Could someone please tell me where the expression “easy as pie” came from? Pies are not easy. Like all skilled tasks, pie baking takes practice and repetition, usually a mentor of some sort, and a magic touch doesn’t hurt either. We’re talking about a very temperamental process that can be thwarted by humidity.
A life goal of mine is to make a good pie. Consistently. I’m getting there, but usually people of my generation are impressed with a pie of any caliber, so long as it’s made from scratch. Bumbling along on this assumption, I made a peach pie last season to take to a Backyard Fruit Growers’ meeting and potluck. Upon arriving, I discovered that there was some stiff competition in the pie department. I also learned a thing or two about the demographics of your average Backyard Fruit Growers attendee. Let’s just say there were some ladies present who had many long decades of pie-baking experience on me. They’d presumably had a lifetime of access to fruit fresh from their very own back yard, and they knew what to do with it. Humbled, I returned to my cookbooks and began my study of pie crust anew.
Now that fall is in the air, it’s time to bake. If you’ve got a solid pie crust up your sleeve, now’s the time to flaunt it. If not, don’t despair. There’s a whole world of baked goods out there waiting to be explored, and anything that involves fruit, a bit of sugar and butter, and arrives warm out of the oven will be more than appreciated. In fact, all those other baked fruit creations in the cobbler family are just as authentic to the heritage of our mid-Atlantic region. Pie, whether of the fruit, vegetable, or meat variety, is a solidly European creation, predating the cobbler by a few hundred years. It was when pie reached the far side of the Atlantic Ocean that it underwent transformation. According to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, “without the resources of brick ovens… colonial cooks often made cobblers – also called slumps or grunts – and their cousins, pandowdies, in pots over an open fire. In these types of pies, a filling made of fruit, meat or vegetable goes into a pot first; then a skin of dough is placed over the filling, followed by the pot’s lid. As cobblers cook, the filling stews and creates its own sauce and gravy, while the pastry puffs up and dries.”
It also seems that pies and their kinfolk, before the late 19th century, were served with all meals and at all times of day. I point proudly to tales of pie breakfasts in my own family history and take this as an invitation to shed any last shred of guilt about eating peach cobbler for breakfast. I invite you to do the same.
So, here’s an incomplete inventory of all the things you might do with fruit, flour, sugar and butter. (I’ll leave the gluten-free, vegan, or any other finagling up to you.) I’ve included a sample recipe for each, some of which, for fun, are quite old. Luckily, while recipes and techniques may fade from style, the ingredients remain the same, so revive away…
From The Joy of Cooking: “Nobody remembers who Betty was, but a brown betty is both layered and topped with sweet buttered crumbs. The crumbs should be dry, so that they will absorb the juices in the middle and bottom layers and remain crunchy on the top. (For homemade breadcrumbs, dry sliced bread in a 225°F oven until firm to the touch and crisp, about 1 hour. Let cool, then break up the dried bread with your hands or chop with a knife into about 1-inch square pieces. Crush with a rolling pin to produce a fine meal or process in a food processor.)”
Apple Brown Betty
From The Joy of Cooking: “A buckle is another type of cake with fruit folded into the batter before baking and a generous crumbly streusel topping. The cake buckles, or crumples, in spots from the weight of the topping before the batter sets, creating pockets of caramelized sugar and butter.”
From In The Sweet Kitchen: “Easy, fresh, light, very country, but also very elegant, clafouti is a traditional rustic Provençal dessert somewhere between a baked custard, a light pancake and a cakey soufflé. Traditionally made with cherries, clafouti is also wonderful made with apricots, berries, fresh figs, pears or even peaches or apricots…”
Black Plum Clafoutis
From The Joy of Cooking: “Cobblers are simply deep-dish single-crusted fruit pies; the crust is usually on the top, though occasionally it is on the bottom. Cobblers used to be made with pie dough, but a sweet, rich biscuit dough is more common today. For a tender crust, do not overmix the dough; stir in the liquid quickly and knead gently a few times to form the dough.”
Crisps, Crunches, & Crumbles
From The Joy of Cooking: “These simple and popular desserts consist of sweetened fruit – usually lightly thickened to produce syrupy juices – baked with crumbly toppings of flour, butter, and sugar and sometimes oats, cookie or cake crumbs, nuts, and spices. For a crisp, the flour, butter, and sugar are mixed together like pie dough before the liquid is added, and the mixture scattered over the top like a streusel or crumb topping. An approximate ratio of three parts fruit to one part topping makes a perfect crisp. A crunch is fruit sandwiched between two layers of sweetened, buttered crumbs; it is served cut into squares, like bar cookies, but is a bit more fragile. Keep the butter cold for crisps and crunches and handle lightly to assure that the toppings will be both crisp and tender… Crumble is the British name for a crisp or crunch with oatmeal in the topping.”
Harvest Pear Crisp with Candied Ginger
From The Joy of Cooking: “Any pie dough, puff pastry, or biscuit dough can be used to make fruit dumplings or turnovers. Dumplings are formed by gathering the edges of the dough up around the filling like a purse or pouch; the resulting packets may be baked or boiled. (The texture of baked pastry contrasts particularly nicely with the filling.) Turnovers are made by folding the dough over the filling and can be formed in any size from miniature to large. The dough can be made well ahead and kept chilled until ready to use. These little ‘pies’ are best eaten the day they are baked.”
From The Penguin Companion to Food: “… a flat, round cake; the word being derived from galet, a pebble weatherworn to the shape that is perfect for skipping…”
From The Joy of Cooking: “A galette – or in Italian, a crostata – consists of a flat crust of pastry or bread dough covered with sugar, pastry cream, or a thin layer of fruit… They are, in effect, dessert pizzas. Since galettes are baked on a flat sheet rather than in a pie or tart mold, they may be made in any shape that appeals to you. If the filling is juicy, bring the edge of the crust over the filling to catch drips; otherwise, simply double up the crust edge, then crimp or flute if you wish.”
Grunts & Slumps
From The Joy of Cooking: “Grunts and slumps, both descended from puddings cooked in pots over the fire, are steamed fruit topped with dumplings. Grunts are steamed in a mold inside a kettle full of water and inverted when served; the result is something like a warm fruit shortcake. Slumps are cooked in a covered pan and served dumpling side up in bowls – more like a hot, sweet soup or stew under a dumpling… Grunts are best steamed in a soufflé dish, but pudding molds or heatproof bowls work as well; metal molds are not recommended, as they may overcook the fruit and impart a metallic taste. Cook slumps in stainless-steel, enamel cast-iron, or glass saucepans, but make sure the vessel has a tight-fitting lid to contain the steam. If the pan is uncovered before the dumplings are done, they will collapse into toughness.”
From The Penguin Companion to Food: “An old-fashioned deep-dish New England fruit dessert related to cobbler, grunt, and slump. Sliced or cut apples or other fruits are tossed with spices and butter, sweetened with molasses, maple syrup, or brown sugar, topped with a biscuit-like dough, and baked. Partway through the baking time, the crust is broken up and pressed down into the fruit so it can absorb the juices. This technique is called ‘dowdying’. After the crust is baked, it becomes crispy. Pandowdies are served warm with heavy cream, hard sauce, or a cream sauce flavoured with nutmeg.”
And if that isn’t enough to inspire you, take heed:
“It is utterly insufficient (to eat pie only twice a week), as anyone who knows the secret of our strength as a nation and the foundation of our industrial supremacy must admit. Pie is the American synonym of prosperity, and its varying contents the calendar of the changing seasons. Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie-eating people can ever be permanently vanquished.”
from The New York Times, 1902
(In response to an Englishman’s suggestion that Americans should reduce their daily pie eating to two days per week.)
Regan Daley, In the Sweet Kitchen
Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to Food
Kim O’Donnel, “American as Cobbler,” (A Mighty Appetite: August 11, 2006), The Washington Post
Irma S. Rombauer et al., The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking
Linda Stradley, What’s Cooking America.