The first step in making a tomato pie is to stop thinking about pizza. This is no easy task, of course. I understand. After all, we’re talking about tomatoes, dough, and cheese—some of which will even be parmesan—but we are not working towards pizza.
What I’m talking about is a savory pie in a nine-and-a-half-inch pie shell. It is sister to the tomato sandwich—and a distant cousin of quiche. The key is not in the garnishing (bacon, herbs, what have you) but in the big slices of fresh, garden-grown, sun-drenched tomatoes paired with their best friend, mayonnaise. Obviously, home gardens and stores are right now packed with the final tomato harvest.
I associate tomato pie with the barrier islands off of the coast of North Carolina called the Outer Banks, and they do seem to be a high Southern (as opposed to deep Southern) dish, but they can also be found among the casserole eaters in the Midwest.
But unlike, say brisket or hush puppies, tomato pie doesn’t have a rich heritage. Between the shredded cheese, mayonnaise, and all, it’s a thoroughly twentieth century invention, and if we went digging for the origin of the dish, you would probably find yourself flipping through the spiral-bound pages of a Junior League cookbook.
Even so, tomato pie is great with a simple salad, and since it’s best at room temperature (to my taste) it’s a great dish for weekend brunch guests, since you can make it well in advance.
I got to thinking about the pies because a friend of mine, Mary—more often called GranMary— brought one to dinner recently. It was delicious, but while we praised it, she jokingly complained about it. We all do this, of course.
Mary and I, however, got to talking about the tomato pie as a concept, and about how they are soggy most of the time, and they are hard to plate, and how there must be a way to take this very good dish and improve upon it.
The problem, as I see it, is how you might do that without turning it into a pizza.
I’m certainly not the first cook to try to rethink the humble tomato pie. For instance, in North Carolina celebrity chef Vivian Howard’s recipe for the dish the tomatoes are roasted before they are put into the crust. I’m sure that’s fantastic—Vivian is legit—but that’s not what I want from this dish. This pie is about fresh tomatoes.
So, I turned to Sheri Castle, author of The Southern Living Community Cookbook, among others.
“Funny you should call,” she said, “I just made two of them. One for my daughter, and one because my neighbor gave me a bunch of tomatoes.”
“They’re goopy and goopy holds no charm,” she says. The problem is that “a good tomato is drip off your elbow juicy.”
While that’s certainly what’s great about them, it’s also the key challenge for tomato pie makers.
Her suggestion was to cover a cooling rack in paper towels, and then set the rack over the sink. Salt quarter-inch slices of tomato—salt them like they’re a steak—and let them drain there for twenty or thirty minutes. Then, on top of that, blot them dry (which will remove a little bit of moisture as well).
She’s even heard of people spinning tomato slices in a salad spinner to remove excess water, but she thinks those were chefs in a hurry. You want structural integrity, she insists. But on the continuum of raw to cooked, you want the pie closer to raw.
“The second I see golden brown, I declare victory.”
She sent me three of her recipes. The first was a very straightforward tomato pie from her The New Southern Garden Cookbook. The second was a tomato pie from the companion pie book she worked on for the Broadway show “Waitress,” which calls for a cracker crust and goat cheese. The last was a fancy tart she made for Southern Living.
I tried and liked them all, and sort of cobbled together my favorite bits of each and, of course, then invited GranMary over to taste my creation.
Adapted from recipes by Sheri Castle
Makes one 9 1/2-inch pie
Cracker Crumb Pie Shell
2 cups Saltine cracker crumbs
7 Tbsp Unsalted butter, melted
2 pounds Large tomatoes
.5 tsp Kosher salt, plus more to taste
.5 cup Mayonnaise
4 Tbsp Scallions, finely chopped
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
1 Tbsp Fresh lemon juice
.25 tsp Celery seed
.25 tsp Freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
.5 cup Shredded gruyere
3 Tbsp Lightly packed basil leaves, coarsely chopped
.5 cup Saltine cracker crumbs
.33 cup Freshly shredded Parmesan cheese
1 Tbsp Melted butter
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Toss together 2 cups of cracker crumbs and 7 tablespoons butter in a medium bowl and press into a 9-and-a-half-inch pie pan. Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes to firm up the butter and then bake for about 10 minutes or until just set and fragrant. Let cool.
Cut quarter-inch thick rounds of tomato, sprinkle them with salt, and drain them on a cooling rack over the sink for 20 or 30 minutes, while the crust cools.
Blot the tomatoes dry and arrange half of the sliced tomatoes in the pie shell, if you have less attractive slices, bury them here.
Stir together the mayonnaise, scallions, lemon zest and juice, celery seed, pepper, and goat cheese in a medium bowl. Spread over the tomatoes. Sprinkle with the basil. Arrange the remaining tomatoes over the basil.
Toss together the remaining cracker crumbs, Parmesan, and butter in a small bowl and then sprinkle over the pie.
Bake in the center of the oven for 30 minutes or until the top is browned.
Let the pie rest. It’s best served at room temperature.
(Note: Most heirloom tomatoes have thick skins which end up like red rubber bands in the pie. I’m going to try a quick blanch to skin the tomatoes before I salt them next time, and I invite you to do the same.)