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Berry Delicious: Pies sweeten these summer days
By Alene Hill - Photo by Josh Monken
Posted On: 07/15/2007   


There are many things to love about summer: fireworks, fireflies, barbecues, even the hot weather. And is there any better way to finish a picnic on a sultry summer day than with a freshly baked pie filled with glorious summer fruit?

As long as local restaurants continue to lure us with innovative recipes and farm stands keep supplying the best fruit the Midwest can produce, the answer is no. Chef Nicole Shuman, who teaches at L’École Culinaire in Ladue, described the quintessentially American confection as a “truly year-round dessert, with each season providing another reason to bake another pie.”

But summer pie recipes, she added, provide pie-lovers endless possibilities for showcasing the season’s fruit harvest, not to mention myriad crust options, from classic pastry
to crumb.

And, appropriately, given that the livin’ is supposed to be easy this time of year, warm-weather pies often require only a minimal amount of preparation and baking time. “Chiffon, cream-filled and many fruit pie recipes require a minimum of cooking that won’t heat up the house,” Shuman said. “Several crumb crusts, such as graham cracker, or a pie pastry that has been made before and frozen can be baked for a just a couple of minutes to set.”

Fillings

Jill Tantillo, director of food services at Eckert’s Country Store and Farm in Belleville, knows firsthand how a bowl of fresh fruit, pleasurable in its own right, can become memorable in a piece of pie. A bakery located on-site takes advantage of Eckert’s abundant sweet harvests for pies year-round.

“In our glazed strawberry pie, the strawberries are cooked down until they are tender and juicy, and then the filling is put in a prebaked regular crust,” she said. “We sell a ton of pies in the fall and at Thanksgiving, and we sell tons of strawberry and peach pies through the [summer].”

Summer pies, she pointed out, can provide an opportunity for culinary creativity and adventure. “You have peach pie and strawberry pie, but you can also have peach-raspberry pie or peach-blueberry pie,” she said. “The options are endless with blackberries, boysenberries, raspberries and different
combinations – there’s no end to how they can be mixed together.”

On the menu at Miss Aimee B’s Tea Room, located in St. Charles, seasonal favorites Bumbleberry pie and a peach bomb join year-round classics such as chocolate-strawberry
pie, Toll House pie and old-fashioned buttermilk-coconut pie. Both seasonal additions feature fruit transformed under wraps of pastry into a rich, sweet filling. In Bumbleberry pie, a conglomeration of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, apples and rhubarb is baked inside a double pie crust. In the peach bomb, which nudged out a former peach pie recipe to become one of the most popular selections, a single juicy peach (including the pit) is completely enclosed in pie pastry and then drizzled with almond-butter glaze.

Judy Howell, who co-owns the tea house with Sherry Pfaender, said pie recipes featuring double pie crusts are “typically an [old] farmhouse recipe. The top crust in the Bumbleberry pie is brushed with a sugar glaze,” she said. “The fruit in the Bumbleberry pie and the peach bomb becomes tender and so flavorful.”

While Miss Aimee B’s customers might opt for the fruit pies in season, Howell said the buttermilk-coconut, an old-fashioned buttermilk custard and coconut ensemble and a menu staple since the restaurant opened 20 years ago, remains popular year-round.

Another sweet-tooth pleaser when strawberries are in season, she said, is the chocolate-strawberry pie, which begins with an Oreo cookie crust that is filled with chocolate mousse, topped with fresh strawberries and finished off with – what else? – more chocolate. The Toll House pie, a treat served with ice cream, is filled with what Howell described as a filling similar to a Toll House cookie, with chopped nuts and chocolate chips.

At The Pie Pantry in Belleville, a seasonal selection of pies joins the lineup of menu and special-order pies, said manager Ellie Miller. Mixed berry, strawberry and custard fruit pies are offered along with French silk, black forest and CPR (coconut, pecan and raisin). Banana split pie captures the best of the classic ice cream treat with an important addition – cream cheese.

“The Banana split pie [is] made with cream cheese in a graham cracker crust and topped off with pineapples, bananas and strawberries and of course, chocolate syrup – the perfect ending for a summer meal.”

Toppings

Some pies seem to just scream for a topping. So what, if any, culinary rules apply to a classic meringue versus a whipped cream topping, beyond the preference of a pie-fancier? Obviously, meringue is the traditional topping for lemon meringue pie. But for other cream pies, such as chocolate, coconut cream or banana cream pies, the topping choice isn’t always as clear.

“I would say that, traditionally, meringue is the topping for those pies,” said Tim Faltus, owner of The Pie Pantry. “We make meringue for those, but we also have customers who special-order pies that usually have meringue with whipped cream topping instead.”

The buttermilk-coconut pie at Miss Aimee B’s Tea Room sports a whipped cream topping that is added after the pie is warmed slightly, Pfaender said. “It is a deep-dish pie with a creamy filling, and we add whipped cream for a creamy topping. We serve whipped cream on almost all of our desserts except the Toll House pie, which is served with ice cream.”

Faltus said the two toppings are “distinctly different” in both texture and flavor. “Meringue is very sweet and sticky – it’s made with egg whites – and has a more airy quality,” he said. “Whipped cream is more dense and creamier. We offer whipped cream, along with ice cream, that can be added to all kinds of pies. It’s just a personal preference.”

Crusts

Shuman takes what might be considered a holistic approach to pies when she talks about how different textures and flavors of the crust, filling and topping work together to produce a superb slice. In some recipes, it can be a subtle preference for the texture of, say, a flaky crust for a chiffon pie or a mealy crust for an apple or peach pie. In other recipes, such as a margarita pie recipe, a crushed pretzel crust adds a unique element. “You have the salty pretzel flavor that is the perfect texture and flavor with the fresh lime juice and tequila,” she said.

Those who are hesitant to brandish their rolling pins on a hot summer’s day, take note. Shuman also insists a great classic pie pastry can be assembled and frozen for later use with little effort. Rather than viewing pie crusts as a daunting epicurean feat, it is simply “a matter of a little practice,” she said.

“It’s like any other skill, you get better with more practice,” Shuman said. “The TV cooks can make it look easy, but what you don’t see are the six other pies they baked to get the one that looks so perfect.”

Shuman’s guidelines for pie pastry are simple: The bigger the fat particles cut into the flour, the flakier the crust. “This is not clumpy, it looks like marble,” she said, mixing the crumbs with her fingers. “Be sure the water is cold, ice cold, and don’t use too much flour when rolling it out.”

“Pie pastry can be frozen,” she said. “Roll it out and store it between sheets of parchment paper or in a disc for future pies. Then it can be blind-baked for recipes that call for a baked crust, or filled and baked. It is simple and fast.”

But Shuman insisted the work preparing a great pie is about “enjoying what you’ve created.”

“This is about having fun, that’s it,” Shuman said. “I tell that to my students, and I would say it to anyone else. Have fun creating and working on it – then enjoy eating.”

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