A slice of heaven

Step aside, cupcake: Pie gaining ground as new "it" dessert

April 6, 2011 

Could the reign of the cupcake be waning at last? Suddenly, it's all about the pie.

Pies of all sizes are popping up at wedding receptions, aboard food trucks and in pie-centric cafes from coast to coast. And cherry and banana cream have been joined by green chiles, elderflower liqueur infusions and lollipop sticks -- although not, we're happy to say, all at once.

"I think honestly, it's the tip of the iceberg," said Andrew Freeman, the San Francisco-based restaurant consultant who first dubbed 2011 "The Year of Pie."

Those who frequent classic pie-friendly places may laugh. They've been enjoying their apple and berry pies for years. But there's a new movement afoot, and it involves perfectly flaky crust and sweet and savory fillings.

"Pies are now turning up on menus of top restaurants," said Shira Bocar, the co-author of Martha Stewart's new "Pies & Tarts" cookbook. "There is a boom in pie-centric shops. They are the dessert stars at more and more dinner parties."

In short, pie seems to have hit a tipping point similar to the one that propelled the lowly cupcake to pastry superstardom. Freeman was working with New York City's Magnolia Bakery, the patisserie generally credited with launching the cupcake trend, back when that craze took hold. He knows a trend, he says, when he sees it.

"What I was seeing was all of a sudden this resurgence of pie," Freeman said. "We started to hear a lot about it. My gosh, there's more pie on menus than I remember. Then Oprah did a story on chicken pie. We started to dig in and see the (savory) pies, mini pies, mail order pies, fried pies, happy hours."

Cupcakes aren't going away, but even Magnolia has added pies to its menu.

And it's only a matter of time, he said, before other parts of the country discover what devotees in Manhattan and Austin, Texas, already have -- pie happy hours.

The evidence isn't just anecdotal. The numbers back up Freeman's trend theory.

Pie devotees ate 722 million slices at restaurants last year, 12 million more than in 2009, according to NPD Group, a market research outfit.

And that doesn't even count the more unusual entries -- the tiny pies baked atop lollipop sticks that have taken Seattle by storm, or the 4-inch, heart-shaped Sweetie Pies that have recently smitten the crowds who frequent San Francisco's SusieCakes.

Susan Sarich's SusieCakes, which has branches in San Francisco, Greenbraem, Calif., and Los Angeles, has always done a brisk business in cupcakes.

But the popularity of pie took even Sarich by surprise.

And cupcakes, she says, are partly to thank.

"I think what cupcakes did was they opened up the whole market," she said. "Now it's ingrained in our culture that a bakery is the place to go to get desserts. They've opened the gateway for other desserts."

That extends to weddings, too.

"A lot of brides are doing pie buffets or individual pies at each place setting," Sarich said, "especially for outdoor weddings. That's definitely a trend."

As for what's inside those pies, pecan and pumpkin are here to stay. But 21st century pies offer new twists too -- and not just of the gluten-free and vegan-friendly variety. Today's pies seem to be inspired by everything from farmers markets to the cocktail bar.

Stewart and Bocar's new cookbook, for example, features a cocktail-inspired elderflower liqueur-flavored whipped cream, and an entire chapter -- Bocar's favorite -- is devoted to tiny tarts and hand pies, which can be eaten without a fork. But there's one overriding theme to the book.

"Overall, I think 21st century pies are anchored by the ingredients," Bocar said. "Canned pie filling will no longer cut it in 2011. People want the best-quality ingredients, from the butter to the local strawberries, for their pies. And the end product will reflect that attention to detail."

SusieCakes' Old-fashioned Chocolate Cream Pie

2 cups whole milk

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons cocoa powder

1/3 cup water

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons bittersweet chocolate, chopped

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1 fully baked pie shell

Whipped cream, chocolate shavings, to garnish

In a medium pot, scald milk over medium heat.

Combine sugar, cocoa, water and salt in a large pot. Whisk until smooth. Set the pot with the sugar-cocoa mixture over moderately high heat and bring to a boil, whisking frequently. Remove from heat and add the chopped chocolate; whisk until thoroughly melted.

Put the cornstarch in a bowl. Whisk in enough of the hot milk to make a slurry, then whisk in remaining milk.

Pour the milk into the chocolate mixture, then return to moderately high heat. Cook the pudding until it reaches a boil, stirring with a heatproof spatula and making sure to continuously scrape the bottom of the pan. Allow to boil for one minute, still scraping the bottom of the pan.

Remove from heat and whisk in the vanilla. Immediately pour the pudding into a pan and press plastic wrap snugly against surface. Refrigerate for several hours.

When the pudding is cold, spoon it into the baked pie crust. Garnish with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. Refrigerate until serving time.

From Susan Sarich of SusieCakes bakery

Pate Brisee

This dough is made of butter andshortening and does not include eggs. It often is used for fruit and nut pies and quiche.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1/4 cup cold vegetable shortening, in small pieces

1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar

1/4-1/2 cup ice water

In a food processor, pulse flour, sugar and salt until combined.

Add butter and shortening; pulse just until mixture resembles coarse meal, 8 to 10 times.

Combine vinegar and 1/4 cup ice water. Drizzle evenly over mixture; pulse just until dough comes together, adding more water if necessary.

Pat dough into 2 disks.

If using immediately, wrap in plastic and chill until firm, 1 hour or up to 1 day.

The dough also can be frozen for later use.

Ginger-Pear Hand Pies

Makes: 12 small pies

1 recipe Pate Brisee

2 large eggs

2/3 cup plus

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1/4 cup plus

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 ripe, firm pears, such as Bosc, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise and scraped

2 tablespoons finely grated, peeled, fresh ginger

Confectioners' sugar

On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough 1/4-inch thick. Cut 12 5-inch rounds. Gently press rounds into cups of a muffin tin, making pleats around edges and gently pressing to seal.

Chill or freeze until firm, about 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 375 degrees. For filling: In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs and granulated sugar until thick and pale yellow.

Whisk in lemon juice, then flour and salt. Set aside. Place pears in another medium bowl and set aside.

In a small saucepan, heat butter, vanilla bean and seeds and ginger over medium-high heat until butter foams and browns, about 5 minutes. Pour mixture through a fine sieve over pears. Stir egg mixture into pear mixture.

Divide batter among pie shells. Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack, 30-40 minutes. Unmold; let cool completely.

Just before serving, dust with confectioners' sugar.

From "Martha Stewart's Pies & Tarts"

Brie and Apple Custard Tart

This rich, savory tart should be served in slivers.

1/2 recipe Pate Brisee

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and each cut in 6 wedges

6 ounces very ripe Brie, at room temperature

1 large whole egg, plus 2 large yolks

1/2 cup cream

1/2 cup milk

2 teaspoons coarsely chopped fresh thyme

Coarse salt, ground pepper

Heat oven to 400 degrees. On a floured surface, roll out dough into an 11-inch round.

Fit into a 9-inch springform pan, with dough extending slightly up the sides. Pierce the bottom all over with a fork.

Chill until firm, 30 minutes.

Line shell with parchment, extending above side by about 1 inch. Fill with pie weights. Bake 20 minutes. Carefully remove parchment and weights. Bake until golden, 10-12 minutes more. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool slightly before filling.

Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.

To make the filling, heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high. Add apples; cook until browned on all sides, 2 to 3 minutes total.

In a food processor, process Brie for 15 seconds. Add whole egg and yolks one at a time; process after each until well combined. Add cream and process until smooth. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Slowly stir in milk. Stir in thyme and season with salt and pepper.

Arrange sauteed apples around bottom of crust.

Pour custard over apples. Bake until custard is just set when gently touched, about 35 minutes.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

From "Martha Stewart's Pies & Tarts"

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