Tomato Pie: An Unusual Dish to Celebrate Our Favorite Savory Fruit
Layered with a cheesy mixture, tomatoes are the star of this vegetarian supper with a hazy history.
There are a few things that come to mind when you hear the words "tomato pie." If you're an optimist, you might think it's just a pizza. A pessimist might think it's a fruit pie along the lines of cherry or blueberry pie. If you're from Philadelphia, it's a rectangular pizza without the mozzarella but with a lot of "gravy" (tomato sauce). But the kind of tomato pie I'm referring to lies just a short distance from all of those. It's shaped like the sweet pie, is savory like a pizza, but uses only fresh tomatoes. And with some research, we came up with our own recipe.
The origin of the savory tomato pie is murky. I did a bit of digging, and Southern tomato pie dominates this genre now with its use of mayonnaise and cheddar cheese. But that's not the earliest version — in print, at least. In 1841, a green tomato pie recipe was published in the cookbook The American Housewife by An Experienced Lady (yes, that is the official author). The recipe is so simple that no measurements are printed and the pie dough was referred to as "paste," as it was called back then. That recipe calls for some sugar, some salt, and a lot of vinegar to create a savory pie. However, later versions did, in fact, use a lot of sugar à la fruit pies we make today, but that's not what I was going for here.
I like to think of myself as a Limited Experience Lady, so I kept looking for clues as to how the "Southern" version came to be. The trail went cold in the early 20th century, but warmed up again in the late 1980s — not in the South, but in Yankee territory: Connecticut.
According to the New York Times, a woman by the name of Mary O'Brien went on a trip to Nepal and met an Indian man — a certified tea taster — who led her to a whole new world of tea. With his help, she opened Chaiwalla ('chai wallah' loosely translates as "tea maker" in Hindi), a tearoom in Salisbury, Connecticut. Alongside her teas, O'Brien served a tomato pie that she made famous. It's made up of most of the ingredients that you find in Southern tomato pie, including mayonnaise. Mary O'Brien gives credit for this pie to The Hotchkiss School Cookbook (a nearby boarding school). It's possible that the recipe somehow worked its way up from the South, but this was the first instance of it that I found published. Either way, we created our own lightened version to take advantage of the farmers' market bounty of summer tomatoes for a savory vegetarian main dish.
Deconstructing Tomato Pie As We Know It
The traditional recipe might seem heavy to the uninitiated. It involves a mixture of mayonnaise and shredded cheese (either cheddar cheese or mozzarella cheese, depending on your preference). Because mayonnaise contains eggs, it acts as a binder to hold the filling together and make it sliceable. The mixture is then layered with tomato slices in an unbaked pie shell and baked. The result is undeniably delicious, but for some, it's a bit heavy.
I am a mayonnaise enthusiast (we like most edible things at Yummly), but mayonnaise can be a bit cloying. Additionally, one cup of mayonnaise contains more than 1400 calories, which seems rather excessive when you consider the same amount of sugar contains half as many calories. With that in mind, I set out to create a version with lighter ingredients that wouldn't disturb tradition.
Instead of mayonnaise, I used cottage cheese to make up for the oil and flavor of the mayonnaise. It's about a quarter of the calories of mayo.
To hold everything together, as well as to make use of any excess moisture from the cottage cheese, I combined two lightly beaten eggs with a cup of panko bread crumbs to firm up everything.
I then mixed those ingredients with shredded mozzarella, fresh basil, and red pepper flakes. Some salt is added to the tomatoes before roasting, but I intentionally left off any added salt in the cheese mixture so that it wouldn't mask the natural summer flavors of the garden tomatoes, which are enhanced by the fresh basil leaves and fresh garlic. If you tend to like your food on the saltier side, you can add 1/4 teaspoon to the cheese mixture.
The tomatoes are then layered in a traditional pie shell. You can buy a pre-made, unbaked pie shell from the grocery store, but since we have a trove of recipes to make it from scratch, here are a few you can use. We also have tips and tricks for making pie crust from scratch here. The one tip we have for this recipe is to skip any sugar in the crust.
For fruit pies such as blueberry or cherry, recipes call for cornstarch or tapioca starch in the filling to soak up the juices that the fruit release when they're cooked. Cornstarch doesn't quite work for tomato pie, so I did two things to make sure you don't end up with a puddle on your plate when you serve it.
Instead of layering the raw tomatoes in the pie crust, brush them with a mixture of grated garlic, salt, and olive oil before roasting them — the salt and heat draw out extra moisture from the tomatoes so they don't leak into the pie crust and make it soggy. To roast them, place a cooling rack over a rimmed cookie sheet and spray it down with cooking spray. Next, slice the tomatoes (I used summer heirloom tomatoes to make sure the pie is as pretty as it tastes), lay them out in a single layer on the rack, and roast them for 20 minutes.
In addition to firming up the filling, the breadcrumbs also sop up the water expelled from the tomatoes while the pie is baking. In the end, it makes for a tasty pie that slices perfectly.
Most recipes do two layers: a tomato layer and a cheese layer. I did three layers so that the juice from the tomatoes is evenly distributed. This also reduces the risk of a soggy crust and helps it slice perfectly.
Everything is then baked for 40 minutes, or until the cheese on top is a light golden brown.
If you love tomatoes, the result underscores how amazing our favorite savory fruit tastes — especially during its peak season.