Tomato pie is a classic of the American south, a region blessed with the kind of long, hot summers that make a glut of ripe produce an annual certainty – North Carolina chef Vivian Howard describes the dish as “something people lay awake at night thinking of”. As soon as the season starts, she says, fans begin calling her Kinston restaurant to find out if it’s on the menu: “I joke with my husband that we’re going to close the restaurant and just sell tomato pies.” And make no mistake, this is no wobbly quiche or delicate tomato tart – granted, it may not (generally) come encased in pastry, but generously filled and robustly flavoured, it’s very much a pie in spirit.
As keen Bake Off viewers will know, playing with fresh fruit or vegetables is a dangerous game – their high water content makes them a flood risk in any cake or pastry. And few are quite so juicy as the tomato, which means that sticking them in au naturel, as a 1997 recipe from Southern Living suggests, makes for a sadly soggy crust, even if you dust them with flour to soak up some of the output.
Most recipes leave the sliced tomato to sit, lightly sprinkled with salt, for between 20 minutes (Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen) and 12 hours (Mississippi native Brad McDonald) to draw out as much liquid as possible before they’re allowed anywhere near the pastry. Howard, however, goes two steps further by removing the seeds and core, and baking half the tomatoes to concentrate the flavours, both of which prove well worth the extra effort – her pie is just more tomatoey than the rest. I’m going to follow her example, but keep half the fruit sliced, rather than diced, because it looks more attractive.
Few are picky about the type of tomato required, presumably because the truth is, whatever you choose is about to collapse under the weight of its own readiness, but if you do have the choice, go for the plum variety specified by the Southern Living website; the pretty heirloom type looks great on top, but the higher proportion of flesh to seed in plum tomatoes will give drier results. Christensen peels the tomatoes before use but, unless you’re actively looking for an excuse to spend more time in the kitchen, I wouldn’t bother; you won’t notice the skins in the finished dish.
Though the version in McDonald’s book Deep South: New Southern Cooking eschews it in favour of buttermilk and eggs (delicious, obviously), the classic binder in this pie is mayonnaise. Some recipes, such as Christensen’s version, loosen it with other dairy such as milk and double cream, but I like the simplicity of the mayo-only approach. That said, I’m not the biggest fan of the flavour of most mayonnaise in baking – I can’t speak for the Duke’s brand, which is apparently the mayo of choice in the south, except to say that, unlike many commercial versions in this country, it’s unsweetened, so try to find one with as little sugar added as possible for a more savoury result. (For me, that means Japanese Kewpie, which contains both mustard and MSG, but whatever floats your boat.)
Unlike a quiche, which is all about the custard, most of these recipes simply use the mayo to fill in the gaps between the fruit, which is lucky, because it is pretty intense stuff. And don’t worry if at first there doesn’t seem to be enough: it will melt down into the pie during cooking.
Christensen stirs mustard and horseradish into her mayonnaise, which I really like (though you may wish to skip this if your mayo is already fairly savoury), while Christian Stevenson, aka DJ BBQ, adds Worcestershire sauce. (Given that my tastes tend towards such savoury additions, I’m not keen on Southern Living or McDonald’s brown sugar, but you may feel otherwise.)
Herbs are, however, a great idea, and the recipes I try feature chives, basil, oregano and/or flat-leaf parsley. I love basil with tomatoes, but think it works less well once they’re baked; chives are better, but seem unnecessary, seeing as I’m adding onion, too. Thyme, however, is perfect, being dry enough not to wilt in the heat and pungent enough to come through in the finished dish.
I absolutely love Georgia chef and author Virginia Willis’s idea of adding pickled sweet peppers to the topping, to turn it into that beloved southern speciality, pimento cheese, as served at the Augusta Open. They’re entirely optional, but … you should do so, too.
Almost everyone calls for cheddar, with Southern Living breaking ranks with parmesan and Howard using a mixture of that and gooey fontina. I find parmesan, and even strong cheddar, too saltily intense with the mayonnaise, while fontina is pleasant, but gets a bit lost in the melee of flavours. Instead, I’d suggest a medium cheddar or similar – pimento cheese is generally made with “sharp” cheddar in the States, which, because of the way in which it’s made, is indeed very sharp, with less of the nutty sweetness of a really good Somerset cheddar. A more bog-standard version will melt better, and come closer flavourwise to what’s commonly used across the pond.
Unsurprisingly, with cheese in the filling, onion pops up in a fair few pies, be that in the the form of Stevenson’s spring onions, Howard’s yellow, or Willis and McDonald’s red or sweet vidalias, and it’s often caramelised, too. Given the intensely savoury nature of the cheese and mayonnaise, I’ve opted for the red kind.
Willis adds sauteed bacon to her pie, which is, of course, popular with meat eaters – if you like the idea, cut four thick rashers of streaky bacon into strips, fry until starting to brown, then scoop out and cook the onion in the rendered fat rather than the butter listed in the ingredients below.
This is convenience food if you’d like it to be – both Southern Living and Christensen’s recipes call simply for a piecrust, which of course one can buy ready made. I wouldn’t, though – you want the pastry to be an attraction in its own right, rather than just a convenient vessel for the filling.
Everyone makes fairly short pastry, with another, later Southern Living version adding sour cream and bacon bits, McDonald using lard, Willis egg yolks, and Howard putting in sugar and vinegar, which helps make her pastry flaky and tender. I’ve never eaten a homemade pastry I didn’t like, but the cheese and mayonnaise filling here suits something austere and snappy, rather than anything too rich in its own right (though, strangely, we do think the brown sugar in Howard’s version works well with the tomatoes. As ever, leave it out if you don’t fancy it).
McDonald is the only one to encase his pie in pastry. In general, the more pastry, the better, as far as I’m concerned, but here I think it’s a shame to lose the handsome sight of the tomatoes on top, so I’m going to go topless. He’s also the only one not to blind bake the shell but, given the water content, I’d strongly recommend doing so. (If you’re not a pastry person, you might want to check out Stevenson’s recipe, which uses a crust made out of stale bread instead.)
Note that this is one of those pies that tastes much better warm, or at room temperature, than hot from the oven or (worse) cold from the fridge. Add a simply dressed salad and a pitcher of iced tea, and you’re good to go.
Perfect tomato pie
Prep 15 min
Chill 1 hr+
Cook 1 hr 40 min
For the pastry
200g plain flour
1 tsp brown sugar (optional)
½ tsp fine salt
45g butter, ideally frozen for an hour before use
45g lard (or use an extra 45g butter), ideally frozen for an hour before use
½ tsp cider or other vinegar
1kg plum tomatoes (see introduction)
300g heirloom tomatoes – a mix of different colours and shapes, ideally (or use an extra 300g plum tomatoes instead)
1 tbsp butter or oil
1 red onion, peeled and finely sliced
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1 heaped tsp dijon or other mustard (optional)
150g medium cheddar, grated
2 tbsp finely chopped pickled sweet peppers (optional)
Start with the pastry. Put the flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl or food processor, and whisk to combine. Cut the fat into small cubes and add to the bowl, or grate it straight into the mix, and then cut into the flour until well combined. Add the vinegar and just enough very cold water to bring it all together into a dough – two or three tablespoons should do it – then wrap well and chill for at least 30 minutes.
Heat the oven to 200C (180C)/390F/gas 6. Cut the plum tomatoes in half, remove the seeds, then cut into chunky dice. Arrange on a lightly greased baking tray and bake for about 30 minutes, until beginning to brown.
Cut the heirloom tomatoes into roughly 1cm-thick slices (or halve any very small ones) and remove the jellied seeds. Put in a sieve or colander set over a bowl, sprinkle lightly with salt and leave to drain.
Grease a roughly 22cm-wide pie dish or deep tart tin. Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface, then carefully fold it up, lift it into the tin, then unfold and chill again for 30 minutes.
Prick the base all over, line with greaseproof paper, fill with baking beans or rice, and blind bake for 20 minutes. Remove the beans and paper, and bake for a further five minutes.
While the pastry is baking, melt the butter in a frying pan over a low heat, fry the onion with a pinch of salt until soft and beginning to caramelise, then stir in the thyme.
Mix the mayonnaise with the mustard, then add all but a handful of the cheese and the peppers, if using, and season to taste.
To assemble the pie, strew the remaining cheese over the base, then mix the baked plum tomatoes into the onion mix and lay all over on top. Spread the mayonnaise mixture on top of that, then finish with the drained tomatoes. Bake for 35 or so minutes, until golden, then leave to cool slightly before eating.
Tomato pie: are you familiar with this seasonal Southern classic and, if so, how do you make yours? And what other recipes are handy to have up your sleeve when you have tomatoes coming out of your ears?