Easy As Pie

Exciting diners about this classic dessert is no longer a hard sell

If any one dessert embodies nostalgia, it’s pie. Burrowed into our collective consciousness, it completes the Thanksgiving meal and serves as roadside diner requisite, sitting under a glass dome on the counter as humble as can be.

A new identity, though, is in the making. Pie has become the “it” dessert, joining the landscape of its trendy cupcake and doughnut cohorts. From chocolate to cherry to triple berry, these kings of crust grab diners with their fruitful seasonality, undeniable fillings and unexpected riffs from creative chefs. 

“Pie has been so overlooked and, in some ways, looked down upon,” says Alisa Huntsman, pastry chef at Loveless Cafe in Nashville, Tenn. “But with so many restaurants turning to artisanal and local ingredients, pie is one of the easiest ways to showcase the season. It’s one of the last old ‘new’ discoveries.”

Taking a Piece of the Pie

With a mother known as the pie lady and a lifelong history of making them alongside her, it’s not surprising that the three sisters behind Washington, D.C.’s Pie Sisters would go into the dessert business. As the Georgetown neighborhood pie shop wraps its second year, the concept is outgrowing its space and can barely keep up with demand, says co-owner Erin Blakely, the middle sister.

The sisters, however, had to first overcome pie’s bad rap as a “just OK” grocery store dessert. “People didn’t appreciate the greatness of a fresh baked pie,” Blakely says.  

But with bold flavors, such as s’mores (layers of toasted meringue and ganache in a graham cracker crust), their pies are enjoying upper-crust status. The pie sisters are planning more locations and working on filling requests from restaurants that want to sell their pies.

"Butter is essential for a perfect, flaky crust. Sometimes we’ll also use a combination of flour and almond flour, which adds a subtle sweetness."

—Frank Bonanno of  Wednesday’s Pie, Denver

Getting love from restaurants typically comes on the heels of pie shop success. The key is ensuring consistency and watching food costs, which run 25 to 30 percent at Pie Sisters, depending on the ingredients.

Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Brooklyn, N.Y., has a storefront for its salty honey custard pie and chocolate derby pie with mint, bourbon and chocolate, but its pies can be found around town at several restaurants, including Untitled at the Whitney Museum of American Art. 

Frank Bonanno, who owns multiple concepts in Denver, opened Wednesday’s Pie a few years ago at the entrance of his two other concepts, Green Russell (a “chef-driven cocktail joint”) and Russell’s Smokehouse. His pies are served at both restaurants, as well as at Lou’s Food Bar, another Bonanno outpost.

“Pies can definitely be profitable, like most desserts,” he says, adding that it’s all about balancing food and labor costs.

Good Looks Will Get You Everywhere

Pie Sisters, Blakely says, is using pie’s good looks to get ahead. “We pride ourselves on our aesthetics and cutouts,” she says. “When you have a great crust and delicious filling, its appearance can put it over the top.”

Cutie Pies NYC in Brooklyn, N.Y., is also carving out a niche based on eye appeal, thanks to surface effects on the top crust, such as tiled leaves or petals. As the top crust is rolled out, a star may be cut from the center of a Cutie Pie and surrounded by smaller versions of the shape. Others feature swirls cut from the crust. Edges are also a platform for design, showcasing distinct, uniform fluting.

“I’ve tried to steal a bit of cupcakes’ thunder by presenting an array of personal three-inch pies,” owner Alice Cronin says. “Customers really enjoy the concept of a serving that’s just for them.”

Pie Sisters is also rocking the wedding circuit, as couples opt for assorted mini pies over traditional cake. Cupcake-sized, par-baked dough serves as the shell for fruit, cream or custard filling, topped with whimsical crust cutouts.

A Regional Slice

With long domestic availability and good quality from opposite hemispheres, apples make pie a year-round staple. Trend-forward ingredients and seasonal counterparts like pears and cranberries keep this classic continuously relevant. But like so many foods, pie is a regional pursuit—with legions of loyalists. 

“In the South, pie is the thing and always has been,” Huntsman says. That doesn’t mean the decidedly Southern chess pie is always made with the traditional combination of butter, eggs, cream and flour. A true Southern chess pie, she says, also has white cornmeal and vinegar. Her variations include the addition of honey or lemon.  

Shaker lemon pie has its roots in Ohio, but Phoebe Lawless’ version at her bakery, Scratch, in Durham, N.C., has plenty of fans. She macerates lemons with sugar, eggs and butter but also switches out conventional citrus for Meyer lemons when they’re in season.

Custom Comfort

Crust, filling or topper, the opportunities to customize are endless. Caramel sees the most renditions in apple pie. And bacon, which industry wisdom still dictates goes with everything, serves as a streusel topping for apple pie at the Pie Shop in Atlanta.

When winter sets in and seasonal fruit takes a break, demand grows for cream and custard pies—especially chocolate and caramel. Random Order Coffeehouse & Bakery in Portland, Ore., combines unsweetened and two organic dark chocolates for a pastry cream filling topped with whipped cream and shaved dark chocolate. Simple Things in Los Angeles has a loyal following for its salted caramel pie and banoffee pie (banana and toffee). 

“One of my most popular pies has been the Guinness-Baileys Irish cream pie, which layers stout-infused ganache inside a chocolate cookie crust, below a layer of Baileys pastry cream and then a drizzle of Jameson caramel,” Cronin says.

Bakers are also boosting crust appeal. Huntsman makes her own biscotti for the crust in her custard and cream pies. Biscotti is ideal, she says, for further customizing crusts with nuts and spices that complement the filling.

To ensure that all customers can indulge, today’s pie makers are also catering to vegans, offering a dairy-free crust using gluten-free flour, coconut or almond milk like at Cutie Pies NYC and Simple Things.

“The idea of pie is as flexible as the mind of the chef,” Cronin says. “It can be as fancy or straightforward as any other dish, so they fit into almost any menu.”

Making A Signature Slice

Over the last several years, pie places have been opening across the country. Here are a few unique pies worth copying. Visit us on Facebook to share your favorites.

Go over the top: Chicago’s Hoosier Mama Pie Company serves a pie rich enough for The King with the Fat Elvis: chocolate, peanut butter and bananas in a graham cracker-peanut-pretzel crust. 

Pie-versify: The Pie Shop in Atlanta serves seven categories of pie, from custard (fresh-roasted pumpkin pie) and pantry (funeral pie) to chiffon (grasshopper). 

When in doubt, add booze: Locals know to go for any boozy pie on the menu at Random Order Coffeehouse & Bakery in Portland, Ore. Its New Deal Coffee Cream (locally produced coffee liqueur, whipped cream and espresso dust) makes sense because a full drink menu of signature cocktails is also available

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Crusty to the Core

To each pie shop its own when it comes to the best crust

The crust shoulders a heavy burden. It holds the pie together, but needs just the right flakiness, flavor and crumb to be deemed a champion. While experts agree that crust is the key to a great pie, they take different paths to perfection.

“Butter is essential for a perfect, flaky crust. Sometimes we’ll also use a combination of flour and almond flour, which adds a subtle sweetness.”
—Frank Bonanno, chef-owner of Wednesday’s Pie, Denver

“A very specific type of shortening is required—nothing else works the same—and milk.”
—Erin Blakely, co-owner of Pie Sisters, Washington, D.C.

“The crust for any creamy pie should be par-baked or you’ll have a gummy, soggy bottom.”
—Alisa Huntsman, pastry chef at Loveless Cafe, Nashville

“Fifty percent butter, 50 percent shortening, flour, water, salt.”
—Marlene Stubler, owner of Pie in the Sky Pie Co., Conroe, Texas

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As American as Apple Pie 

Pies are simple as a rule, especially fruit pies like the iconic apple. Purists use as little sugar as possible so the ingredients shine on their own. Still, others can’t help but go off the beaten path. Some samples:

Apple-Hatch Chile
Hot or mild chiles, tart apples, crumb topping, side of caramel sauce
Yippie-Pie-Yay, Seattle

Tahitian Vanilla Sugar Salted Caramel Apple Pie
Random Order Coffeehouse & Bakery, Portland, Ore.

Cheddar Bacon Apple
Honeypie, Milwaukee

Roasted Apple Cinnamon Chess
Apples layered with classic chess pie
Dangerously Delicious Pies, Washington, D.C.

Apple Pear Cranberry with Brown Sugar-Walnut Streusel Topping
Petsi Pies, Somerville, Mass.

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Eye on the Pie 

Two recent must-have cookbooks on the iconic dessert

Never mind deciding one over the other. Two recently published cookbooks devoted to pie both deserve a spot on the shelf because you and your diners simply can’t get enough of the iconic dessert.

“The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie”
Paula Haney (Midway 2013)
Haney’s beloved pie shop is a tight space for customers and lines easily form, but the pies are always worth the wait. For those who can’t get to Chicago or try her pies at area restaurants, her cookbook provides a taste for what you are missing. Pies are organized by types, from sweet to savory to over-the-top. There’s also a section just on chess pies, giving those in the South—where the dessert originated—some food for thought. You can improvise by changing up the type of apples or using a cookie crust instead of an all-butter one, but why? The banana caramel pie, chocolate cream pie, the Fat Elvis and the passion fruit meringue pie are perfect as is.

“The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book”
Emily and Melissa Elsen (Grand Central Life & Style)
This Brooklyn, NY, pie shop is a destination for anyone living or visiting Manhattan and always worth the trek. The cookbook, like the daily menu, is presented by seasons. You’ll also be inspired by the photography, which lures with images of the pies, ingredients and a variety of settings. Like the pie shop, much importance is placed on presentation, which is explained visually with step-by-step instructions. Classic recipes are featured as well numerous creative takes on tradition. Salty honey pie, brown butter pumpkin pie and grapefruit custard pie all deserve attention. An added bonus: creative takes on crusts, including an animal cracker one.