Pies I've Spied

A journey through the crust.

I went to pie heaven and it was in a timber cabin in upstate New York. A friend’s magical mother whipped up these two beauties in a matter of minutes this weekend, the recipes all tucked away in her head, tried and tested over countless years. We were in the house by a lake where she’d been coming since she was a little girl, and which her family had owned since the 1920s. Nothing much had changed since her grandparents first landed there - the china was the same her grandmother used all those years ago, the bread tin was spotted with age and the work benches were worn from decades of use.

Betsy made two pies - strawberry and rhubarb and a Kentucky derby pie “because you can bet it’s a winner”. For the strawberry and rhubarb, she mixed through two eggs and a couple of tablespoons of flour with the fruit, lemon zest and sugar to help it bind and reduce the liquid-y filling a bit. The Kentucky derby pie was basically a brownie in a pie crust. Surely the chewy champion of pies. I can also vouch for their overnight staying power - they tasted even better this morning.

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High hopes came with this slice of Lemon Meringue Pie. First, it was found in a roadside diner, so the kitsch factor was significant for a non-American (this moi). Second, that roadside happened to be in Pleasantville, NY, and not much more needs to be said about the awesomeness of eating pie in such a delightful-sounding place. Third, said diner advertised that their pies were homemade and with that came the promise of generations of pie-baking knowledge poured into every delicious morsel. That’s what I thought, anyway.
This pie was, OK. Let me say that first. Perfectly passable if you don’t mind your meringue slightly wet and your lemon filling erring more on sweet than tart. It looked amazing. And a nice touch was to have a thin layer of sponge between the meringue and the filling. But the crust, oh, the crust. Such a disappointment. Where’s the crisp, flakiness we hope and long for in such times? Maybe I got the pie at the wrong end of the week (a Saturday)? But when there’s pie left on the plate at the end of a meal, something’s definitely gone wrong.

High hopes came with this slice of Lemon Meringue Pie. First, it was found in a roadside diner, so the kitsch factor was significant for a non-American (this moi). Second, that roadside happened to be in Pleasantville, NY, and not much more needs to be said about the awesomeness of eating pie in such a delightful-sounding place. Third, said diner advertised that their pies were homemade and with that came the promise of generations of pie-baking knowledge poured into every delicious morsel. That’s what I thought, anyway.

This pie was, OK. Let me say that first. Perfectly passable if you don’t mind your meringue slightly wet and your lemon filling erring more on sweet than tart. It looked amazing. And a nice touch was to have a thin layer of sponge between the meringue and the filling. But the crust, oh, the crust. Such a disappointment. Where’s the crisp, flakiness we hope and long for in such times? Maybe I got the pie at the wrong end of the week (a Saturday)? But when there’s pie left on the plate at the end of a meal, something’s definitely gone wrong.

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This is what an Australian meat pie looks like. Ok, so it’s a posh one from this place, but my what deliciousness are to be found under that thick crusty exterior. Chunks of stewed beef and fresh diced vegetables - even thinking about pies like this makes me homesick. The only thing lacking was a squeeze of tomato sauce - remember that for next time, gracious hosts! I’m a fan of the ol’ chicken vegetable or country chicken pie, too, but they’re not for everyone. Purists will say the only true pie is the traditional meat pie of the Four n’ Twenty/buy it at the footy variety. Apparently a former Australian pollie once called it the National Dish. But there are lots of variations on the theme.
My dad is obsessed with steak and kindey pie (gross) and when I was little my mum taught me how to make a version of Shepherd’s Pie which, weirdly, we called Hamburger Casserole. These are all things from home - the other home - way down the bottom of the earth. 
Everyone has different ways of eating meat pies. If I have time, space and utensils, I like to slice off the roof of the pie, eat the filling, munch on the casing before returning to the more delicate, flaky top. It’s a comforting ritual to perform. Otherwise, I just hold it in my hand and eat it in a few gulps. The pie is not a lady like dining pursuit.

This is what an Australian meat pie looks like. Ok, so it’s a posh one from this place, but my what deliciousness are to be found under that thick crusty exterior. Chunks of stewed beef and fresh diced vegetables - even thinking about pies like this makes me homesick. The only thing lacking was a squeeze of tomato sauce - remember that for next time, gracious hosts! I’m a fan of the ol’ chicken vegetable or country chicken pie, too, but they’re not for everyone. Purists will say the only true pie is the traditional meat pie of the Four n’ Twenty/buy it at the footy variety. Apparently a former Australian pollie once called it the National Dish. But there are lots of variations on the theme.

My dad is obsessed with steak and kindey pie (gross) and when I was little my mum taught me how to make a version of Shepherd’s Pie which, weirdly, we called Hamburger Casserole. These are all things from home - the other home - way down the bottom of the earth. 

Everyone has different ways of eating meat pies. If I have time, space and utensils, I like to slice off the roof of the pie, eat the filling, munch on the casing before returning to the more delicate, flaky top. It’s a comforting ritual to perform. Otherwise, I just hold it in my hand and eat it in a few gulps. The pie is not a lady like dining pursuit.

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There’s lots of things I like and some of them I like even more than pies. But there is hands down nothing I love more than a root beer float. It’s a childhood thing: I remember slurping down root beer in the Philippines, where I spent the first six years of my life, and pining for it when my family moved to Australia. And no, sarsparilla is not the same. NOT THE SAME. And I remember drinking floats made of that other brown soft drink with my brother in the warm Queensland summers and delighting in their creamy/fizzy wondrousness. From the age of six, however, root beer floats were a special treat found only in rare places. And then, 25 years later, I came to the US and root beer floats came back to me.

It’s really hard for me to ever opt against ordering a root beer float over here and I keep a pretty steady stock of the ingredients for them in my fridge at home…until I decide it’s too much of a good thing and go cold turkey for a while. So imagine my reaction when I discovered New York’s Allison Kave over at First Prize Pies had developed a Root Beer Cream Pie of amazingness. My delight was almost violent; I needed to have it. I found an occasion that would give me an excuse to buy one and put my order in. The system worked perfectly, I negotiated with Allison what day to have it ready by and on that day stopped by the Essex Street Market to pick it up.

When it came to revealing the pie it met all expectations. A lovely, latte colored whipped cream topped it and dark Nilla wafers formed the crust. But the pie itself, well, maybe it was TOO highly anticipated. I also get confused by the American ‘custard’ which is more like a syrupy, eggy, sometimes lumpy layer that’s spread pretty thinly over the base. Anyway, this pie had one of those layers and so the punch of root beer taste I was hoping for was more like a limp thwack. The cream topping, though, was lovely; a slight root beer taste with an almost ginger/spice afterthought.

All in all, it certainly wasn’t a bad experience. I think I might have even loved the pie had I not expected it to taste like the one thing in the world I adore the most (food-wise, that is). First Prize Pies have all sorts of exciting flavors I still want to try. This, for instance. Or this one. Whoa, mama.

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