Whoever came up with the phrase "as American as apple pie" obviously didn't do their research. The baking of pie — sweet or savory fillings in a shell made of flour, fat, and water — is an ancient skill. Some historians trace variations of the basic recipe back to the Egyptians, but it really took off during medieval times, when the economical nature of the dish boosted its popularity. The Oxford Companion to Food suggests the word "pie" was derived from magpie — a bird known for collecting lots of things. The versatile nature of this dish means you can put just about anything in a crust, and it'll taste good.
The art of pie-making has come a long way since ancient times, but the basic concept remains the same. Bakers argue over the best crust recipe — use all butter, lard, shortening, or a mixture? — striving to achieve the perfect balance of flakiness and firmness. Then there's the matter of filling; meat, fruit, vegetables, cream, chocolate — it's all fair game. Whatever their ingredients of choice, Lowcountry chefs stand by their pies with pride — and guard their recipes with an iron grip.
Caramelized Onion and Goat Cheese Pie ($7)
WildFlour's owner/pastry chef Lauren Mitterer has a lot of enticing pies on her menu — blackberry and clementine, caramelized banana and peanut butter with honey-whipped cream — all made to order. But if you ask her for her favorite, she shows a surprisingly savory bent, pointing to her caramelized onion and goat cheese creation. We ordered an eight-inch version to sample and picked it up at the Spring Street shop the next day. We popped the little pie in the oven to warm it through when we got home, then drizzled balsamic vinegar over the top, per Lauren's instructions. Then we dug in. The goat cheese was as thick — nearly an inch — and rich as it looked, spread like whipped cream over the top of the mini pie. Underneath, a tangled mess of sweet caramelized onions contrasted nicely with the strong, tangy cheese. The crust provided a much-needed base to all the flavor. Lauren smartly suggests alternatively using the pie as a dip.
Signature Sweet Potato Pie ($10 for 10-inch pie)
The Pie Man
Say the word "pie" in the Lowcountry, and for many farmers market regulars, the Pie Man will immediately come to mind. A mainstay at the markets both downtown and in Mt. Pleasant, Toby Simmons, the self-proclaimed Pie Man, has been honing his recipes for years. Unlike a lot of bakers, he focused on the crust before the fillings, creating a finely-tuned recipe that could be used for all of his many varieties of pies. When he dropped a pie off at the office for us to try, still warm from the oven, we found that his bragging was certainly warranted. We went with his signature sweet potato pie made with big, fat North Carolina sweet potatoes. The smooth, sweet flavor has hints of almond and apricot, with a slightly salty crust — a perfect accompaniment to the super-sweet filling. The best thing about this pie? If you try hard enough, you might be able to convince yourself that it's good for you. It's just like eating vegetables, right?
House Fried Pocket Pie ($5)
Closed for Business
King Street's newest hot spot boasts a rustic, artsy dining room, the perfect setting to enjoy their unique spin on the classic apple pie. "What's better than fried pie?" Chef Kevin Johnson says of the dish. He takes a classic apple pie filling made from fresh apple, then wraps it up in a half-moon of dough, which is then deep fried. The finished product is dusted with cinnamon sugar and topped with caramel, served with a side of homemade ice cream. Johnson says the pocket pie will stay on the menu, with the fillings changing seasonally. As the days get warmer, expect offerings like strawberry rhubarb and blueberry with lemon curd and candied almonds.
South of Broad Classic ($6)
Slightly North of Broad
While most of the upscale Southern restaurants around East Bay stick with the classics, the selection can seem a bit stale. Not so at Slightly North of Broad, which specializes in one of the few chocolate pies we ran across. Besides their Sour Cream Apple Pie, Key Lime Pie, and Banana Cream Pie, they serve up the "South of Broad Classic," which consists of rum and chocolate custards layered on an Oreo cookie crust. Chef Frank Lee drew inspiration from black bottom pies served at Southern diners, but kicked it up a notch with high-quality ingredients. The chocolate layer is made with 70 percent cocoa, and the pastry cream on top is thickened and flavored with rum. A small pile of blueberries and strawberries adds a bit of color to the dish. It's delicious comfort food, but elevated, much like the rest of SNOB's menu.
Tomato Pie ($5.95)
Dixie Supply Bakery & Café
For a true taste of summer — even in the middle of winter — Dixie Supply Company's popular tomato pie will fix you right up. The small café, tucked beside a convenience store on State Street, churns out a tasty selection of simple Southern fare. "Tomato pie is like shrimp and grits," says owner Kris Holmes. "Everyone does it the way they like it best. It's something that your mother made when she had leftover tomatoes. You can just throw all kinda things in it." Their tomato pie has a Tex-Mex flair, with three kinds of cheese layered on top of big, juicy chunks of tomato. While the exact ingredients are top secret, it seems to have a sour cream base, giving it a lighter taste than some mayonnaise-based pies, and a spicy kick as well. Don't miss Dixie's sweet pies either — they've got a rotating offering of classics like coconut cream, sweet potato, and pecan.