the same. In November, sisters and owners Emily and Melissa Elsen roast pumpkins, puree them, and combine them with browned butter for this complex version of Thanksgiving pie.
The state pie of Indiana is also the namesake at Hoosier Mama Pie Company, a popular Chicago shop. Besides the classic, this shop now offers a brilliant riff on the classic in the form of a horchata pie. Made from a combination of cow's milk and rice milk and spiked with cinnamon, it's an eager homage to the Latin American beverage.
Though bread is the main draw at Chicago's newer Baker Miller, the strawberry-lemon chiffon pie is a standout that's refreshing like freshly squeezed lemonade in pie form.
Denver pie shop the Long I Pie (which is on wheels) makes deeply flavored, moody pies like Honey Flower and Pumpkins in the Mud, both delicate custard-style pies with buttery crusts.
Roadtrippers stop at Durham, North Carolina's Scratch for a slice of Shaker lemon pie, which sandwiches a marmalade-like custard between two flaky crusts.

Chess

The only real defining characteristic of the South's most famous pie style is its name: Chess. It usually — but not always — contains a base of sugar, butter, and eggs. Often a bit of flour or cornstarch is added. Sometimes it contains buttermilk, in which case it leans heavily into the custard category. The origins of this very sweet, addictive pie are murky. Brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup, sorghum syrup, raw cane syrup, honey, or any natural granulated or liquid sugar is used interchangeably in various recipes, and sometimes cream is added to enhance the texture and enrich the final pie. An ideal chess pie is sweet — but not cloying — and dense. Chess pie comes in dozens of variations: Chocolate, lemon, vinegar, fruit, and nuts can be added to the base mixture, yielding thousands of possible types of pie. Brownie pie is a type of chess pie, as are most nut pies.

The name "Chess" has several origin stories. Some sources suggest it resulted from a slurring of the word "chest," as in pie chest. Other sources say a slurring of the word "just," as in a casual answer to the question, "What kind of pie is it?" "It's just pie."

Where to eat them:

Christina Tosi of NYC's Milk Bar popularized chess pie in the North when she released her version: The now-trademarked Crack pie. The butterscotch overtones of Tosi's chess pie draw lines and have buoyed her business from one tiny shop to four. Milk Bar now delivers Crack pie nationally. 
A major draw in Greensboro, Georgia, the Yesterday Cafe hooks pie lovers with its buttermilk chess pie. It's an addictive custard-chess hybrid where the tart, creamy buttermilk perfectly offsets the sweet, buttery base. Its burnished top is all that's needed; skip the whipped cream garnish.
In Detroit, pie fans might revolt if the adorable Sister Pie took the salted maple chess pie off the menu. The classy creation is proof of baker Lisa Ludwinski's pie mastery.

Nut

Most nut pies fall into the chess category, as is the case for America's second most favorite pie on Thanksgiving: pecan. But nut pie fillings can vary: They may be almond-paste based with a cake-like texture, or be filled with crunchy nuts coated in caramel. The only constant in a nut pie is that it's filled more than 50 percent with whole or crushed nuts. An ideal nut pie is made from nuts that are fresh and crisp; the sweet base does not mask a rancid nut. Often, chocolate, whiskey, rye, or bourbon is added to the mix for flavor and fun.

Where to eat them:

Chicago's Bang Bang Pie Shop has mastered the ratio of bittersweet chocolate and salty-caramelized pecans for its chocolate pecan pie. The filling uses both maple syrup and sorghum syrup for sweetness, and for additional crunch, bakes the pie in a graham cracker crust.
Best known for their mini pies (called cuppies), Pie Sisters at Georgetown, just outside of D.C., makes a boozy Bourbon Pecan in a light and crumbly crust.

All pies pictured are from Petee's Pies in New York City.

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