Column: Hand me a pie: Fried pies are a mountain favorite

By Candace Nelson - 11:31 AM


Here's my latest column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

Hand me a pie: Fried pies are a mountain favorite
By Candace Nelson

“What is a ‘hand pie’?!” I asked to Vivian Howard, a famed chef who traveled to Fairmont a few years back to judge a pepperoni roll baking competition.

At the time, Howard was filming a hand pie episode for “Somewhere South,” a PBS show that takes viewers on a culinary tour of the South. She was trying pepperoni rolls for the first time and compared them to the fried, filled pockets she was familiar with: hand pies.

Hand pies are single-serve pastries filled stuffed with a filling – savory or sweet – that can be baked or fried and are often found in the south. Other regions refer to them as "pasties” or “fried pies” and, of course, West Virginia has a version with an Italian flair in the pepperoni roll.

All of the above can trace some of their roots back to 19th century England when Cornish miners would take a stuffed pastry to lunch that would stay warm and remain free of dirt with the men holding onto the edges of the dough to enjoy the filling and discarding the dirty edges they held.

The concept of a hand pie – or more often called a “fried pie” in Appalachia even when baked – is not new in mountain cooking. In fact, Mark F. Sohn in his book “Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture, and Recipes” lists fried pies as one of the top 100 most common Appalachian foods.

Fried pies in Appalachia tend to find their place on a dessert menu – filled with thick, concentrated fruit conserves like peach, pear or apple butters. The most popular fried pie, though, is filled with an apple pie mixture.

West Virginia is home to not one, but two apple varieties: the Golden Delicious and the Grimes Golden, so it is fitting that this native fruit found its way into many dishes. Cooked apples combined with cinnamon, sugar and a bit of lemon juice are enveloped in a buttery, flaky pastry dough that has been fried or baked are the perfect snack or dessert.

A certain restaurant with golden arches even thinks so, as McDonald’s started serving a fried apple hand pie in 1968 before moving to a baked version. And the brand known for Twinkies, Hostess, sells a pre-packaged snack version of apple hand pies that I recall buying at “the bread store” when I was young for my dad’s lunches. They also had cherry, blueberry, lemon and other flavors.

Before these fried pies made it big time, it’s fascinating to imagine women in kitchens throughout Appalachia crafting their own hand pie creations – maybe for their husband’s lunches, maybe for a portable picnic lunch, maybe for a shelf-stable school snack.

The ingenuity of making use of what’s available is always at the heart of mountain cooking. And, of course, it always tastes better in Appalachia.

What is your favorite type of fried pie?

RECIPE: Vivian Howard’s Applejacks

Kinston, North Carolina Chef Vivian Howard not only took a trek across the country to learn about the history of hand pies, but she also serves them in her restaurant Handy & Hot in the other Charleston – South Carolina. On the menu are “Apple Jax,” which has a homemade apple filling; “Tomato,” which has a tomato, fontina cheese and basil filling; “Cheeseburger,” which has a beef, special sauce, onions and pickles filling,” and “Jill’s Pie,” which has a pear, arugula, gorgonzola and toasted almond filling. 

Howard shares her “Applejacks” recipe from her “Deep Run Roots” cookbook with the Somewhere South show. She said this about her Applejacks, which are hand pies filled with apples:

“The hardest part about making these is rolling out the dough. We recently started using a tortilla press to make the job easier. It does require a few more strokes from the rolling pin after it’s been pressed, but overall the gadget helps. The other thing I see people struggle with is the urge to overfill the pies. Two tablespoons of dough just doesn’t look like that much when it’s laid out on the dough. That’s because it’s not that much. This hand pie is just as much about the thin, blistered brown crust as it is about the filling. Let it be. The rosemary sugar is not a traditional garnish but I like it. Your call.”

For the Filling:
• 2 cups dried apple slices. (If the slices are more than 1/4 inch thick, give them a rough chop with your knife.)
• 2 cups apple cider
• 2 cups water
• 1/4 cup granulated sugar
• Zest of 1 lemon, removed with a vegetable peeler
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 3 tablespoons lemon juice
For the Dough:
• 2 cups all-purpose flour
• 1/3 cup lard or shortening
• 2/3 cup hot water
To Fry and Serve:
• 2 cups lard or shortening
• Rosemary Sugar

1. Make the Filling: In a large saute or sauce pan, combine the apples, cider, water, sugar, salt and lemon zest. Bring it up to a boil and cook until the apples have soaked up all the liquid and the pan is nearly dry. Stir in the lemon juice, and transfer the apple filling to the refrigerator to cool before assembling.

2. Make the Dough: Mound the flour in the center of a large bowl. Make a little well in the center and drop the lard in the well. Pour about 2/3 of the hot water over the lard, and using your hand, work together the lard and the water until its all sludgy and homogenous.

3. Begin working in the flour gently, and bring it together until a soft, tender dough forms. Add the remaining water if need be. Cover the dough with a damp paper towel until you’re ready to make the pies.

4. Make the Pies: Pinch off a golf ball sized piece of dough and flour your work surface. Dust the golf ball as well as your rolling pin with a little flour since this dough tends to be pretty wet. Roll the dough into a super thin circle. I’m talking thin like you can just about see through it. Trim up the edges, and stuff the inside with about 2 tablespoons worth of filling. Fold the dough over and crimp the edges with a fork. Store the hand pies on a floured baking sheet until you’re ready to fry.

5. Fry and Serve: Heat half the lard in a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Once the oil is shimmering, lay the jacks in a single layer and fry until golden on one side. Flip and fry on the opposite side. You’ll need to fry these in several batches and will probably have to add additional lard.

6. Once the applejacks are browned on both sides, drain on paper towels and sprinkle liberally with granulated sugar. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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