Anatomy of a Classic: Fried and True

Johnny Autry
by Kim Severson - South Carolina - June/July 2012

Filled with fresh strawberries and a dash of moonshine, these home-fried pies are a sweet taste of summer

Fried pies have long been a spiritual savior, proof that pleasure can be coaxed from hard times. Stamped from an inexpensive alchemy of fat, flour, and fruit, they were traditionally pulled from vats of rendering lard during pig-butchering parties or cooked up with dried apples or peaches when the pantry was getting low. “If I have any money,” Georgia bluesman Curley Weaver sang in his 1934 recording “Fried Pie Blues,” “I will buy me some.”

Today, fried pies remain a soulful expression of the Southern culinary canon. When the first trays of Hubig’s fried pies arrived in New Orleans corner markets a few months after Hurricane Katrina, cheers went up. The little local pastries, each wrapped in waxy white paper, signaled that the city would rise again.

Joe Trull, who grew up delivering loaves of white bread for his family’s commercial bakery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, began frying pies as the pastry chef at NOLA, Emeril Lagasse’s French Quarter restaurant. Over ten years there, he mastered the art. The dough should be a bit softer than a standard piecrust, and meticulously crimped. The oil needs to be exactly 350 degrees and the filling slightly dry. “A lot of people don’t cook the insides first because that’s how their grandmother did it,” he says, “but it’s too wet.”

These days, if you want one of Trull’s fried pies, you have to head deep into South Carolina’s Upcountry, where Joe and his wife, Heidi, now run their own restaurant, Grits and Groceries, in Belton. Heidi handles the savory side of the menu. Joe bakes. Fried apple pies are a staple, but when it’s strawberry season, he takes advantage. Lately, he’s also been stirring in a little legal white lightning. Although the pies can be made in a skillet, Trull likes his deep-fried. Just don’t overcrowd the fryer. Otherwise, the oil cools and the pies end up greasy. “That’s the real trick,” he says, “that hot oil.”

Strawberry-Moonshine Fried Pies
(Makes 10 individual pies)

Filling Ingredients
4 cups strawberries, trimmed and cut into quarters
1 cup sugar
3 tbsp. commercial moonshine or grappa, divided
1 tsp. chopped orange zest
1 tbsp. fresh orange juice
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tbsp. water
3 tbsp. cornstarch
1 tbsp. butter
½ tsp. salt

Filling Preparation
In a bowl that will fit in your refrigerator, add strawberries, sugar, 2 tablespoons of moonshine or grappa, orange zest, juice, and vanilla. Mix gently to combine and chill at least 6 hours or overnight. Place chilled mixture in a large saucepan and begin to simmer. Meanwhile, mix water, cornstarch, and 1 tablespoon moonshine in a small bowl. When the berries are tender, about 5 minutes, stir in the cornstarch mixture, butter, and salt, and cook about 7 to 10 minutes, or until the texture resembles jam. Chill.

Dough Ingredients
4 cups all-purpose flour
2½ tsp. kosher salt
1 cup vegetable shortening or good-quality lard
¾ to 1 cup ice water
1 egg
Oil for frying

Dough Preparation
Mix together flour and salt.Using a pastry cutter or your fingers, rub the shortening or lard into the flour until mixture resembles a very coarse meal. Add water ¼ cup at a time, mixing until dough comes together but is not too sticky. Shape into a disk, wrap in plastic, and chill for at least an hour. (The dough will keep a couple of days in the refrigerator.)

Sugar Coating Ingredients
2 cups sugar
3 tsp. orange zest

Sugar Coating Preparation
In a large bowl, combine sugar and orange zest. Set aside.

To Assemble the Pies:
On a floured surface, roll half the dough into a circle about ¹⁄8 -inch thick and cut into circles 6 inches across. The lid from a large coffee can or plastic container works well. Repeat with remaining dough.

Gently form trimmed parts into a ball, and reroll and cut rounds until you have 10 circles.
Mix the egg and a teaspoon of water into a wash. With your finger or a pastry brush, coat the outer edge of the circle. Place 2 heaping tablespoons of strawberry filling in the center, then carefully fold the dough together over the filling, making sure no filling touches the rim of the dough. Crimp the edges together firmly to make a seam across the top of the filling.

In a deep-fat fryer or a pan on the stovetop, heat oil to 350 degrees. Gently fry pies a few at a time, leaving room for them to float freely in the oil. Cook for about 8 or 9 minutes, until dough is crisp and lightly browned. Remove to crumpled newspaper or paper towels or a rack set over a baking sheet. Cool slightly.
One at a time, place each pie in the bowl of sugar and toss to coat completely.
Serve plain or with ice cream.

Meet the Chef : Joe Trull
Hometown: Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Current restaurantGrits and Groceries, Belton, South Carolina 
On the menu: Carolina shrimp gravy and grits, smoked chicken and sausage jambalaya, Hattie Mae’s tomato pie, praline bacon 
Must-have while cooking: Music, preferably jazz or blues 
Secret passion: Writing poetry 
Recent culinary victory: Winning a local Girl Scout dessert cook-off