If there’s one dish I like to think of as my very own, it’s this one. No, I didn’t invent this combination of flavors or the idea of a savory pie, but I’d like to think I discovered tomato pie, finding it in a remote tea house and then spreading its legend to my friends in the world beyond. Among the friends I’ve served it to, no one has ever heard of such a thing as a tomato pie before, but invariably people love it.
Back when I was fresh out of college and wondering what to do with myself, I took a job teaching at a boarding school in Northwest Connecticut. Although much of Connecticut is pretty suburban, or even urban, the upper reaches of Litchfield County, just steps away from the New York and Massachusetts borders, remain practically rural. Admittedly, it’s very upscale rural, with gorgeous farmhouses converted into mansions and quaint main streets with pricey shops, but as of 2000 there were no cell phone towers within range and the biggest safety issue was hitting a deer while driving on a dark night. Sort of a strange place to find yourself as a 22-year-old ex-New Yorker, but the other young teachers and I did our best to explore and dig up the best of what the area had to offer. One of our favorite finds was a little tea house called Chaiwalla, nestled off of the main street.
With window seats, throw pillows, and soft lighting, no man would be caught dead in the place, but the girls and I could think of no better way to fill an afternoon than chatting over a pot of warm, creamy tea at Chaiwalla. At the time, chai wasn’t ubiquitous, the way it is now, and my introduction to the gently smoky, spicy tea, served in big clear glass pots atop tiny candles, was a revelation. I loved the tea alongside Chaiwalla’s homemade scones with lemon curd, but no doubt the showstopper of the teahouse was the tomato pie. Think layers of sweet, ripe tomato slices with fresh basil, gooey cheese, and a warm biscuity crust and you’ll start to understand the simple, rustic allure of tomato pie.
Several years later, I stumbled across a recipe for it somewhere online (not sure where, so sorry I can’t give appropriate credit!) and it has become a summer staple for me. I’m lucky enough to have gorgeous, home-grown tomatoes now that I live in California, but even with the relatively flavorless, mealy tomatoes common to the East Coast, tomato pie invariably turns out to be delicious. It is wonderful right out of the oven, but even better reheated the next day, when the filling has time to set. As you can see from the content spilling out of the slice in the picture, we just couldn’t wait that long to eat it this time. Don’t worry about making looking perfect, this pie is all about savoring the flavors of summer and indulging a little. (Additional tips at the end of the recipe.)
Tomato Pie (serves 6)
2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
about 2/3 cup milk
1 1/2 lbs ripe tomatoes, peeled and sliced
2 tbsp torn basil leaves
1 tbsp chopped chives
1 1/2 grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1. Preheat oven to 400 and lightly grease a 9″ pie pan.
2. To make the crust, place flour, baking powder, and salt in bowl and cut in melted butter until mixture becomes coarse and pebbly. Add enough milk to make the dough medium-soft.
3. Place about half of the dough on a floured board and roll to fit pie pan. Cover dough with tomato slices. Sprinkle basil and chives over tomatoes. Top with half of cheese, and coat thinly with mayo. Add remaining cheese. Roll remaining dough thinly enough to fit over the top of pie and pinch closed.
4. Bake approximately 20-25 minutes until brown on top.
1. You don’t have to peel the tomatoes (and in fact I didn’t this time), but if you don’t want to deal with skins, try blanching them by making a shallow X on the bottom of the tomato. Then dip them in boiling water for about 30 seconds before immersing them in an ice bath- the skins should come off very easily.
2. If you don’t have chives, no worries. I’ve been known to use dried chives or no chives at all on occasion and it doesn’t make much of a difference.
3. If you’re a mayo hater like me, feel free to reduce the quantity a bit (to, say, 1/4 cup) and if you mix a little lemon juice into the mayo it liquifies it, making it much easier to spread so that you don’t end up with any clumps.