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I love pie. Growing up, it was the dessert of choice for my grandmother and aunts who fed me, and I’ve yet to encounter a pie that I didn’t like. Whether it is a flaky pastry sandwiched with tree-ripened fruit, or silky custards piled high with meringue, they are nothing less than marvelous. Even as I have grown older and my palate has become more sophisticated, pie has never failed to charm.
“American as apple pie” has become a cliché used to describe the essence of our culture. If truth be told, apple pie came here with the early English settlers. (Though its British ancestor likely contained figs, raisins, and even saffron, but no sugar.) Yet American pie evolved into something uniquely our own.
In the U.K., mention pie and a meat-filled pastry most likely comes to mind — steak and kidney pie, pork pie, stargazy pie and an infinite variety of others. For an after-dinner sweet — English apple pie aside — Brits prefer a tart made in the French tradition, shallow and open-faced.
What really sets American pie apart is our pastry. English pie crust is made to be tough and stand up, while ours is flaky and falls apart. French pâte brisée more closely approximates what we call pie crust. Our pastry is made with softer flour, more butter and less liquid, but it has a finer crumb than its English counterpart.
Pie’s multiplicity is mind-boggling, and the popularity of different pies varies. Basically, all can be divided into three groups:
1. Pies with a top and bottom pastry crust and a fruit filling. Apple, cherry and blueberry are classic illustrations. A variation is cobbler, a juicier deep-dish affair usually scooped and served in a bowl.
2. Pies with a bottom pastry crust that are baked open-faced, or sometimes topped with crumbs or nuts. Pecan, pumpkin, shoofly and baked custard are distinctively American examples.
3. Cream pies with a bottom pastry or crumb crust that are finished with meringue or whipped cream. Some of the most tempting varieties are banana cream, fresh strawberry, lemon icebox and Key lime.
Whether or not you’re a skilled baker, it’s never been a better time to have your pie and eat it, too. Madison has a plethora of pie places that will make you reconsider homemade.
The wares of Humble, a local sweet and savory pie shop, are worth bragging about, despite the name. Ingredients are sourced from Willy Street Co-op and local farmers’ markets; ingenious flavors change weekly. The apple pie offered at this East Johnson Street shop is never boring and is tweaked with the likes of buttered rum, salted caramel or Hook’s cheddar. Most everything out of the oven at Williamson Street’s Batch Bakehouse would make Granny jealous, but its homestyle pies are impressive indeed. Selection changes daily and seasonally, but make sure to visit when Door County cherry, blueberry streusel and chocolate cream are available. If you’re looking for variety, whether in a slice or a whole pie, Hubbard Avenue Diner in Middleton is the place to go. The restaurant has 88 different types of pie with about a dozen available every day, plus pie tacos — taco-shaped dough stuffed with some of its most well-liked fillings.
The ancient Egyptians supposedly invented pie, but our civilization definitely perfected it.
Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.
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