“I have 11 sisters and they all have gardens and pick rhubarb for me. Some of the neighbors around here let me pick theirs,” says Maggie Gergen, who dishes out at least a dozen kinds of pie each day at her shop in southeastern Minnesota. There’s the timeless rhubarb custard and strawberry rhubarb, but her Bluebarb takes the cake. Gergen made it first—a combination of blueberry and, yes, rhubarb—at a nephew’s request. With so many sisters, let’s hope for more inspirations from the family. (618 Main St., Whalan, MN; 651/647-1380)
Last year, legendary pie-maker Paula Haney opened this “artisanal bakery” in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood and started cranking out pies. Chicagoans can’t get enough. Her fans include chef Graham Elliot. His favorite? The Key Lime Pie, which is distinguished by its gingersnap crust. The crunchiness stands in perfect contrast to the filling’s creaminess, while the spice provides an unexpected but winning complement to the tart lime.
Named for the district in which it resides, this three-and-a-half-year-old pie shop uses only seasonal ingredients, which are locally sourced whenever possible. (This is San Francisco, after all.) The must-try pie is actually a tart prepared with plum and frangipane, a sweet paste made from almonds. The sweet nuttiness of the almonds comes through with impressive clarity, as does the fleeting flavor of the ripe fruit.
Phoebe Lawless’s trademark crusts are made with plenty of butter (for maximum flakiness) and very little sugar (to showcase the milk’s natural sweetness). Most of her pies are stuffed with the season’s bounty—native persimmons, for example, available for a short stint during the holidays. But her double-crusted beauty Shaker Lemon is offered year-round. Lawless fills it with whole, sliced lemons that have been macerated for up to three days. Once baked, they take on the consistency of marmalade. Pucker up!
The holiday season in the Big Apple wouldn’t be the same without pies from City Bakery, where Maury Rubin is also known for inventing the pretzel croissant. When it comes to pumpkin pie, Rubin wisely sticks to tradition. After all, few desserts are more associated with nostalgia, comfort, and a sense of season. And Rubin’s tastes much like any other homemade pumpkin pie—only better. The buttery graham-cracker crust should be considered the archetype for all others, and the filling delivers a well-calibrated punch of spice.
In 1982, Judy Faragher and her sister sold their first apple pies at a hometown festival. That original crowd-pleaser is always on the menu at her shop, but so are a host of other, less-conventional pies. She uses fresh local ingredients whenever possible, but when the cupboard is bare Faragher opts for frozen, not canned, fruit. Her rhubarb cream cheese pie “comes out of the pan almost like a cheesecake would.” Make it extra decadent with a topping of sour cream. (85130 Hwy. 13, Bayfield, WI; 715/779-5365)
At the original Strawn’s Eat Shop on Kings Highway in Shreveport, LA—established in 1944—you’ll hear customers talk about the fresh strawberry pie. It’s delicious, to be sure, but follow the advice of waitress Brandy Snow: order the chocolate. Like its strawberry spotlight-stealing cohort, the chocolate pie comes with a whopping pile of whipped cream and features a homemade crust that’s low on sugar. “It’s everything else on top that makes it sweet,” says Snow.
Best Pie to Try: Vanilla Salted Caramel Apple Pie.
This Portland favorite serves a lovely version of the classic American apple pie. But after you’ve tasted their other apple pie, you might decide that the original is a bit dated. This version is oozing with caramel, spiced with vanilla, and sprinkled with salt. It proves that time-old techniques and recipes can coexist with unexpected, mold-breaking tweaks. It’s not so much reinventing the wheel as giving it a makeover.
When baker Lindsay Doolittle and her husband launched this doughy enterprise in March 2010, their focus was on “transforming pie from an American classic to an imaginative designer dessert.” Their blackberry Cabernet pie does just that. Like most perfect experiences, this one doesn’t last forever. Just four months, in fact, when the namesake berries are fresh. This boozy baked good benefits from hints of blackberries in the Cabernet, but in Doolittle’s words, the fresh fruit and the crème “take it over the top.”
Nancy Fulton inherited her pie-making skills from her grandmother, who made deep-fried desserts for ranchers in the late 1800s. Fulton’s pies are surprisingly light—thanks to her use of a pastry, not biscuit-like, dough. This doesn’t always work in her favor. Because the pies aren’t greasy, some customers “question whether or not they’re really fried.” Of her 21 flavors, Fulton recommends newcomers try the apricot, a local favorite. “We sell more of those than anything else,” she says. (Highway 77 and I 35, Davis, OK; 580/369-7830)
Pumpkin pie. Few dishes can cement a new memory—while also calling up cherished family moments—quite like this one. And few bakers make this famed holiday dessert quite like Maury Rubin, at New York's City Bakery. This is no postmodern interpretation, just traditional pumpkin pie done especially right: a buttery graham-cracker crust with a well-calibrated punch of spice in the filling.
The appeal of pie is hard to describe. It's more than just a delicious dessert. There's comfort, tradition, and a strong sense of place in every bite. Whether it's a classic standard or a fresh take with unique ingredients, a standout slice of pie will be forevermore associated with the when, where, and why of its serving.
If you're looking for slices of nostalgia or bold new baked goodness, there's a perfect slice of pie somewhere in America waiting for you. Whether or not to add whipped cream is entirely up to you.
Check out the slideshow above to get a peek at some of the best pies America can offer.