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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)

Pie has to be one of my favorite foods. What a great post!

Thank you!

January 21 | Unregistered CommenterChuck

Barefoot Contessa has a great recipe for Lobster Pie-
which makes an easy and elegant dinner!
I grew up with a Mom who was the pie expert, best crust in town and made - "Lemon Meringue" Pie, chocolate pie, Apple Pie, Strawberry Rhubarb Pie,
Mincemeat Pie, Chess Pie, Derby Pie..... so many pies and one happy pie eating family.
That said, we had a lot a great cakes too!
Nice blog!

January 21 | Unregistered Commenterpve design

Great post and very informative!! I adore Lemon Meringue pie it has to be my fav of all time :)

Rosie x

January 22 | Unregistered CommenterRosie

So that explains why my hubby always talks about the pumpkin pie I made awhile back.... I never knew there were so many pie varieties! Cute post :-)

January 22 | Unregistered CommenterVegan_Noodle

I think women everywhere have long since known that pie is an aphrodisiac! At least it is in my house!

I'm in the midwest and I've never heard of this Hoosier Pie though, I will have to look into that!

January 22 | Unregistered CommenterRural Vegan

Don't forget about the icebox pie of the South.

January 22 | Unregistered CommenterGeggie

Kevin: Let us know what you think! I like it, Mr. Cakespy doesn't I don't think. My mom, Cake Gumshoe Margie, is revolted. Whatevs.

Susan: Yea! Join the pie revolution! ;-) Sorry, got passionate there.

Ello: sweet! Hey, how was your NYC trip?? What kind of pie did you have?

Kelly: Why thank you!

Chuck: Thanks! It's pretty up-there for us too!

PVE: ooh, savory pies--what a great way to warm up for dessert! I love all of those pies your family ate too!

Rosie: I do love a good Lemon Meringue myself!

Vegan Noodle: Glad we could explain it for you--now you'll make it more often I bet! :-)

Geggie: Oh, Icebox pie. What is your favorite?? Always curious...

January 22 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

Mmm, this puts me in the mood to make a pie ^__^ Something I don't do very often actually, for some reason.

...And pie as an aphrodisiac? Definitely useful information!

January 22 | Unregistered CommenterIndigo

Hi there!

Great post, very cute. As far as New England and cheese pies go, I know that many natives pair sharp cheddar with their apple pie, which naturally leads to apple pie baked in cheddar crusts and fruit and cheese pies, at least in my personal experience and according to the cookbooks I'm constantly flipping through at Barnes and Nobles.

January 22 | Unregistered CommenterKaryn

Viva la pie revolucion!!!

January 22 | Unregistered CommenterEB

Oh my gracious. These are the most provocative photos I've ever seen. Put some shirts on those pies; I'm thinking bad thoughts.

Cakespy rocks!

I love anything to do with pie, including posts about pie.

I love making pie dough and rolling it out. I think I'm pretty good at it.
I could make it all day.

There's this movie called Waitress, (don't see it, because it's stupid) and the main character bakes like a million different pies, and gives them all sorts of crazy names. I just watched it, so that's why it's on my mind.

January 22 | Unregistered CommenterEmiline

Well, lemon ice box pie, of course.

January 22 | Unregistered CommenterGeggie

Indigo: Yes, that is our aim--use the info as you will!

Karyn: next time I meet someone who prefers it I am going to quiz them on it!! Thank you again for all of this wonderful info!

EB: Agreed!!

Design For Mankind: he he he. Nice Pies indeed!

Emiline: Bummer it doesn't sound good (Waitress) it sounds like it is up my alley, but I have heard from a few people it's not worth the time.

Geggie: Mmmmmm.

January 23 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

i love your cupcake and pie illustrations. fun. whimsical. unique and pretty.

Octavine: Merci beaucoup! We all love your illustration look too!! Please visit whenever you need a "sweet" respite!

January 25 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

Thanks for the reference. I was fortunate enough to take a pie crust class last summer with SF pastry chef Shauna Fish Lydon, and to write about it, at the link, below. Happy baking.


January 26 | Unregistered Commenternancy

Nancy: LUCKY, lucky you!!! I love Shuna's blog, I visit all the time. Oh the talent!!

January 26 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

"Are pies an aphrodisiac?: Yes--according to a study in which (we want to be paid to do studies like this),"

HAHAHAHAHA!!!! OH yes oh yes don't I wish!

January 27 | Unregistered CommenterKieutiePie

I received my first personal loans when I was 20 and it helped me very much. But, I require the sba loan also.

March 8 | Unregistered CommenterElviraCasey21
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