Whether accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream, a dollop of whipped cream or topping-free, a slice of pie remains high on the list of traditional club desserts. And while members have come to expect classic flavors to polish off a satisfying meal, pastry chefs are finding new ways to elevate the pie-eating experience.
With new variations in crusts and fillings, along with unconventional flavors to pique the curiosity of their most discriminating diners, pies are commanding even greater attention.
Let Them Eat Pie
At Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield, Mich., Executive Pastry Chef Elizabeth Harrison relishes the idea of adding new twists to her pie menu.
“Pies have always had the ability to be incredibly diverse,” she says. “Make a good pie crust, use product that is fresh and available, and have fun eating it.”
With more than two decades under her belt working the private club circuit—the last eight of which have been at Oakland Hills—Harrison has come to know exactly what members crave: a lemon meringue ice cream pie. A menu mainstay, this pastry is featured year-round on the a la carte menu and, for those who can’t resist a second helping, is available for purchase as a whole pie.
To satisfy members’ flavor palates, Harrison also runs a limited-edition special, offering a classic pie or cake for purchase for only a day or two. “It’s fun for us to make, and the members enjoy the spontaneity of it,” she says.
Possible flavors include apple, cherry, coconut cream, key lime and chocolate chess. In the spring, she uses local produce for her strawberry rhubarb or, a couple of times a year, takes advantage of a delivery of Saskatoon berries for a refreshing alternative.
When experimenting with different concepts, Harrison enjoys utilizing club staff as willing taste-testers, creating a fun atmosphere that can yield new menu additions. She notes banana butterscotch cashew pie, Melopita and Milk Bar Pie (formerly known as Crack Pie) as top hits in the employee break room. By encouraging her staff to check out what’s on the menu at local Detroit pie shops, she’s also been inspired by Sister Pie’s Salted Maple Pie and the Sweet Potato Pie at Hip Hop Bake Shop.
While Harrison relishes showstopping flavor combinations, she believes that the formula for the best pie lies in its quality. “Pies, I think, are very much a comfort food category of dessert at our club,” she says. “What sells to our members is a classic pie made well with high-quality ingredients.”
Having fine-tuned her crust preparation process, she points to a classic short pie dough recipe, using all-purpose flour and employing a small amount of apple cider vinegar to tenderize it. To maintain the consistency of her apple and cherry pies, she uses frozen fruit from Michigan Farm to Freezer, a company that buys and processes local produce.
Among Harrison’s favorite pie styles are fried and free form, both of which she prefers to serve hot. “We feature them as weekend specials in a la carte dining, where they can be finished just before service,” she adds. For free-form pies, Harrison occasionally uses cream cheese pie dough or oatmeal pie dough. “The visual is appealing, and personally, I like to eat the crust better than the filling, particularly with a scoop of ice cream.”
Because dietary restrictions have become more prevalent in her pastry menu, Harrison decided to adjust her most common pie fillings a few years ago, removing the gluten flour and replacing it with gluten-free flour mixes and other ingredients like pectin. While this change has simplified production, the crust component remains a challenge that requires a different mindset. “Mostly, it’s remembering that the gluten-free crust is not going to behave the same as a classic pie crust,” she says. “Once you get that, everything is fine.”
Harrison mostly focuses her efforts on making memorable offerings, especially when it comes to birthday pie. For these creations, she cuts letters and other decorations from pie dough to make them extra special. “My favorite feedback from members is when they call for a birthday cake and bashfully ask if they can have birthday pie instead,” she says. “‘Of course!’ is always my answer.”
Fresh Out of the Oven
Over the past year, Pastry Chef Sara Biasi has made her mark on pie production at Rhode Island Country Club in Barrington, R.I. The newly minted chef harnessed her baking skills to begin her first foray in private clubs, where she’s learning the art of crafting the perfect pie. “Getting to create the dessert menu for the club is one of my favorite parts of my job,” she says. Her experience in American, French and Italian pastries, along with producing yeasted dough for sweet and savory items, has come in handy for making a full roster of pies for a discerning membership.
Catering to her clientele, Biasi notes that pie preferences skew more toward the traditional: pumpkin and apple at Thanksgiving and fresh berries for the spring and summer months. With key lime pie being a consistent favorite over the past year, she’s planning to put more emphasis on similar citrus flavors in the months ahead. “I love lemon, lime and orange as flavors, but passion fruit and grapefruit are some different and exciting flavors to use for curd pies,” she says. Also on the docket is a strawberry rhubarb pie when fresh produce becomes more readily available.
Because club members prefer classic tastes when it comes to pies, Biasi is careful to introduce new flavors slowly. “When creating twists on these items, I tend to be subtle so members can still enjoy some of their favorite flavors, as well as experience something different, whether it be in the look, smell or taste,” she notes.
Pie toppings, on the other hand, offer her a safe space for experimentation. “You don’t just see the traditional lattice topping anymore,” says Biasi. “Whether it’s a painted pie crust, different lattice shape or unique type of crumb, the top of the pie has many options.”
More recently, Biasi has tried her hand at creating a diamond lattice cut for a mixed berry pie or Linzer torte. In the fall, she’ll repurpose extra pie crust to make leaves for a seasonal touch. “I definitely want to get into practicing more unique ways to elevate the ways my pies look,” she says.
Also on Biasi’s pastry agenda is free-form pie-making, a technique that club members enjoy and that she appreciates for its ease of service. Having dabbled in galettes and mini hand pies for club events, she expects to continue on this path for summer baking.
Variation on a Theme
With more members craving comfort on a plate, capping off a meal with a generous piece of pie has become even more meaningful at Cherokee Town & Country Club in Atlanta. In the kitchen of Executive Pastry Chef Alex Hwang, where she’s spent the past 10 years turning out desserts for both a la carte and banquet service, key flavors remain consistent, with an opportunity to introduce new concepts on a periodic basis.
“Recipes for the pies have stayed the same for the most part, but members like to see different presentations or concepts,” says Hwang.
Having the ability to experiment with size, shape and temperature, she’s incorporated new ingredients, such as ground pretzel bites or vanilla wafers, or tried out new ideas like yogurt mousse with strawberry compote—to wide acclaim.
“Apple pie with rum raisin ice cream was a big hit last winter,” she adds.
Standard club favorites include Heath bar, key lime and apple pies, with selections rotated seasonally. Also popular for spring and summer are strawberry rhubarb, blueberry crumble and a deconstructed key lime pie. While Hwang enjoys trying new pie styles, she finds free form to be the most challenging when working with different shapes and sizes.
Nevertheless, Hwang aims to please her pie-loving patrons and continues to peruse new concepts. Following the onset of the pandemic, she focused on creating desserts that were topped off with an eye-catching extra.
“We tried to make individual pies more special by decorating a rose on the top of each piece and air-sprayed with cocoa butter,” she says—the perfect ending to a memorable meal.