Pie, pita, torta, tarte. No matter what it’s called, the idea applies across the globe. Everyone loves a piece of filled, baked goodness.
March 14 is Pi Day in honor of the first three digits of the mathematical constant π (3.1415…). But it’s also a flimsy, yet delicious, excuse to celebrate the many edible varieties of pie around the world.
Classic American apple and cherry varieties might be the first dishes that come to mind when the word “pie” is mentioned. But they’re just a slice of the sweet and savory pies available to pastry lovers from Florida to the Philippines.
Under the broad definition of a pie as a filled, baked pastry shell, history has provided a wide range of pies. Egyptian hieroglyphics show pastries filled with honey, nuts and fruit, while ancient Greeks and Romans supped on free-form pies filled with both sweets and meats.
From there, the world of pies has only expanded. Try a few of these international pies when you’re traveling or bake your own at home.
In ancient Rome, early meat pies used dough merely as a vessel for preserving the meat’s tenderness, not for eating with the filling. It took a few centuries (and recipe improvements) for the idea of eating the crust and the meat filling to catch on.
The British and their colonies seem to have perfected the art of the meat pie. Steak and ale pie is a pub favorite and has its roots in medieval pies, which used local meats, game and vegetables in a pastry crust.
Tourtière is a hearty French-Canadian meat pie traditionally filled with ground pork and served during the Christmas season. A salmon version of tourtière is common for those who grew up along the coast.
In Australia and New Zealand, meat pies split the difference between a traditional pie and a handheld pie: round double-crust pies sized down to be single-serving meals. Beef and gravy is the most common filling for these pies, which are often topped with ketchup or tomato sauce.
Speaking of handheld meat pies, their ingenuity spans the globe. Cornish pasties were popularized as a food for miners, but are now so beloved that they’re protected by geographic origin.
And empanadas, thought to have originated in Galicia, Spain, are eaten all over Latin America and in the Philippines, among other places.
Other savory pies
As one of the birthplaces of pie, Greek cuisine has its share of sweet and savory pies to choose from. Spanakopita is one of the most well-known, featuring a spinach and feta filling inside flaky phyllo dough, but there’s also its cousin hortopita, made with wild greens; tiropita, a savory cheese pie; and maridopita, a fish pie.
Layers of flaky phyllo also form the crust for Albanian burek or byrek, savory pies that can be filled with everything from ground meat to spinach and cheese. The tomato and onion version of this pie is often known as Albanian pizza, layering caramelized onions and stewed tomatoes.
Sweet and savory pies
While meat pies were the norm for much of the pie’s early history, the spices used in many of these pastries bridged the gap between savory and sweet.
Pastilla, a Moroccan pie that also goes by the names bisteeya or b’stilla, is a spiced pie that combines poultry, almonds and eggs. Though pigeon or squab has been the traditional poultry of choice, easier modern versions substitute chicken in the pie.
If you’re familiar with the souffle-like texture of corn spoon bread or corn pudding, American sweet corn custard pie is one step further in the dessert direction. Adding fresh corn kernels to a sweet custard or chess pie filling is a common theme for bakers and gardeners making the most of late summer produce.
Forget four and twenty blackbirds – if it grows on a tree, it can likely be baked into a pie. Fruit pies are one of the finest ways to enjoy seasonal produce.
Some of the fruit pies well known in North America today originated with colonists who brought seeds from Europe or added ingredients native to North America to their baking traditions.
Rhubarb became a popular pie filling in New England by the 1820s and spread south and west with the population. Concord grape pie uses the juicy, dark-skinned grapes native to North America (yes, the ones in every kid’s favorite jar of jelly).
Persimmon pies are found in family recipe files throughout the eastern United States, taking advantage of another native fruit that can be grown as far west as Iowa and as far north as Connecticut. With a texture similar to pumpkin pie, it’s no wonder this is a pie perfect for the fall harvest season.
Apple pie is enshrined as the quintessential American pie – as Jack Kerouac wrote in “On the Road”: “I ate another apple pie and ice cream; that’s practically all I ate all the way across the country.”
But apple pie has its roots in Europe, with many of the apple varieties we know today imported to the North American continent.
Vlaai are Dutch fruit pies made with yeasted brioche-style dough instead of the usual butter pastry crust. Though they can be filled with fruits such as apricots, plums, and cherries, a Dutch appelvlaai bridges Old and New World dessert traditions.
Other sweet pies
If cooked fruit fillings aren’t your favorite, let pies with creamy fillings fulfill your dessert fantasies.
Fans of coconut cream pie should seek out Filipino buko pie, a specialty of the Laguna province. This double-crust pie is filled with strips of buko, or young coconut, suspended in a creamy coconut custard.
British Banoffee pie is fairly modern by pie standards. Created by the chef and owner of The Hungry Monk restaurant in East Sussex, England, in the 1970s, it’s now a no-bake classic. The name is a portmanteau of its main ingredients: bananas and toffee sauce. While the original recipe (spelled banoffi) calls for a pastry crust, many iterations use a biscuit or graham cracker crust instead.
Tangy Key lime pie is a must-have when visiting Key West, Florida, where it’s frequently served frozen in a crunchy chocolate shell.
Further up the East Coast, Atlantic Beach pie from North Carolina is a saltier take on the cool citrus pie. Crushed Saltine crackers form the crust base, and a tangy lemon-lime filling gives citrus fans the best of both worlds.