There’s a backstory behind Mile-High Strawberry Pie. The pianist Liberace—once the world’s highest-paid entertainer—loved this pie, ordering it by the dozen from the place it was born: the now-defunct Hess Brothers Department store of Allentown, Pennsylvania. The man who sold it to him—Max Hess, Jr.—was nearly as big a showman as Liberace himself.
Max was considered the P.T. Barnum of the department store world, a master at selling with flamboyance and flair from the 1930s through the sixties. Following in the footsteps of his father Max and his Uncle Charles, who founded the chain in 1897, Max Jr. made shopping spectacular with flower and fashion shows and “every week a different celebrity,” says Jill Youngken, assistant director and chief curator at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum, keeper of Hess-history esoterica.
Under Max’s watch (1932 to 1968), Zsa Zsa Gabor, Gina Lollobrigida, Rock Hudson and Johnny Carson all made appearances. Even if you couldn’t afford the dresses shown by models who sashayed through the store, “You could enjoy the spectacle,” says Youngken. That, and the pie. A big slice of the Mile-High Strawberry Pie that Hess’ restaurant, The Patio, was known for, featured stacks of fresh, ripe berries in strawberry glaze plus billows of whipped cream.
To ensure that the pie was available year-round, Max flew strawberries in from New Zealand, costing him a small fortune. Such extravagances meant that the restaurant itself wasn’t profitable. But Max—writing in his 1950s book about Hess’—said he didn’t care because the pie drew people into the store.
Many home-cook versions of the pie recipe have circulated since the last Hess’ closed in the nineties, some with questionable inclusions such as red food dye or Jell-O. Our recipe avoids those ingredients and stays close to the store version. We’ve updated the recipe using America’s Test Kitchen’s practice of adding a little pectin to the cornstarch thickener to achieve a glaze that’s neither gummy nor gelatin-bouncy. Hess’ original had several cups of whipped cream on top. You can do that, or you can do as we do and garnish with just a dollop of cream so that the strawberries show more. (Guests can add extra whipped cream at table; they probably will.)
The pie is best made with just-picked strawberries, fresh from your garden or the farmers market, but when that season is through, choose small fresh organic berries from your grocer.
Todd Nichols of Nichols Farm & Orchard in Marengo, Illinois grows fourteen to fifteen varieties of strawberries, from Early Glow, which are first to ripen, to Sparkle, small berries that are hard to grow and pick but have intense flavor. Likewise, Corban Koster of Geneva Lakes Produce, with farms in Illinois and Wisconsin, grows many varieties that are for sale at Chicago-area farmers markets. Both farmers say that big isn’t better when it comes to strawberries. “Irrigating strawberries, which some growers do, may make berries bigger, but it also dilutes the flavor,” says Koster. “Growing the berries without irrigation, the berries are smaller, but much-better flavored.” Nichols agrees.
MILE HIGH STRAWBERRY PIE
YIELD: 1, 9-inch, deep dish pie
FOR THE PIE CRUST:
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
½ tsp salt
1 ¼ sticks ice cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 egg, beaten
1 to 2 Tbsp milk or cream
FOR THE FRESH STRAWBERRY FILLING:
10 cups whole, fresh berries, stems removed (8 cups will be used whole; 2 cups will be crushed into strawberry juice; save two tiny berries to garnish)
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 cup water
1 cup pure-cane sugar
3 Tbsp cornstarch
1 ½ tsp pectin
FOR THE GARNISH:
1 cup heavy whipping cream
¼ cup confectioners’ sugar
½ tsp vanilla extract
MAKE CRUST: Sift flour and salt together. Using two knives, or your fingertips, cut in butter until the mixture is like damp sand with a few bits of butter still visible. Sprinkle in only as much milk or cream as you need to get the pastry to hold together when lightly pressed. Gather dough into a ball; place on plastic wrap and flatten into a disk. Wrap. Refrigerate one hour.
PREP BERRIES: While pastry is chilling, wash and stem all but two of the prettiest, smallest strawberries. Set those aside to garnish pie. In a large bowl, toss 8 cups of the remaining stemmed berries with 1 cup confectioners’ sugar. Set aside to marinate for 1 hour.
BLIND-BAKE CRUST: Place oven rack in lower third of oven. Preheat oven to 425º. Roll out pie crust. Ease into a 9-inch pie pan. Trim excess crust; fold and crimp a decorative top edge. Prick bottom of pie crust. Line crust with parchment paper. Fill with dried beans or pie weights. Place filled pie-crust pan on a cookie sheet and place in the oven. Bake at 425º for fifteen minutes, then reduce heat to 350º. Remove foil and pie weights. Continue baking pie crust for an additional 15 minutes at 350º or until crust appears golden and baked through. Remove weights. Cool pie shell on a rack.
MAKE STRAWBERRY GLAZE: In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat water with remaining 2 cups strawberries. Continue to heat until water is steaming. Mash the berries with a potato masher to break them up. Continue heating for two minutes, then pour the mixture into a fine strainer or sieve and press, allowing juice to run through the sieve into a bowl. Discard the seeds and pulp left in the sieve. Return the strawberry juice to the saucepan. Sift sugar, cornstarch, and pectin together and whisk into the strawberry juice, constantly whisking over medium heat until juice boils, thickens and becomes clear. (Juice will darken and appear cloudy at first; continue heating and stirring until it clears.) Remove from heat and set strawberry glaze aside.
ASSEMBLE PIE: Brush bottom of baked pie shell with 1 or 2 Tbsp of the strawberry glaze. Working in a circular pattern, arrange strawberries, cut stem-side down, into the pie shell. Once you have bottom layer full, spread a bit more of the strawberry glaze over the set berries. Continue stacking and fitting berries into the shell, mounding them up slightly higher in the middle of the pie. Spread remaining strawberry glaze overall. Place pie in refrigerator to set for 1 hour.
GARNISH PIE: While pie cools and sets, make whipped cream garnish. In the bowl of a stand mixer with whisk attachment, whip heavy cream with confectioners’ sugar and vanilla until the cream holds peaks. Place a mound of cream on the cooled pie. Top with two tiny berries. Serve extra cream at table.