My preference for eating pie for breakfast is near-congenital, as I grew up at a time, and with a familial background, that viewed a big slice of apple pie before school not only as normal, but darn good for you. I maintain this view, and am hard-pressed to think of something I’d rather, or even just as soon, have with my morning cup of coffee.
Of course, by pie for breakfast I mean the same pies you’d have for dessert, at least in summer and fall when fruits are abundant, and you are joining their ripe and juicy nutrition with just a little sugar and a nice complement of flaky pastry. At lunch, my idea of pie is of something more savory, with a hint of richness instead of sweetness. Beginning in the 1950s, as soldiers brought back a little continental awareness from the war and ordinary Americans began to travel, quiche Lorraine became all the rage. While it has been distorted beyond belief and is often served abysmally old, cold, and watery, this lunchtime pie, made well, remains a wonderful dish. But long before quiche hit our shore, another kind of lunch pie was popular in New England. Pie is, after all, what we do.
I speak, naturally, of the tomato pie, which appears to be making a comeback of sorts. Tomato pie is and always has been a way that frugal or desperate farmwives have found to use up a seemingly never-ending supply of tomatoes. After a magnificent August, what is usually a bumper crop of September tomatoes is more of a bumptious crop: aggressively asserting its insistent presence everywhere one turns, demanding to be used, demanding to be eaten. So, tomato pie for lunch it is—and we wonder, with the first bite, why we don’t make it more often.
New England Tomato Pie
If you make the crust the night before, this goes together quickly. Butter in the crust both complements the tomato and gives it a firm base. Children seem to like this as much as adults do. Serves 6 for lunch, with a salad on the side, or 12 as a cocktail appetizer.
1 ¼ cup a-p flour
1/3 cup stoneground RI white flint cornmeal
¼ tea salt
1/8 tea ground white pepper
6 T cold unsalted butter
4-5 T ice water
1 egg white (save the yolk for your salad dressing)
½ large sweet onion, generous, sliced 1/8” thin
1 T olive oil
1 T unsalted butter
½ tea kosher salt
8 or so twists of the pepper mill
2-3 medium-large, perfectly ripe tomatoes, sliced ¼” thin (heirlooms or beefsteaks are good)
5 oz extra-sharp white cheddar, such as Cabot’s, coarsely grated
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
2-3 T finely grated parmeggiano reggiano
additional chopped parsley for garnish (optional)
To make the crust, combine the dry ingredients and cut in the butter until the mixture is like coarse, pebbly sand. Add the water gradually; because of the cornmeal, it will require more than a standard pie crust. When the dough comes together, form it into a flat disk, wrap, and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight. I generally use a food processor to make pastry these days because it saves time and mess.
Preheat the oven to 375° F. Remove the dough from the refrigerator to soften enough to roll.
On a floured surface, roll the dough out to a circle of 11-12". Fit it loosely into a 9" fluted tart pan with a removable bottom, pressing gently with a finger along the bottom rim. Roll the pin across the top of the pan, which will cut the excess pastry off (see Note, below). Brush the surface of the dough with egg white, and refrigerate while you make the filling.
Heat the butter and olive oil together over medium-high heat, and add the onion. Sauté a few minutes, and as they begin to soften, add the salt and white pepper. Cook them until they are soft and translucent, but do not let them shrivel and brown. Set aside to cool.
Slice the tomatoes; holding the slices over the sink, shake and gently press out most of the seeds. Lay the tomato slices between paper towels to absorb excess juice. Grate the cheese, chop the parsley, and loosely combine them.
Remove the chilled tart shell from the refrigerator, and distribute the cheese and parsley on the bottom of the tart pan, then the onions on top of the cheese. Arrange the sliced tomatoes over all, overlapping the slices no more than two layers deep. Press down gently with the palm of your hand. Sprinkle with the remaining cheddar and the parm.
Bake for about 50 minutes. Let cool on a rack for 10 minutes or more before removing the tart ring. Slide onto a platter, and serve warm or at room temperature.
Note: You can make crackers out of the strip of pastry that falls off. Cut leftover scraps (don’t re-roll) into 1 ½-2” pieces. Dust with caraway powder and sprinkle with caraway seed. Put them on a cookie sheet and bake about 8 minutes, or until golden. Sprinkle with kosher salt on removal from the oven. Serve with cocktails.