I’ve strayed a bit from pie and food related blogging of late, so I thought I’d finish writing about a thought I’ve been stewing on for a while now: my personal definition of pie.
Since I started seriously making pie, I’ve always had an idea in my head of what I consider ‘true pie.’ This is not a universal definition that I think everyone needs to agree on, just what I think of when I think pie and what I will judge as pie versus what I will just judges as dessert. (I judge pie by way, way higher standards than I judge general desserts.) And its not a definition that determines whether I like a dessert or not: just because I don’t consider it pie, doesn’t mean I won’t eat it and enjoy it. It just the definition of what I want when I am looking for pie and what I will judge when I’m critiquing the pie I find.
On the last pie tour, I did not judge three out of the four pies as true pies. I would only consider three of the seven pies listed on ‘A Real Pie Chart: Top 7 Twin Cities Slices‘ as pies (though I definitely agree that Sun Street Bread’s pie is near the top). So I guess I should really define what I do and do not consider to be pie. And now I have to distinguish that I’m talking about American-style dessert pie, because the Aussies have a lot of pie and mostly not for dessert. For the rest of this post, when I say pie, I’m referring to American-style dessert pie. Now let me break it down!
The main components that define a pie to me are filling, crust, and shape/construction. I’ll talk about all three.
There are three major types of desserts that are generally called pies, and they are distinguished by their filling. They include fruit pies, custard pies, and cream pies. I consider fruit pies to be the original, quintessential ‘true pie.’ When I go out looking for pie, I am looking for a fruit pie. Custard pies are acceptable, but not preferred, pies. I do not ever consider cream pies to be ‘true pies.’ Why? I think it has to do with a lot with personal preference, availability, and skill. I like eating fruit pies the best, but that isn’t the only reason I consider fruit pie to be true pies, because I usually like cream pies more than custard. There’s also the skill required to make each type of pie, and the general availability of each type of pie that factor in. Skill and availability are related since the more skill required means the less readily available. Just looking at skill with regard to filling, I think fruit filling is harder to get really good than custard which is harder than cream and you can find a decent cream pie almost anywhere, so that’s the order I prefer them in.
Driving the popularity of cream pies, I think a big trend right now in the food world and especially when in comes to desserts is flavor mash-ups. Chili and chocolate! Salt and caramel! Peanut butter and everything! Savory and sweet! Well, really, any kind of mashing, not just flavor (I’m looking at you, Cronut™). And I think the cream pie lends itself really well to this type of flavor and other dessert mashing. I don’t have a problem with flavor mashing per se: I have been know to make Elvis pie, which is a pretzel and graham cracker crust with chocolate pastry cream, bananas, whipped peanut butter mousse, topped with banana chips and pretzels (a concept I love that was totally stolen from Hoosier Mama Pie Company which is not a ‘true pie’ but damn tasty). Its harder to mash-up flavors and cross flavor profiles in custard pies and even harder in fruit pies. People try, and I rarely like how it turns out. Fruit usually doesn’t need messing with. This is a personal preference, but I think flavor subtlety, especially in fruit pie, can be a virtue, and this mashing trend is really promoting the prevalence of cream pies over fruit and custard pies. It makes me like cream pies less and consider them ‘true pies’ even less.
So that’s the three types of pies based on filling. To summarize: I like fruit pies best, I think fruit pies require the most skill and are therefore the hardest to find, and cream pies are currently very popular and I think that’s due to the mash-up trend.
Then there’s the crust.
Pie needs crust, and it needs to be a pastry crust, as opposed to a crumb or biscuit crust, for me to consider it pie. Pastry crust is a pastry, but distinct from puff pastry (higher gluten content, i.e. more chewy) or croissant dough (also higher gluten content and usually with yeast). A good pastry crust is the perfect balance of flake-y and tender. And I like mine to have some flavor: a little buttery, a little salty, and a little sweet all at the same time. A good crust can stand alone, and I’ve been known to bake up crust scraps into cookies and just eat them plain. The biggest criticisms I usually have of pastry crusts are that they either lack flavor or that they have a texture issue: the crust is either tender but not flake-y (the most common and usually more like a biscuit) or flake-y but not tender (not too common, but I’ve definitely encountered it and I think comes from treating the dough like puff pastry dough).
I think fruit pies really showcase and highlight the crust, so therefore need a real, well-executed pastry crust to be really good. Fruit pies almost always have a pastry crust on the bottom crust and usually have a pastry crust for the top as well. Sometimes people cheat and put other things on top besides pastry, and that is probably my biggest pie pet peeve. If I wanted a fruit crumble or cobbler or crisp, that’s what I would have said I wanted! Custard pies generally have a pastry crust bottom, and that’s why I will often consider them ‘true pies,’ but the pastry crust is less critical to the pie execution, and custard pies can sometimes get away with having a mediocre crust. Cream pies rarely have a pastry crust, and if they do, it usually doesn’t add to the overall appeal of the dessert. I do like crumb crusts occasionally, and crumb crusts go really well with some cream pies, but I don’t think its right to judge a crumb crust against a pastry crust. The skill level required for the two types of crust are quite different. Pastry crust, to me, seems more refined, like croissants compared to scones. And not that I don’t enjoy the humble crumb crust or scone, I just think there’s an added joie de vivre about pastry crust and croissants and eating something more refined. So again to summarize, I like pastry crusts best, I prefer pie with a pastry crust, and they are hardest to find and hardest to make.
That leaves shape and construction. Mostly, I think I’m just a purist when it comes to pie, and I want my pie pie-shaped, but I’m going to make an argument for why pie should be pie-shaped anyway. And the argument is two fold based on novelty and ratios.
Personal pies, mini-pie, hand pies, pies in tart pans, pies in muffin tins. There are so many ways people distort the traditional pie shape. I don’t like it, because I’m a traditionalist. Distorting the traditional pie shape has become something of a food trend, particularly with mini-pies and pie pops. I don’t know if people actually make pie pops (much like I have a lot of doubt that people actually make cakes pops), but I’m positive there are pictures and pictures of pie pops all over Pinterest. And the appeal is all visual. There is no focus on the quality of the pastry (if it even is pastry) or the tastiness and texture of the filling. I see these distortions as sacrificing aspects of taste and eating appeal in favor of visual appeal. People remake pie into desserts that have cute little shapes, but the point isn’t for it to taste anything like real pie. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the visual appeal, but in pie’s case, the novelty of making pie cute detracts from real pie and makes the hunt for real pie harder.
The second argument for pie-shaped pie is the crust to filling ratio and the implications the ratio has for proper cooking time and for eating appeal. As I mentioned on Pie Day this year, the New York Times ran a great spread on the Science of Pie, including why the geometry is important to proper cooking times for both the crust and the filling. The crust needs to have the right amount of water cooked out of it to produce flakiness, and the filling needs the thickener to reach a certain temperature to hold together. Both are time and temperature dependent and can be synchronized with a pie-shaped pie.
A slice of fruit pie from a standard pie pan with a double crusted pastry crust will have a rather specific ratio of fruit filling to top crust to bottom crust to crunchy edge crust. I think this ratio is an important aspect of what makes pie so tasty. Pie should definitely have more filling than crust and a balance of textures from the cooked fruit filling, the tender-yet-flakey top and bottom crusts, and the crunchy edge crust. Once the overall shape changes, the ratios change, almost always in favor of crust and often requiring precooking of the filling. Pie pops and pies in tart pans or muffin tins all heavily favor the crust and are imbalanced. So to summarize, non-pie-shaped pies often sacrifice tastiness for cuteness, non-pie-shaped pies are not a good shape for simultaneous crust and filling cooking, and non-pie shaped pies often have crust-to-filling ratios too far on the crust side.
So that’s it. That’s what I consider a pie and some of the reasoning why.
All this being said, I rarely will not eat a pie, true or otherwise. I think canned fruit filling is passably tasty. I think pastry crust that turned into biscuit crust is passably tasty. I love pudding and mousse and all those flavors like chocolate, banana, and coconut that aren’t showcased in traditional fruit pies, so therefore I appreciate the occasional cream pie, but I don’t seek them out in the same way I look for fruit pies. I’ll eat it if its funny shaped or almost entirely crust. I will eat all the desserts.
BUT. I will continue my quest for great pie, pie the way I definite it. Because its out there. And I will find it.