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Pie in the Sky: Demystifying Sweet Pies (With Help from the Mini Pie Revolution)


Someone had to be the first

What is pie, really? According to the dictionary, "a baked food having a filling of fruit, meat, pudding, etc., prepared in a pastry-lined pan or dish and often topped with a pastry crust." Well, to put it simply, it's a very open-ended food; one of those unique and versatile dishes that can go sweet as easily as it does savory. But even focusing on just the sweet pies, there's still an overwhelming amount of variety as to what a pie can be; from lemon meringue to Chess Pie to classic apple a la mode, it's enough to make one's head spin. Recently, we got a little help from Ann and Karyn, some of the masterminds behind the Mini Pie Revolution (take that, cupcakes!) in decoding the pie family genus. Here's how Karyn explained the differences between the primary types of sweet pies (sorted alphabetically):

Cream Pies: Where eggs are used with heavy cream to make a silky, thick base. These are a subset of custard pies, and the boundaries between them often blur. If you're going to throw a pie at someone, cream pies are the obvious choice. I
think cream pies are a bit more, should I say democratic?, than fruit pies. You can make many using nothing more than pantry staples. '50s housewives loved them. Photo left: Banana Cream pie from Billy's Bakery, NYC.

Custard Pies:
Any pie where eggs are used to set a liquid. Pumpkin pie's a good example. I would suggest that lemon and lime pies fall into this category as well, along with pudding pies and most chocolate pies. Cakespy Note: another one which has fascinated us in the past is the Hoosier Pie, a kind of sugar-custard pie which seems to be big in the American mid-west. Photo left: Pumpkin pie from the North Hill Bakery, Seattle. 
Fruit Pies: I would suggest that the fruit pie family includes any pie where whole fruit or chopped fruit combines with a thickener to create a filling. I confess, I love fruit pies, especially those combination-berry pies that balance sweet and tart flavors. I love them too because they can be so intensely regional and seasonal. In the summer, I love blackberry and blueberry pie topped with vanilla ice cream. In New England, apple pies with cheddar cheese are the norm, while the best cherry pies (in my experience) hail from Michigan. Strawberry-rhubarb pies for the spring fling, pumpkin pies for Turkey Day. Fruit pies are cultural pies, family pies; traditional pies. There's not much new-fangled about them (though there always could be) and I think people like that. 

Mousse Pies and Chiffon Pies: Egg whites are the major player here, though many recipes call for gelatin as well.


Nut Pies: I lump all pies requiring nuts set with corn syrup in this category (including peanut pie, though peanuts are legumes, not nuts); Walnut pie, Kentucky Derby pie, Pecan pie . . . while some of the recipes contain eggs, the eggs don't set a liquid, which is what I think separates nut pies from custard and cream pies. I might lump in sweet bean-based pies, too, since the beans were used when people didn't have nuts.

Whew! Glad we got all that figured out. Of course, we won't even get into the poetry and lore of pie crust; however, may we suggest this great post on Smitten Kitchen? Also, if you haven't already read it, there is a wonderful essay on the quest for the perfect crust in Jeffrey Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything.


But now, to answer the pressing pie questions:

What is the difference between a tart and a pie?
No, tarts aren't just pretentious pies. A tart is always uncovered, and generally made in special, delicately shaped tins. So by this logic a tart is a pie, while a pie is not necessarily a tart. However, the general connotation is that a pie is more rustic, peasant fare, where a tart is more refined. Also, pastry chef Chris Jarchow (who, incidentally, made the tart pictured to the left) points out that tarts are generally defined further by the use of Pâte Sucrée (sweetened crust) as opposed to Pâte Brisée (unsweetened crust), which is what you'd see on say, an apple pie.
Are pies an aphrodisiac?: Yes--according to a study in which (we want to be paid to do studies like this), men's "vital statistics" were measured based on certain smells, pumpkin pie elicited the biggest response. When approached for fact-checking, a cute male couldn't say that pumpkin pie would be his first choice though.
Why do they call it a pizza "pie"? Well, "pizza" literally translates to "pie" or "torte" (thus really rendering "pizza pie" a bit redundant). While pizza does share general traits with a savory pie, the major difference is usually that its crust contains yeast (more bread-y), and so is not quite a  pastry crust. According to the dictionary this makes it technically not a pie--but really, we'd just as soon eat some rather than argue over the details.

Is Boston Cream Pie really a pie? Tasty as it is, this sponge cake, chocolate and custard confection is technically this is not a pie--check out this article for the explanation of why "pie" may have gotten into its name. Other tasty treats that are not actually pies include the
Moon Pie and the Whoopie Pie. Some versions of the Mississippi Mud Pie are really more like cakes, although some do have a decidedly pie-like cookie crust.
Is pie the new cake? Well, some may say so, but the choice--pie, cake, other--is really up to you. However, we must say that at Cakespy, we think these adorable mini pie - cupcake hybrids cropping up recently are awfully cute.
Cakespy Note: Thank you to our sources for this writeup, including Ann and Karyn of the Mini Pie Revolution, Pastry chef Chris Jarchow, the following books: Everything You Pretend to Know about Food (And Are Afraid Someone Will Ask) by Nancy Rommelmann, James McNair's Pie Book, and Joy of Cooking's All About Pies and Tarts; online we got some help from American Heritage, What's Cooking America and Joy of Baking.




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Reader Comments (45)

Ah, this was great! I love stuff like this. I did a post about cupcakes versus muffins a few months ago. And you beat me to the punch by pointing out the weird Boston Cream Pie thing. I've never understood this.

But I have to disagree about the cheese apple pie thing being the norm in New England. I have heard of it, but I can't recall ever eating a pie like that or seeing it eaten like that on any kind of regular basis. I think it's kind of unusual. Maybe it's normal in the other New England states, but not Mass. or maybe just Western Mass... Now I'm really curious!

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterAnali

Thanks for the reference! We've linked this post to our Revolutionary Reportage sidebar over at Headquarters.

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

Just give me anything sweet and nummy just exclude the animal products and you've got yourself a happy girl!

Thanks for this post...it made me high of sugar :-)

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterRage And Love

Mmm - pie. Creamy, flaky, fruity. The endlessness is both overwhelming and exciting.

But you certainly don't even consider how complicated it is until you have to make it yourself! And I never understood the Boston Cream "Pie" thing either.

Thanks for commenting. I do love me some Seattle vegan sweets :)

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterVeronica

such interesting facts - never knew that pie was considered an aphrodisiac, haha.

pie IS indeed the new cake - well, in my opinion at least ;0)

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterVeggieGirl

The only "cake" I prefer over pie is the cheesecake. Mmmm...I would love a slice (or mini) coconut cream pie right now:)

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterJEP

starving.....but smarter:)

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterAnticiPlate

Anali: I feel like cheese with pie is a more rustic touch. While Karyn (who wrote the pie differences) would know better than I about New England, I feel like I've only seen that as a menu choice in more country-type settings. So maybe less in the metro areas of Massachusetts?

Ann: Awesome! I'm part of the revolution! I am thinking of the Cat Stevens song "Peace Train" only in my mind it's "Ride on the Pie Train".

Rage+Love: You know, I have always wondered how vegan pie crust "works". Any tips?

Veronica: So glad we found each other! Where do you like your vegan pastries in Seattle??

Veggiegirl: Uh oh, team pie? Maybe we should settle it in a dance-off!

Jep: Go on over to Dahlia Bakery now! So, so good, their Coconut Cream. mm.

Anticiplate: That is the highest compliment! ;-)

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

Didn't I see something about the Mini Pie revolution on the DB blog? Fantastic post! And what a lot of work. Great info all in one place. Nice.

Now...thinking about those small pies...I just happen to have purchased some small tart rings with removable bottoms a week ago...Hm....

January 20 | Unregistered Commenterkellypea

This was a delicious and informative post. One question, are there really Pie Diners, like in the movie Waitress?

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterNancy Bea Miller

You've just inspired me a Sardine VS. Canned Tuna square off.
Go figure, my brain works in mysterious ways! :-)

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterZen Chef

Thank God for pie.

PS: I absolutely love your darling illustrations.

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterSurcie

ooooo - now I am all excited to hear more about pies!!!

yum yum yum


January 20 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

CakeSpy -- lovely post as always. LOVE to learn about pie beyond my own love of eating it! Your pumpkin pie with the little smile and the beret of whipped cream made my day! ;)

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterBethany

hi there! thanks for commenting on my cards today!
Glad you liked them....and yes i will be at the Stationery show : )

booth 2064!

Jen Ramos
'100% Recycled DESIGNER Cards'
http://www.madebygirl.com" REL="nofollow">www.madebygirl.com

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer R.

Very cool post! So interesting. I am a New Englander and I have not seen the cheese and apple thing either, although...it is the only way I personally like to eat apple pie...so who knows?! ;)

Oh, how wonderful that post was!! Yet it only just scratched the surface. Will this be a CakeSpy series perhaps? What about savory pie, lunchbox pies, quiche?

January 21 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

awesome post!! i know this is sacrilege, but i might like pie even MORE than cake!!! (maybe)

January 21 | Unregistered Commentermoonrat

Pies and tarts are the best, I love them better than cake...usually :)

January 21 | Unregistered Commenterlinda

Now I know! Thanks for the explanantion!

January 21 | Unregistered CommenterFreshly Found

Kellypea: I am going to keep checking back for your inevitable mini pie post!

Nancy Bea: I haven't come across a Pie Diner, but I've been to a few Pie-only places. There's one in Seattle called Shoofly Pie! There's one in NYC called Little Pie and Co. and I believe a pie-only place in MA too...I am keeping my eyes out though.

Zen Chef: Now THIS I have to see.

Surcie: Thanks! Where do you like Pie in PA?

Jessica: Thanks! We're excited to know more about (and eat more ) pie too!

Bethany: Thanks! Maybe you can help me demystify ice cream too!

Jen: You're welcome! Your cards are great!

Jenn: Hmm...curious! Are you in a more urban area?

Anonymous: I have a suspicion I know who you are. And if you'll help--yes!

Moonrat: Uh oh, thems sounds like fightin' words! Like anything though, always depends on what type of pie or cake.

Linda: What types?? :-) Nosey.

Freshly Found: Yup! It is like an infomercial, but funner!

January 21 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

Nice pie info. I have been meaning to try the apple pie with cheese. It sounds pretty interesting.

January 21 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

Wow! Many thanks for an interesting and informative post. I've never been a big pie maker, so I find this especially helpful.

God I adore pie! This was so wonderful to read. I need pie now! And I need to buy one of those fabulous totes!

January 21 | Unregistered CommenterEllo

Those sure are lovely pies!

January 21 | Unregistered CommenterKelly Mahoney
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