According to the American Pie Council, 90% of Americans agree that a slice of pie represents one of the simple pleasures in life. But a large percentage of the pies Americans eat are homemade, or at least partially so, with prepared fillings combined with prepared crusts. Pie-baking from scratch is time-consuming and requires at least some exacting science.
A steady rise in pie sales at independent bakeshops and prepared food operations in supermarkets demonstrates that home-style, if not homemade, pies are trending up. The $11.2 billion prepared cakes and pies category, which includes in-store-baked, shelf-stable, and frozen/refrigerated cakes and pies, grew 24% from 2009-2014, according to research group Mintel’s June 2014 “Prepared Cakes and Pies-US” report.
Mintel’s experts speculated that this growth was boosted by interest in the category during the economic recession, as well as the period surrounding the Hostess Brands bankruptcy of 2012. The category proved it could withstand hard economic times as an affordable indulgence.
The popular store-baked, shelf-stable pie products join the varied heat-and-serve/thaw-and-serve retail pies in the dessert section of the freezer aisle. There also are speed-scratch solutions to serving homemade-like pies at home, offered in freezer and dairy cases.
Another development is the growth of single-slice pie products.
“Portion-controlled formats, higher-quality ingredients, and new flavors can help consumers indulge in prepared pies while maintaining a sense of moderation,” says Mintel food analyst Amanda Topper. “Positive perceptions of private label products, representing the largest share of the market, will increase price competition, but also create opportunities for brand names to differentiate—with premium offerings consumers are willing to pay more for.”
Unsurprisingly, when it comes to the traditional sweet pies, apple pie takes the cake, according to a recent consumer survey by Nielsen LLC and commissioned by the American Pie Council. Chocolate pie ties with pumpkin in the No. 2 spot, while cherry places third.
The survey revealed pie is a preferred dessert on special occasions other than Thanksgiving, with 70% favoring it on Christmas and 67% considering it a staple of family gatherings. But sweet pies aren’t limited to dessert; 58% of those polled enjoy pie as a “great late-night snack.”
Mark Kwasigroch, pastry chef and instructor at the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts, Chicago, agrees. Kwasigroch owned and operated a bakeshop for 20 years and notes that his pie sales during Thanksgiving and Christmas were so great, he and his staff began pie production as early as August. The July 4th holiday sees significant customer demand for pie, too. “Apple, cherry, and blueberry pies are perennial good sellers in summer, but the pie variety most clientele clamor for is peach,” says Kwasigroch.
At restaurants, despite diner delight in interesting signature offerings to end a meal, apple pie continues to dominate as one of guests’ most preferred desserts. In fact, it rates a near second (65%) only to brownies (67%), according to research group Technomic Inc.’s recently released “Dessert Consumer Trend Report.” The report is a compilation of findings from interviews of more than 1,500 US consumers and operators. Chocolate cake (59%) lags behind apple pie as diners’ third-favorite dessert.
Research conducted in late 2014 by The Food Channel and NobleCommunications LLC.’s consumer insights division, CultureWaves, lists hand pies among its prognostications for the Top 10 dessert trends. The authors noted the mini-dessert phenomenon finally embraced the pie. Positioned as a grab-and-go food, a consumer can enjoy whole, sweet, or savory pies that can be held and eaten like a sandwich.
Unlike the flaky crust, single-serving pastries popular since the mid-20th Century, the current example of the hand-held pie trend is a short-crust product that, unlike a slice of pie, is versatile enough to be enjoyed at the table or on the run. It falls in line with the hand-held savory pies that have long served as common working-class fare in England and parts of the US (such as UP Michigan or Maine, where they’re known as pasties and have origins in the United Kingdom).
The recently opened District Hand Pie & Coffee Bar in New Orleans offers a constantly changing selection of savory meat pies, fruit pies, and cream pies. All are made from scratch and feature unique, unusual, or on-trend ingredient pairings. One the establishment’s more popular offerings includes strips of kung pao chicken with jalapeño. Another seasonal variety features local Louisiana-grown pecans, “bean-to-bar” artisanal chocolate from New Orleans, and Kentucky bourbon.
Some popular hand pies still are of the fried variety, but new tools and techniques bring exciting textures to crusts, such as waffle-like forms, or baking short-crust pies in turnover formats Technically, hand-held pies must be sealed on all sides. While today’s versions are filled with just about anything sweet or savory, those fillings still more often than not are the fruity flavors of the Midwest tradition. This is the only regional dessert trend noted by the aforementioned Food Channel survey (i.e., apple, cherry, blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, peach, grape, and pear).
“Fruit pies and pastries are strongly anchored in tradition for many consumers,” says Winston Boyd, PhD, food scientist and senior partner for the industry consulting group, Focus International LLC. “When something is so integral to tradition, it also deserves increased attention to the details.” It’s that same attention that has allowed today’s pie product developers to deliver a quality eating experience, Boyd notes. “Pie makers are moving beyond the rudimentary bake-from-frozen pie products of generations past,” he stresses.
Examples of the trend toward greater focus on types and varieties of fruit include ConAgra Foods Inc.’s Marie Callender’s and Banquet brands. Marie Callender’s family-size and single-serving apple pies tout the claims of being “made with 100% Fuji apples.”
Banquet’s single-serving apple pie focuses on the regional produce trend, with declaring its pies as “made with Washington apples.” Both brands also proclaim “flaky crust made from scratch” on all their pies.
Marie Callender’s frozen desserts are marketed as containing “real fruit that was picked at its peak and then locked into a frozen dessert.” The company does take its production of these fruit pies up a notch, with spokespersons noting how “Marion blackberries and raspberries are hand-patted into the hand-rolled dough for the Razzleberry Pie, and the meringue on the Lemon Meringue Pie is hand-placed and ‘flicked’ to create the peaks,” just as would a home baker. The crust on the company’s apple lattice pie is “stretched by hand at the bakery, so every pie has a perfect basket weave on the top;” chocolate curls also are “placed by hand.”
Boyd points out that today’s developers of fruit pies are seeking more upscale fruit and better quality fruit ingredients. But the equation involves more than going to less “industrial quality” fruit in favor of, for example, heritage apples or varietal pears. “When it comes to fruit pies, especially, while the quality of the fruit is the basis for success of the pie, the processing of the fruit—including cooking and added ingredients—will have a dramatic effect on the outcome,” he explains.
Selection of the fruit source is the primary control point for product quality, according to Boyd. “While fresh or frozen fruit is considered the best, a well-formulated and minimally processed canned fruit can produce very good results,” he says.
“Both small- and large-batch producers of canned fruit fillings have access to essentially the same starting fruit raw materials, which may be fresh cut—depending on the fruit and season—or frozen, either as IQF or minimally processed, bulk frozen fruit,” continues Boyd. “The processing conditions may include the fruit being cooked in a processing tank or in the can itself; that is, retort canning or pouch. Most processed fruit fillings can be expected to have a relatively long shelflife, too, depending on processing and storage conditions.”
Fresh fruit is thought to produce the best natural flavor profile overall, according to Boyd, although he also notes that, at least in terms of flavor, “IQF is either close behind or indistinguishable from fresh fruit.” He does acknowledge that some processors claim IQF is slightly less desirable, from a cooked fruit texture perspective, because the product breaks down quicker due to the freezing of the fruit rupturing the cell walls and leading to loss of the juice from the fruit pieces when thawed.
Blueberries have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity as a primary fruit for pies. First, they freeze well, owing to comparatively high pectin. Also, multiple formats are available and cost competitive, allowing for versatility. Bakers typically create pie fillings with fresh or frozen blueberries, and blueberry fillings with higher fruit contents are preferred for pies. And a newer format gaining interest is the osmotically preserved berry.
Increasingly, dried blueberries are adding variety to pies made with other fruits. Combos such as cranberry-blueberry and apple blueberry are appearing more often. There are processed fruit products that rely on added ingredients to enhance organoleptic qualities, Boyd points out. “Fruit preparations may contain additives that modify flavor, sweetness, color, texture, or extend the shelflife of the finished filling,” he says.
“Texture modifiers may include hydrocolloids or modified starches selected to increase the viscosity of the filling; protect the integrity of the fruit; or provide freeze-thaw stability, if the final application calls for it.”
Hot filling or retorting, says Boyd, along with the relatively high natural acid content of most fruits, “help to stabilize the fillings against microbiological degradation. In some cases, preservatives, such as sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate, are added to further enhance the shelflife of the products.”
Flavor modifiers can include ground spices; fruit juices, such as lemon or lime; or “compounded flavors designed to provide or enhance the desired flavor profile,” says Boyd. The use of herbs, spices, spice extracts/oleoresins (such as for savory pies) must be approached carefully to ensure no overwhelming of the flavors of the main ingredients. Color issues also can come into play with spices that will darken fruit mixtures.
Fruit pies also typically include sweeteners. While sucrose still is the sweetener of choice for many processors, others are moving toward the use of naturally sweet fruit juices and concentrates, such as white grape juice, raisin syrup, and others. The use of natural fruit flavors—such as from fresh fruit extracts, concentrates, or powders to balance flavors for consistency—also need to take into account subtle consumer preferences.
“High-intensity sweeteners that can withstand processing and baking conditions also may be used,” says Boyd, “and adding brown sugar, rather than white sugar or corn syrup, introduces subtle flavor differences in fruit pies.”
Easy as 3, 2, 1
Ask any instructor of culinary arts, and he or she will likely say culinary math is one of the most challenging parts of the curriculum. Teaching the additional science behind pastry and baking math can be downright daunting.
That’s why, when it comes to preparing pie dough, educators in accredited, certificate-granting and associate degree culinary-arts programs—which must include basic instruction in baking and pastry—nearly all teach the simple-to-grasp, 3-2-1 ratio of dough ingredients: 3 parts flour to 2 parts fat to 1 part liquid.
According to John Draz, executive research chef at John Miniat Inc., and co-author of The Culinary Professional (Goodheart-Willcox, 2010), the choice of fat is the most important factor in creating a white-flour pie crust with an excellent texture. Because the melting point of the fat is key, fats that are solid at room temperature are best for creating flaky texture in the finished pie.
Butter is the choice of some bakers because of its rich and desirable flavor. But butter is an expensive ingredient. Further, because it melts at a lower temperature, it produces a crust that isn’t as flaky as one made with shortening.
Lard has long been a favorite fat for pie dough. Its higher melting point creates a flakier textured dough than butter, margarine, or many vegetable shortening products. But the flavor note imparted by lard is objectionable to some, according to Draz. Additionally, some consumers’ dietary restrictions—such as vegetarian and faith-based proscriptions—prohibit the eating of products derived from pigs.
Vegetable-based solid shortening is the most popular choice for making pie dough, says Draz, because it’s reasonably priced; has a high melting point that creates a flaky crust; and has a neutral flavor. But the best fat for making a flour pie crust, says Belinda Brooks, pastry-chef-instructor in the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts, is actually a blend of 2 parts vegetable shortening and 1 part unsalted butter.
“It’s the ideal balance,” says Brooks, who annually judges a charity pie-making contest in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.
“Shortening gives me that structure and edge that I want, and butter gives me the nice flavor,” adds Brooks. “The result is a perfectly flaky and tender crust.” That said, Kendall teaches crust-making with butter rather than shortening, believing butter to be the more wholesome of the two fats.
“Speed scratch” has overtaken scratch baking in the average consumer kitchen. It also has opened a niche for expansion of pre-crafted crust products, so consumers can “up their pie game” at home. While refrigerated doughs and fruit pie fillings have been popular for decades, the market currently is being flooded with gluten-free, organic, and whole-grain varieties.
One unusual and creative example launched several years ago was a Coconut Macaroon pie shell by The Manischewitz Co. A seasonal shell for the Passover holiday, the ingredients avoid dairy, as well as grain flours, consisting only of toasted coconut, egg white, sugar, salt, and potassium sorbate.
On the Savory Side
ConAgra Foods Inc.’s lower-priced Banquet brand of pot pies utilizes deodorized lard and hydrogenated lard as the fat components in its savory and sweet varieties’ crusts. Marie Callender’s, a premium brand also owned by ConAgra, employs vegetable shortening for its thicker and heartier crusts for several varieties of single-serving pot pies and newer family-size chicken pot pies. Single-serving entrée pot pies sold under the Boston Market brand by Bellisio Foods, and Stouffer’s brand by Nestlé USA Inc. do the same.
Upscale meat pies, however, are taking off in this country. They are reminiscent of centuries-old meat pie traditions from Europe. Trader Joe’s supermarkets offer several such pies, including its tall (2"), short-crust Steak & Ale Pies. They use real ale, sea salt, porcini mushrooms, and rosemary and thyme.
Several years ago, Blackbird Pie Co. took an ethnic approach to upscale meat pies, creating such hand-held savories as Venezuelan Chicken and Indian Ratatouille. The former included uncured bacon and leeks vs. commodity bacon and onions, to add subtle variations on classic flavors. The company also specialized in gluten-free versions.
For all heat-and-serve entrée pot pies—as well as heat-and-serve or thaw-and-serve dessert pies—marketing language on packaging can help a brand stand out to consumers in a crowded field. Stouffer’s, for instance, employs phrases that conjure savory taste memory and nostalgia, such as “golden crust,” “tender white chicken” and “gravy made with real cream.” Boston Market’s packaging emphasizes “in a flaky crust.”
Texas-based Boomerang Foods Inc. is enjoying success with its savory, hand-held beef (made from grilled steak), pork, and chicken Aussie pies, using only “all-natural,” antibiotic-free meats and trading on a current trend of “Australian chic.”
Despite the general and continued trend toward healthier eating in the US, the pie category continues to grow. While, in general, consumers agree such treats should only be eaten in moderation, many view the category positively in terms of taste and quality. Looking ahead, category growth will rely on manufacturers’ ability to meet consumer demands for better ingredients, great taste, and portability. Increased snacking and greater retail availability also will benefit the category, spurring further innovation and creativity.
Innovation Meets Traditional
New frontiers in pie making can arise from the same stimuli for innovation as other products. Last year’s grand prize winner in Maple Leaf Farms Inc.’s 2015 “Strut Your Duck” Recipe contest was a contemporary bird-in-a-pie concept that resonated across multiple trends. Oklahoma baker Sandi Sheppard’s Cherry Whiskey Braised Duck Tomato Pie with Popcorn Dust Frico was an updated version of the classic Southern tomato pie, but definitely pushed all the envelopes.
Sheppard’s pie (no pun intended) started with a crust made with all-purpose baking flour mix, to which cubed butter, sage, thyme, salt, heavy cream, sour cream, sharp Cheddar, and cooked ground duck sausage were mixed in by hand. The cheesy, sausage-and-biscuit pie shell supported a jerk-seasoned filling sporting more sharp Cheddar, Parmesan, and ricotta cheeses; plus mayonnaise, sour cream, and quartered, multicolor heirloom cherry tomatoes.
The whole was topped with chopped duck breast that was braised in a cherry-pie whisky liqueur, cherry juice, and chicken stock, along with caramelized chopped sweet onion and three different colors of sweet bell pepper. Once baked, the single-serving pie (the recipe yields four) was crowned with heirloom cherry tomatoes, two flash-fried basil leaves, and a cracker made by pulsing popped popcorn with butter, black and white sesame seeds, Parmesan cheese, and sea salt before baking. Suggested garnish for the elaborate construction is whole kernels of popped popcorn.
While this sort of creation is obviously not conducive to batch manufacturing, and its high-end/high-cost ingredients would place such a retail product in an unreachable price range for all but the most exclusive consumers, the take-away for processors is its neat encompassing of multiple food trends. They include the combination of sweet and savory; the use of a not-so-mainstream fowl/animal protein and the use of alcohol—especially distilled spirits as opposed to wine—in sauces. Another trend is the use of global flavor fusions (herbs and sesame) combined with the comfort of an old-fashioned, Southern US favorite.
Originally appeared in the February, 2016 issue of Prepared Foods as Pie Are Not Square.