No matter where southerners gather – holidays, family reunions, tailgating – food is the acknowledged center of the event and no greater pride of place exists than that given to The Dessert Table. Diners pass by the tempting choices, elbowing each other and exchanging knowing smiles while whispering the names of the bakers. Pies, especially, prompt both feelings of comfort while holding a certain mystery, as fewer people make homemade pies. Here, I consider the pies and cobblers that best represent southern home bakers and the events at which they display their specialties.
10. Mississippi Mud
Its name most surely derives from the muddy color of its velvety pudding layer. It always has a crumb shell, usually made from chocolate wafers. This shell is then filled with layers of chocolate pudding and whipped cream. It’s a popular go-to-choice for potlucks.
9. Key Lime
This Floridian original dessert has an international following. It usually consists of a graham cracker crust, filled with a tart filling made with eggs, sugar, key lime juice, zest, and sweetened condensed milk. Dollops of sweetened whipped cream around the rim serve as garnish and balance for the tartness. If you’ve only ever experienced the frozen or wholesale variety, please, grab some key limes and start squeezing!
8. Lemon Meringue
It’s difficult to imagine an Easter dinner without a lemon meringue pie. Although it can be eaten throughout the year, it just looks like springtime, with its bright yellow, not-too-tart filling. Then, there’s the majesty of the meringue: a baker’s pride.
7. Coconut Cream
Here, I’m referring to that southern classic with a smooth vanilla custard filling, laced with finely grated coconut and topped with a feathery meringue, accented with bits of toasted coconut. It’s really a little slice of heaven on a plate.
The key ingredient alone merits this pie a place on any list of southern specialties. We soak our chicken in it, we use it to make biscuits, and it earns its place on the dessert table in this pie. Surprisingly sweet, this pie is rich and dense, with a beautiful golden, almost- crisp top that forms during baking. It holds a special place in the heart of Texans, where recipes for buttermilk pie are handed down through generations.
5. Peach Cobbler/Pie
Peaches and summer cannot be separated in the memories of my Louisiana childhood. Sweet juice dripping down my arm as I stood in the East Feliciana orchard of our annual pilgrimage and sampled a fresh peach. Memories and ingredients are both stirred as I cook down peach slices, sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, and butter. Sweet peaches, a middle layer of crust, heavy–like the humid air of the south– and saturated with peach flavor, another layer of fruit, and a crisp buttery, flaky top crust. Have mercy, and goodness, make sure you’re sitting down, or at least, holding onto something, as you eat it.
4. Blackberry Cobbler/Pie
Each year, picking peaches only occupied one day of my childhood summers, but picking blackberries and dewberries seems to my memory an almost daily occurrence. Blackberries are the perfectly southern-paced fruit of the south. It was a time-consuming task just to pick and wash the berries. Mama rolled homemade pastry into her pale green 1956 Pyrex dish. Sweet juicy berries, topped with another layer of pastry and then the agonizing wait as it baked. Satisfaction—and summer– in a bowl.
Sometimes confused with buttermilk pie, this southern staple is distinguished from other custard pies by the inclusion of cornmeal. This pie can sometimes be found in chocolate or lemon varieties. Simple ingredients, simple method, simple goodness.
2. Sweet Potato
The sweet potato is another one of those ingredients we southerners really own. Its nobility is never more recognizable than when it makes up the filling of sweet potato pie. While pumpkin holds a special place in the heart for many across the nation during the holidays, it is sweet potato pie that is usually expected at the southern holiday table.
There seemed no other choice for the top slot on this list. The pecan belongs to the south and can be found in many of our dishes. Too rich for everyday fare, this is the stuff of holidays and family gatherings and everyone expects it. Corn syrup, sugar, vanilla, and eggs form a rich, sweet filling, topped with pecans that toast as the pie bakes. While different regions of the south may disagree over the pronunciation (pe-CAN or PUH-con), we all agree that this pie earns favored status on our dessert table.
All rich and satisfying, these pies all hold a special place in our southern memories and on the tables where we gather.
Author Terri Duhon is The Pie Belle.