Sweet or Savory

The anatomy of summer pies



Jeff Amberg

A rich, flaky crust and colorful filling bursting with fruit provides a quintessential Southern welcome to late summer when produce is most abundant. In addition to their flavor, part of summer pies’ appeal comes from their reliability from generation to generation. From the very bottom layer of butter in the pie dish, up to the final sprinkling of sugar, each ingredient builds the anatomy of a pie that continues this culinary tradition. 

A strong foundation is necessary for a successful pie. No, not the crust, but rather the pie dish. The material and shape of a pie dish affect the way that the crust bakes and ensures that the filling cooks evenly. For the cautious baker, a glass pie dish is best. Being able to visualize when the crust is a golden brown all the way through ensures that the pie will come out just when it is ready. Place a cookie sheet or layer of foil below the dish in the oven. This will catch any drips that may fall from an overly juicy pie, making clean up much easier. 

Though pies are named for their fillings, the crust is arguably the true star of this dessert. It holds the filling together and creates a contrast from the sweet insides. While store-bought crusts can be a reliable option, they ultimately lack the variety that comes from preparing a crust from scratch. At first glance, it may seem that homemade and store bought are the only options, but this layer is where a pie’s character really begins. Adding thyme or cheese to a crust brings in flavors that could easily get lost in the filling. 

While the crust tends to be a less negotiable aspect of the pie, the filling allows for much more creativity. For every summer fruit or vegetable, there are a number of ways to use them in a pie. Fruity, creamy, savory ― each of these pies branches off into classical or inventive interpretation. Under high heat, fruits, spices, vegetables, and herbs build upon each other and mingle to create a cohesive, rich filling. Fruit should be ripe, perhaps even a bit over ripe, to get full flavor. Blotting water-heavy fruits and vegetables to remove moisture can keep pies from becoming soggy. These simple tricks allow the pie’s personality to shine.

To top it all off, the final layer, or topping, is the first impression that a pie gives. Although mixing sweet and savory can provide a unique contrast between the crust and filling, the topping should complement the filling. A streusel topping would do a vast disservice to a tomato pie, and a layer of cheese would truly offend a blueberry delicacy. 

A second layer of pie crust works well with either sweet or savory pie and can be used to artfully decorate the top of a pie. With this style of topping, an egg wash adds a clean finish. Simply whisk an egg white with a tablespoon of heavy cream, and brush over the crust before baking. 

Each element of a summer pie should be excellent in its own right for a dish that showcases summer produce. 

Traditional Homemade Pie Crust

The traditional homemade crust takes some practice. The key is to keep it cold and work carefully. This recipe is for sweet pies and makes enough dough for one layer of a 9-inch pan. See a savory variation in the tomato pie recipe.

 

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, frozen and cubed

2 tablespoons sugar

Pinch of salt

Ice water

Cut the butter into the flour until the flour has a sand-like consistency and the pieces of butter are no larger than a pea. Add sugar and salt, and stir to combine. Add ice water 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring after each spoonful until the dough starts to come together. It can be helpful to use your hands to get a feel for the moisture. Be careful not to add too much water. Once the dough comes together in a ball, wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use. 

For recipes that call for a prepared pie crust, bake the crust before adding the filling. This technique is called blind baking and prevents a soggy crust. Place rolled pie dough into a pan and press to fill the edges. Line the dough with aluminum foil and fill the foil with pie weights or dry beans. This keeps the dough from puffing up while it bakes. Bake at 350 F for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and weights, and cook for another 5 minutes or until browned. 

For an easier approach, cookie crumb crust is simple both in preparation and ingredients. Use a food processor to simply grind cookies into fine crumbs. In the absence of a food processor, place cookies in a sealed bag and crush them. Pour the crumbs into a pie dish and gradually add melted butter 1 tablespoon at a time until the crumbs are moist. Be careful not to add too much butter, but if the mixture becomes too wet, just add more cookie crumbs. Press the crumbs into the dish to line the bottom and form a crust. Bake at 350 F for 5 minutes. 

 

Savory: Tomato Pie

Heavy, late-summer tomatoes melt into this cheesy savory pie. Basil and Vidalia onions, as well as other Southern summer vegetables, round out the juicy tomatoes in creating an irresistible summer dish.

 

Cheese Pie Crust

1 stick butter, frozen and cubed

1/4 cup cheddar cheese, finely shredded 

2 cups all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt and pepper

 

Filling

4 medium tomatoes, cubed

1 Vidalia onion, chopped

7 basil leaves, chiffonade

2 garlic cloves

 

Topping

1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup mayonnaise 

Prepare pie crust as instructed above, cutting the butter and cheese into the flour at the same time. Blind bake the pie crust.

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Cube the tomatoes and sprinkle them with salt. Place in a colander to drain for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, caramelize the onions in a pan with olive oil and the garlic over low heat. Blot the tomatoes with a paper towel to remove any excess moisture. Layer the tomatoes, onions, and basil in the prepared pie dish. Mix cheeses with the mayonnaise, and cover the top of the pie with this mixture. Bake for 30 minutes and serve warm.

 

Tart: Classic Lemon Meringue

A departure from juicy whole fruit pies, the lemon meringue hosts a tantalizing contrast between tart lemon custard and airy meringue topping. The Swiss meringue used in this recipe has a silky texture that toasts beautifully, making this dessert a perfect centerpiece to a summer picnic. 

 

Filling for Prepared Pie Crust

4 egg yolks

4 egg whites

3 lemons, juiced

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

Swiss meringue

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 325 F. Whisk egg yolks, lemon juice, lemon zest, and sweetened condensed milk together until smooth. Pour into a prepared pie crust. Place plastic wrap directly on the filling to cover and ensure that a film does not develop while preparing the meringue. In a double boiler, whisk together egg whites and sugar, and heat until the mixture is frothy and the sugar is dissolved. Pour the egg white mixture into a stand mixer and whip on medium-high speed until stiff. Remove the plastic wrap from the filling and add a thick layer of meringue to the top. Bake on the top oven rack for 15 minutes. If the topping is not browned after 15 minutes, switch to broil for 1 minute. Once the topping is lightly toasted, remove the pie from the oven and cool until ready to serve. 

 

Sweet: Blueberry Mint

A double crust fruit pie is one of the most delicious ways to use the abundance of summer fruit and is absolutely worth heating up a kitchen, even on a hot summer day. Topped with ice cream, this hearty pie is surprisingly refreshing with the addition of mint leaves. 

 

2 pie crusts, uncooked

1/2 cup sugar, plus extra for topping

10 fresh mint leaves, chopped

5 cups blueberries

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1 egg white

1 tablespoon heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Roll the first pie dough to 1/4-inch thickness and place in the pie dish. Place the lined dish in the freezer while preparing the filling. Rub the mint and sugar together until it becomes aromatic. Combine blueberries and cornstarch with the sugar. Roll the second pie crust. Remove the pie dish from the freezer and pour the filling into the dish. Add the second pie crust over the filling in preferred design. Whisk the egg white and heavy cream together and brush over the crust. Sprinkle with sugar. Cover the edge of the crust with foil to prevent burning. Bake for 35 minutes. Remove foil and bake for an additional 15 minutes or until the crust has browned and the filling is bubbling.

 

Chilled and Easy: Strawberry Ice 

Cream Pie

Famously hot summer days call for chilled treats. This strawberry ice cream pie is easy to prepare on a busy day filled with summer activities. 

 

Shortbread cookies

Butter

1/2 gallon strawberry ice cream

Fresh berries and chocolate sauce for topping

Remove ice cream from the freezer to soften. Grind cookies into fine crumbs using a food processor. Pour the crumbs into a pie dish and add 1 tablespoon of melted butter to the crumbs and stir to combine. Continue to add 1 tablespoon of melted butter at a time until the mixture is soft enough to be pressed into the pie dish to form a crust. If the mixture becomes too soft, simply add more cookie crumbs. Scoop the ice cream into the pie crust and use a knife or offset spatula to smooth the ice cream out. For easy serving, go ahead and slice the pie before freezing. Place in the freezer until firm. When ready to serve, remove the pie from the freezer and top with fresh berries and chocolate sauce. 

 

Rustic: Peach Galette 

For a rustic look, ditch the pie dish and make a galette. This pie-like, free-form pastry finds its roots in French cuisine, though there is a similar Italian dish called a crostata. The galette’s care-free shape encourages experimentation. Although this recipe uses peaches and honey, the best fruit to use is whatever you have on hand.

 

1 pie crust rolled to 1/8 of an inch 

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup chopped nuts or coconut flakes

1/4 cup almond flour

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3 cups ripe peaches, sliced with skin on

1/4 cup honey, less if the peaches are naturally sweet

1 egg white

1 tablespoon heavy cream

Preheat oven to 400 F. Place the rolled pie crust on a parchment lined baking sheet. When adding the filling, keep ingredients 3 inches away from the edge of the crust. Sprinkle the brown sugar, chopped nuts, almond flour, and ground cinnamon in the center of the pie crust. Place peaches on top of the other ingredients and pour honey over the peaches. Fold the edges of the crust up and over the peaches. There will be a large opening in the middle, but be sure that the galette is sealed around the sides so that juice does not spill out. Whisk together egg white and heavy cream. Brush the wash over the crust. Heavily sprinkle sugar around the crust. Bake for about 45 minutes until the filling begins to bubble and the galette is golden.

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