Sometimes simpler is better. That’s certainly the case with these old-fashioned pies, which have been unjustly relegated to the back of the recipe box. Made from just a few basic ingredients, they still manage to be rich and full of flavor. Break out the apron and the rolling pin, and give them a try.
1. Chess Pie
The beauty of this pie is in its simplicity. Known as a “desperation pie” because it relies on just a few very basic ingredients—the only ingredients many cash-strapped farm families had back in the 19th and 20th centuries—the chess pie nevertheless manages to be decadent, with flour, sugar, eggs, and butter coming together in just the right quantities. Adding in buttermilk along with some cocoa powder makes it even more satisfying. You can customize it any number of ways—with lemons, for examples— and garnish with pecans, fruits, or whipped cream.
2. Mincemeat Pie
Mincemeat reaches all the way back to the 13th century, when Crusaders returned from the Holy Land with the three main spices used in mince: cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Cooks used them mainly as preservatives for fruit and meat, and found that combining everything together made for a tasty pie filling. Recent generations have done away with the “meat” part of mincemeat pie, though chefs swear on their grandmother’s grave that it’s the best version of the dish. For those put off by elk or venison or beef in their dessert, give former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl’s found recipe a try.
3. Sugar Cream Pie
If you grew up in Indiana, there’s a good chance you're familiar with this, the official pie of the Hoosier State. The recipe comes from the Amish, who settled in Indiana in the 1800s, and it calls for heavy cream, milk and, of course, sugar. Like chess pie, this desperation pie has gone out of style in recent generations. But dutiful Hoosiers have kept it in their holiday rotations for years. Mixing brown with granulated sugar can deepen the flavor, while a cinnamon topping can spice things up a bit.
4. Shoofly pie
Molasses is the main ingredient in this pie, for which we can also thank the Amish (Pennsylvania Dutch, in this case). There are two types of this pie: “dry bottom," which has the consistency of gingerbread, and “wet bottom,” which has a custard-like quality and comes topped with crumbs. There are a few theories about the name, the most convincing one being that the sweet molasses drew flies while pies were cooling, causing cooks to have to shoo them away. Alton Brown has a highly rated recipe for shoofly pie that includes brown sugar crumb topping. Give it a try—and keep the window closed.
5. Vinegar pie
Don’t be put off by the name of this pie, which combines the silky quality of a custard pie with the tartness of an apple pie. The use of apple cider vinegar was a way for 19th-century cooks to mimic the taste of the actual fruit, making this an early culinary hack. And while you won’t find it in most restaurants, it’s pretty simple to make at home. Try this recipe from Epicurious, or this one from Martha Stewart, and serve it up with a scoop of ice cream.
6. Marlborough pie
This New England specialty was once a staple in the region, where the plentiful supply of apples met with the custard pie recipes settlers had brought over from England. The name is thought to refer to the English town of Marlborough. Recently the pie has fallen out of favor in kitchens and restaurants, which is a shame since it combines two delicious pie elements—apples and custard—along with lemons and sherry wine. The taste, according to historian John T. Edge, author of Apple Pie: An American Story, carries “the tang of lemons, the silky musk of sherry, the base register of apples.”
7. Flapper pie
If the phrase “Canadian prairie pie” doesn’t pique your interest, then perhaps the graham cracker crust, the custard filling, or the meringue topping will. Pioneered by home cooks north of the border, flapper pie is another decadent dessert made from the most basic ingredients—namely eggs, sugar, cornstarch, and butter. The crust can be a bit tricky, but you can always opt for a premade version from the store. As far as a recipe goes, Canadian grandma Irene Hrechuk won’t steer you wrong.
8. Huckleberry pie
The hardest part about making this pie might be finding the title berries, which grow mainly in the Northwest and can only be found in the wild. Online sellers offer them frozen by the pound, which can be expensive. But with a uniquely tart taste, they’re definitely worth the investment. Pastry chef and author Greg Patent believes they’re one of the best baking berries around. Try his recipe for huckleberry pie, which he claims took him 20 years to perfect.
A version of this story ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2022.