Filled with meat or as a dessert, slab pies are a delicious comfort food at Slab Sandwiches + Pie.
AS OLD-FASHIONED as regular pie seems, one variation carries even more nostalgia.
Slab pies, typically a thin layer of filling sandwiched between two 10-by-15-inch rectangles of dough on a jelly roll pan, were once staples of grandmothers’ kitchens. The pies were rustic and hearty rather than fussy works of crimped-and-trimmed art. They were easily cut into portable snacks, eaten out of hand rather than requiring plates and forks, sized to serve a farmhouse work crew or family reunion.
The pies are “surprisingly under the radar still,” Food52.com’s Kristen Miglore wrote in one of her popular “Genius Recipes” columns in 2013, praising Martha Stewart’s modern embrace of what Miglore called “a pie in a sensible bar cookie outfit.”
That’s where J.M. Enos, co-founder of Lark restaurant, came across the mention and remembered her own late mother making cherry and apple slab pies. Enos thinks of them as the crust-lover’s pie — and Enos is a crust-lover. She followed up the childhood memory by baking a sour-cherry slab pie for a Fourth of July family reunion. Everyone loved it — for the taste and for “the fact that there was enough to share because it was in a big sheet pan.”
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Enos had assumed her mother got the slab pie tradition handed down from her grandmother, but after checking in with her aunts, she learned her mom started making it on her own.
The overall slab pie origins are equally unclear. We checked in with noted cultural historian Libby O’Connell, who says she doesn’t see mentions of it before the 20th century, though she would guess it existed long before it had the name.
O’Connell wrote in her book “The American Plate” about “coffin” crusts, where early settlers used a tough (and probably not particularly tasty) crust of whole wheat flour and lard to encase ingredients. The “coffin” in that case, though, was served “as a disposable sealed container rather than a tasty, flaky crust.”
Kitchen technology improved in the 18th century, O’Connell wrote in an email, and Americans did have a version of what we would call cookie sheets by the 1700s. While no absolutes are known, “I bet some people could be making slab pies by then, since it’s such a handy way to make pie for a lot of people,” she wrote.
Regardless of its origins, the flaky-tasty version of the pie was just re-entering the public eye when Enos and her business partners, husband John Sundstrom and friend Kelly Ronan, were planning an expanded version of Lark, along with other restaurant projects.
Slab Sandwiches + Pie was born last year on Capitol Hill. It’s become loved for its sumptuous savory short rib meat pie, as well as a dish a farmwife wouldn’t have dreamed up: a slab chocolate pie made with smoked marshmallows.
Baker Craig Aldinger, who has a side career as an aerospace engineer, helped cook up new fillings — and figure out what couldn’t be done with a slab pie, such as lemon meringue. Then he built his own baking pans to lay out the dough into individual servings.
But wait, I asked Enos: Wouldn’t that innovation transform them into hand pies? Would they still be slab pies, if baked individually with a sealed crust? She says yes — partly because, has anyone ever figured out a formal definition of a slab pie?
Plus, she adds, have you ever heard of chefs not taking an idea and transforming it into their own?
Like the pies themselves — farmhouses, Martha Stewart, innovation, Fourth of July picnics — it sounds very American as well.
Slab pies work well with almost any stone fruit or berry. Enos uses a double-recipe for a standard pie crust to make her own, but a template for the Martha Stewart version can be found online.