A golden-domed, syrupy-centered fruit pie may be the ideal dessert to serve at a summer gathering. But for eating out of hand, say, at a Labor Day cookout or picnic, a pie bar is superior.
Pies are a pleasure to eat but can be awkward to serve, especially when their insides are a little runny with fruit (which is exactly how I like them). You’ll need a pie server or a large spoon to transport the dripping slices, plates to put them on, and forks to eat it all with. And, to feed more than a handful of guests, at least two or three pies are required.
Pie bars offer most of the same delights as pie, but make your life a lot easier. You can prepare them entirely in advance (even days ahead), then slice and plop them on a platter like cookies. Guests can grab one and nibble it standing up, pie bar in one hand, refreshing summer beverage in the other. One recipe serves a crowd.
Think of it this way: A pie bar is to a pie as a burger is to a big beefy steak.Each has its best time and place to be enjoyed.
Any pie can become a pie bar with a few tweaks. The biggest concern is the crust. For a pie bar, the crust needs to be firm enough to hold together, even when topped with loads of ripe and juicy fruit.
I like a shortbread crust, which is sturdy yet buttery, and extremely easy to make, especially if you’re using a food processor. (You can also use your fingers (or a fork) to pinch the butter into the flour mixture.) Another excellent choice is a graham cracker (or gingersnap) crust, which works particularly well with creamy fillings.
Pre-baking is essential for both kinds of crusts, as it gets them crisp and helps keep them that way, despite the moist fillings on top. Let the crusts bake a few minutes longer than you might think necessary. With pale shortbread crusts, you’ll be able to see golden edges, but because graham crackers are already dark brown, a crust made from them is harder to gauge. The color will deepen ever so slightly, so keep an eye on it. But I go by scent. When it’s ready, the kitchen should smell like you’re baking cookies.
When it comes to the toppings, in summer, use fresh fruit. My raspberry crumble bars are like a raspberry pie with a crumb topping, but with a thicker crust and a higher ratio of brown sugar crumbs to fresh berries. (In winter, frozen berries work beautifully, too.)
Sliced peaches, simmered for a few minutes to condense their juices, star in a peaches and cream bar recipe that’s a little like cheesecake, but heavy on the fruit. A touch of grated lemon zest in the cream cheese layer adds just the right tang to balance the sweetness.
And finally, for something you can — and should — make year-round, I turned a classic Southern-style coconut pie into a wonderfully chewy bar cookie. The chocolate chips are optional, but they add a bittersweet flavor that tones down all that sugary coconut, especially if you use chocolate with a high cacao percentage (70 to 80 percent). Or, for something crunchier, use chopped pecans instead of chocolate. (These bars are also wonderful plain.)
All of these recipes can be made a few days in advance and stored in the fridge. Because after all, on Labor Day, why should anyone have to work?
Recipes: Raspberry Pie Crunch Bars| Coconut Pie Bars | Creamy Peach Pie Bars