March 14 is Pi Day in honor of the first three digits of the mathematical constant π (3.1415…). But it’s also a flimsy, yet delicious, excuse to celebrate a sustainable culinary concept: the many edible varieties of pie around the world.
Classic American apple and cherry varieties might be the first dishes that come to mind when the word “pie” is mentioned. But these are just a slice of the sweet and savory pies available to baking lovers from Florida to the Philippines.
According to the broad definition of a pie as a shell of filled and baked dough, history has provided a wide range of pies. Egyptian hieroglyphs show pastries filled with honey, nuts and fruit, while the ancient Greeks and Romans supped on free-form pies filled with both sweets and meats.
From there, the world of pies only grew. Try some of these international pies when you travel or make your own at home.
In ancient Rome, the first meat pies used the dough simply as a container to preserve the tenderness of the meat, not to eat with the filling. It took a few centuries (and recipe improvements) for the idea of eating the meat crust and filling to catch on.
The British and their colonies seem to have perfected the art of meat pie. Steak and Ale Pie is a pub favorite and has its roots in medieval pies, which used local meats, game and vegetables in a pastry crust.
Tourtière is a hearty French-Canadian meat pie traditionally filled with ground pork and served during the Christmas season. A salmon version of the tourtière is common for those who grew up along the coast.
In Australia and New Zealand, meat pies split the difference between a traditional pie and a pocket pie: round, double-crust pies sized to be single-serving meals. Beef and gravy is the most common filling for these pies, which are often topped with ketchup or tomato sauce.
Speaking of meat pies, their ingenuity spans the globe. Cornish pasties were popularized as food for miners, but are now so popular that they are protected by their geographical origin.
Jamaican beef patties and Nigerian meat pies are similar, but the Jamaican patty differs with its turmeric-infused golden crust and spicy filling.
And empanadas, believed to originate in Galicia, Spain, are eaten throughout Latin America and the Philippines, among other places.
Other savory pies
As one of the birthplaces of pie, Greek cuisine has its share of sweet and savory pies to choose from. The spanakopita is one of the best known, with a spinach and feta filling in a flaky phyllo pastry, but there is also its cousin the hortopita, made with wild green vegetables; tiropita, a savory cheese pie; and maridopita, a fish pie.
Layers of flaky phyllo also form the crust for Albanian burek or byrek, savory pies that can be filled with everything from ground meat to spinach and cheese. The tomato and onion version of this pie is often known as Albanian pizza, layering caramelized onions and cooked tomatoes.
Sweet and savory pies
While meat pies were the norm for much of the pie’s early history, the spices used in many of these pastries bridged the gap between savory and sweet.
The pastilla, a Moroccan pie which also bears the names of bisteeya or b’stilla, is a spicy pie which combines poultry, almonds and eggs. Although pigeon or squab has been the traditional fowl of choice, easier modern versions replace chicken in the pie.
If you’re familiar with the puffy texture of corn spoon bread or corn pudding, American sweet corn cream pie is a step up in the dessert direction. Adding fresh corn kernels to a sweet custard or chess pie is a common theme for bakers and gardeners making the most of late summer produce.
Forget four and twenty blackbirds – if it grows on a tree, it can probably be baked into a pie. Fruit pies are one of the best ways to enjoy seasonal produce.
Some of the well-known fruit pies in North America today originate from settlers who brought seeds from Europe or added ingredients native to North America to their baking traditions.
Rhubarb became a popular pie filling in New England in the 1820s and spread south and west with the population. Concord Raisin Pie uses juicy, dark-skinned grapes native to North America (yes, the ones in every kid’s favorite jelly jar).
Persimmon pies are found in family recipe files all across the eastern United States, taking advantage of another native fruit that can be grown as far west as Iowa and as far north as the Connecticut. With a texture similar to pumpkin pie, it’s no wonder this is a perfect pie for the fall harvest season.
Apple pie is hallowed as the quintessential American pie – as Jack Kerouac wrote in “On the Road”: “I ate another apple pie and ice cream; that’s pretty much all I I’ve eaten across the country.”
But apple pie has its roots in Europe, with many of the apple varieties we know today being imported to the North American continent.
Vlaai are Dutch fruit pies made with yeast brioche style dough instead of the usual buttery pastry crust. Although they can be filled with fruits such as apricots, plums and cherries, a Dutch appelvlaai bridges the traditions of Old and New World desserts.
Other sweet pies
If baked fruit fillings aren’t your favorite, let creamy filling pies fulfill your dessert fantasies.
Coconut custard pie lovers should seek out Filipino buko pie, a specialty of Laguna Province. This double-crust pie is filled with strips of buko, or young coconut, suspended in a creamy coconut custard.
The British Banoffee pie is quite modern by pie standards. Created by the chef and owner of The Hungry Monk restaurant in East Sussex, England in the 1970s, it’s now a no-bake classic. The name is a portmanteau of its main ingredients: bananas and caramel sauce. While the original recipe (spelt banoffi) calls for a pastry crust, many iterations use a biscuit or graham cracker crust instead.
Tangy Keys Key Lime Pie is a staple when visiting Key West, Florida, where it’s often served frozen in a crunchy chocolate shell.
Further up the east coast, North Carolina’s Atlantic Beach pie is a saltier take on the citrus pie. Crushed Saltine crackers form the base of the crust, and a tangy lemon-lime filling gives citrus lovers the best of both worlds.
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