You Sweet little Tart.
Let’s talk about pies, tarts and flans. What’s the difference, a little history and some baking education.
A pie is a baked or fried dish which is usually made of a pastry dough casing that covers or completely contains a filling of various sweet or savory ingredients. A tart is a baked dish consisting of a filling over a pastry base with an open top not covered with pastry. The pastry is usually shortcrust pastry; the filling may be sweet or savory, though modern tarts are usually fruit-based, sometimes with custard. Flan, in Britain, is an open pastry or sponge case containing a sweet or savory filling. A typical flan of this sort is round, with shortcrust pastry.
The French word TARTE can be translated to mean either pie or tart, as both are mainly the same with the exception of a pie usually covering the filling in pastry, while flans and tarts leave it open.
Tarts are thought to have either come from a tradition of layering food, or to be a product of Medieval pie making. Enriched dough (i.e. short crust) is thought to have been first commonly used in 1550, approximately 200 years after pies. In this period, they were viewed as high-cuisine, popular with nobility, in contrast to the view of a commoners pie. While originally savoury, with meat fillings, culinary tastes led to sweet tarts to prevail, filling tarts instead with fruit and custard. Early medieval tarts generally had meat fillings, but later ones were often based on fruit and custard.
Until the start of the 15th century, pies were expected to contain meat or fish. In the 15th century, custard and fruit pie recipes began appearing, often with dried fruit like dates and raisins (fresh fruit did not become widely used until sugar dropped in price during the 16th century). The first fruit pie is recorded in the late 16th century, when Queen Elizabeth I was served cherry pie. Queen Elizabeth I was often given gifts of quince or pear pies for New Years. The Elizabethan food author Gervase Markham called for baking “Red Deer Venison, Wild-Boar, Gammons of Bacon, Swans, Elkes, Porpus and such like standing dishes, which must be kept long” in a “…moyst, thick, tough, course and long-lasting crust, and therefore of all other your Rye paste is best for that purpose.” During the Shakespearean era, fruit pies were served hot, but others were served at room temperature, as they would be brought to the “…table more than once”. The largest pies of the era were “standing pies”, which were baked with steam holes, which were then sealed with melted butter (which would harden to seal the pie), and then eaten over several months.
During the Puritan era of Oliver Cromwell, some sources claim mince pie eating was banned as a frivolous activity for 16 years, so mince pie making and eating became an underground activity; the ban was lifted in 1660, with the Restoration of the monarchy. In the 17th century, Ben Jonson described a skilled pie cook by comparing the cook to a fortification builder who “…Makes citadels of curious fowl and fish” and makes “dry-ditches”, “bulwark pies” and “ramparts of immortal crusts”. In Gervase Markham’s 1615 book The English Huswife, there is a pie recipe that calls for “an entire leg of mutton and three pounds of suet…, along with salt, cloves, mace, currants, raisins, prunes, dates, and orange peel”, which made a huge pie that could serve a large group.
The Pilgrim fathers and early settlers brought their pie recipes with them to America, adapting to the ingredients and techniques available to them in the New World. Settlers’ recipes were for English-style meat pies. The newcomers used the fruits and berries that they were familiar with from Europe, but also began incorporating North American vegetables and game that they were not familiar with, with guidance from Indigenous people. Settlers favoured pies over bread because pies required less flour and did not require a brick bread oven, and because any mixture of ingredients could be added to pies to “stretch” their “meager provisions”. The apple pie made with American apples became popular, because apples were easy to dry and store in barrels over the winter. Early American pies had thick, heavy crusts made with rough flour and suet. As pioneers spread westward, pies continued to be an important supply of food; while apple pies made from dried apples were popular, cooks often had to use fillers or substitutes to stretch out their barrels of apples, such as crushed crackers, vinegar-soaked potatoes, sour green tomatoes and soft-shelled river turtle meat.
The first Thanksgiving feast included fowl and venison, which may have been included in pies. Colonists appreciated the food preservation aspect of crusty-topped pies, which were often seasoned with “dried fruit, cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg”. Their first pies included pies that were based on berries and fruits pointed out to them by the Native North Americans. Pies allowed colonial cooks to use round shallow pans to literally “cut corners” and to create a regional variation of shallow pie. By the late 1700s, cookbooks show a wide range of newly developed sweet pies.
Here is a list of my favorites from each category and a recipe. They are in PDF image format, if you need a editable version let me know.
Let’s close with a good quote. Cheers, have a lovely Sunday!
— Jennifer Michael Hecht