It might be an American staple, but do you know where pie first started?
It might be possible to make inedible pie, but I doubt it. It might be not exemplary, but it’s still pie. Fancy photo-worthy pies are everywhere lately, gracing magazine pages and cookbooks. (Heck, I wrote the recipes for one of them.) But the heart of pie beats at home, the handiwork of grandmas, where flavor and love hold sway over looks. Consider chocolate cream pie: it bears more than passing resemblance to mud pie, but the combination of rich chocolate filling sitting inside a flaky crust and crowned with lofty whipped cream hits pay dirt.
There’s been pie about as long as there have been cooks, starting with ancient Romans who might have learned it from the Greeks. Back then the crusts weren’t for eating, but instead served as a crude, homemade vessel to hold the fillings, which were often bits of meat, eels, and game fowl. (Four and twenty black birds, and the like, with the legs left sticking out to use as handles.) These inches-thick, rock-hard crusts were called coffyns. Not all pyes were as grim; there are also records of pie-like galettes filled with honey.
Pies and tarts with edible pastry became fashionable during the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and the taste for pies, both savory and sweet, sailed to the New World along with colonists. Pies required less flour than bread and cooked more quickly and amenably in campfires and hearth coals. Hand pies could be slipped into a pocket and carried out into the day’s work.
Sweet pies rose to the fore in our home baking repertoire once the domestic sugar industry took hold in the early 1800s. Cream pies, including the beloved chocolate, were a delicious and resourceful way to use the bounty of eggs and dairy found on many family farms. A little shelf-stable cocoa powder or bar of baking chocolate, available from a local grocery or country store, could replace, if not upstage, fruit. The genius of homemade pie is that is adapts to the situation and makes the most of the ingredients at hand, what some call desperation pies.
WATCH: Make The Ultimate Chocolate Pie
The luckiest of us still have a grandma who bakes chocolate cream pie for us. Others might be able to recreate or approximate her pie thanks to a recipe jotted on a card and slipped into a recipe box or tucked in the back of a beloved cookbook—or hidden in plain sight on the back of the cocoa tin or chocolate wrapper. Grandmas (and their proxys) know that a homemade chocolate cream pie shows that she’s sweet on us, and always will be.