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Modern Pies: Challenging The Classics With Elaborate Crusts, Knockout Flavors, and Creative Opportunities

(This article appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

“Pie never had it so good,” says legendary baker Rose Levy Beranbaum, whose 1998 book The Pie and Pastry Bible is still the gold standard on the subject. But today, Beranbaum observes, books like The New Pie by Drs. Chris Taylor and Paul Arguin, and Erin McDowell’s forthcoming The Book on Pie “have taken pies to a whole new level of artistry…with new techniques, new designs, and new flavors and flavor combinations.”

Diversity abounds – a bevy of books by esteemed baking teachers (The Pie Academy, Pie Camp), shop owners (Pie For Everyone, You Wanna Piece of Me?) and dazzling visual artists (Elegant Pie, Pie Style, Pieometry) as well as a variety of imaginative pie-centic endeavors.

“The general consensus is that pie is very homespun American,” notes Dr Arguin, “but I think people are learning you can do much more.” He and Dr. Taylor, Atlanta-based CDC scientists   who bonded over a love of baking and married in 2014, were initially drawn to competitions at local fairs, then headed to the prestigious National Pie Championships in Orlando, Florida, “when, using our scientific background, we started paying attention to technical aspects of how pies work and incorporating new flavors.”

In 2017 Taylor won Best of Show, amateur division, for his checkerboard peanut butter deep dish pie. By the following year, the couple had upgraded to professional status, garnered hundreds of medals, and landed a book deal. The New Pie stresses both precision and presentation with six pages of recommended equipment, decorating tips, and 75 recipes for pies utilizing new techniques like sous vide to prepare fruit for Maple Blueberry, Rhubarb Gooseberry, and Italian Plum Affogato. Some of the pies are lighthearted riffs on drinks – Fizzy Root Beer Float with pop rocks, Thai Iced Tea with Whipped Cream “ice cubes”, and vodka laced Hair of the Dog Bloody Mary. For pastry pros, who already have a lot of experience in design and experimentation, the pair suggests “think in terms of a plated dessert, and instead use that same technique for a dessert that happens to be in a crust.”

Competitive baking brought celebrity status to the scientists, while Instagram has done the same for a coterie of accidental pie artists whose elaborate crusts have captivated legions of social media fans. In 2016 Vancouver filmmaker/designer Jessica Leigh Clark-Bojin embarked on a pie odyssey, posting fanciful storybook/pop-art designs ranging from an apple pie topped with a fire-breathing dragon cut-out, to a 3-D wedding castle that can be seen on @thepieous and her piesareawesome.com blog.

For Lauren Ko, whose show-stopping geometric pie crusts have attracted over 300,000 followers at @lokokitchen,

and inspired her newly released book Pieometry, “It was sort of an accident, that changed my life.” Settling in Seattle in 2016 and working in an office, Ko stumbled across some beautiful images of pies on Pinterest: “Although I had been cooking and baking most of my life, I had never made a pie,” she admits, “and it made me wonder if that was something I could do. The pictures of floral and leaf cut-outs were “rustic or romantic, not my style,” so Ko began experimenting with crusts that had a lean, modern, geometric look. A year later she opened an Instagram account, and when her first image, a peach pie with a spoke design, drew 600 likes, “It blew my mind.” Within a month she had tens of thousands of followers, applauding her colorful, intricate, crusts, based on architectural elements, textiles, and everyday surroundings. Many were also lured to the site by her penchant for puns; she recalls people remarking “I’m here as much for the puns as the pies.”

Ko had no desire to open a shop, or sell her wares, but she began working with brands, established partnerships, and eventually quit her job to spend a year developing and testing recipes for Pieometry. The book features step-by-step instructions for a dozen pie crusts, design tutorials, and 50 recipes for sweet and savory pies like Berried Treasure (lavender blackberry cream, shortbread crust), Once In a Tile (Pumpkin Black Sesame, black sesame crust) and C and Easy (butternut bacon macaroni and cheese, whole wheat cheddar chive crust.)

Broadening pie horizons beyond books and social media, initiatives range from Dominique Ansel’s ‘All You Can Eat’ pie nights, to theater gigs like the pies baked nightly by Bill Yosses for Sweeney Todd, and Stacy Donnelly’s apple crumble sold during intermission at Waitress on Broadway. Pie fundraisers for worthy causes, an ongoing tradition, are addressing today’s urgent concerns. At a ‘Pies for Justice Bake Sale’ on Juneteenth, over 50 California pastry chefs sold pies online to benefit Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and The Gathering for Justice. In Chicago, Maya-Camille Broussard, an arts educator who learned to bake from the women in her family, founded Justice of the Pies in 2014 as an L3C, a business entity that bridges the gap between non-profit and for-profit, with a dual mission: to honor her father, a criminal defense attorney obsessed with pie, and to collaborate on programs to improve her South Side community.  Broussard has juggled selling pies locally with organizing workshops to fight food insecurities, teaching kids to cook for themselves, and planning pie drives; but during Covid-19 she has pivoted to feeding frontline workers, and created a package of step-by-step video tutorials, “Justice For All”. Now some of her best-sellers, like Blue Cheese Praline Pear, and Basil Key Lime are available at local restaurants. “The willingness to let go of perceived ‘restrictions’ about what pies are supposed to look like or taste like is what really comes into play here,” she concludes, “and I’m working on growing so I can be fully ready to resume my business.”

Slices of Sweet Potato with Hazelnut Crunch pie from The New Pie by Chris Taylor and Paul Arguin.

Notable Pie Books

Meryle Evans
Meryle Evans
Meryle Evans is a staff writer for Pastry Arts Magazine with extensive experience in covering pastry and baking professionals and the trade as a whole.