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The Square Root of Pie 

Move over, cupcakes: There's a new kid on the block. Small dessert pies are becoming increasingly popular both nationally and in Charlotte. The appeal of these bakery items is individualization, since consumers can buy one for a solo treat or a variety to please a group.

Pies are, of course, as American as, well, you know. Pumpkin pie is the requisite dessert for the all-American holiday Thanksgiving and apple pie is still the most popular pie in the U.S.

But during the past decade, the size of pie has changed. Nowadays, bakers offer the traditional 8-, 9- or 10-inch pies as well as the smaller 4-inch individual pies.

Yet this smaller size has been available for centuries. After all, a tartlet is a small pie. The difference is the tartlet has only a bottom crust and generally the pastry is sweeter and richer. Pies, on the other hand, have a top crust and the pastry needs to be drier in order to absorb juices from the fruit filling. Individual-sized savory pies were made popular during the 1950s in the U.S. by Swanson's frozen chicken pot pies.

In Charlotte, pastry chef Agnes Mbiya, a native of the Congo, has been selling pies, both large and small, at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market (CRFM) since 2004. She also owns Divine Pies Bakery on Monroe Road. Mbiya says the smaller pies have kept her business viable: "During the holidays, people buy the big pies, but throughout the rest of the year, people will buy a smaller pie just for the taste. I couldn't survive without them." Her most popular small pies, or baby pies as her customers call them, are apple and strawberry-rhubarb. Although Mbiya makes savory pies such as chicken pot and meatball, these are only offered in larger sizes.

Third-generation baker Steve Lindberg, owner of Carolina Pie Company of Mooresville, offers his pies in both 4-inch personal and the 9-inch format, although his custard pies are offered in the larger size exclusively. Recently, his bakery catered a wedding where he provided a small cake for the traditional cutting, but the guests were served an assortment of the 4-inch pies. He further notes that although restaurants were his original clients for the smaller pies, these establishments have returned to slicing larger pies. Meanwhile, retail stores have been increasing their orders for the 4-inch pies. Carolina Pie uses local products: apples from the mountains and pecans from a local orchard.

Small pies come in another format: the fried pie. Baker Pam Hyatt bakes these half-moon pies at her A Lit'l Taste of Heaven bakery in Monroe. She sells at CRFM, too, and her products are available at Reid's Fine Foods in Myers Park. Three years ago, the Prices — of Price's Chicken Coop — discovered her fried pies and began selling her fried apple and sweet potato pies at their iconic Charlotte eatery.

Hyatt says that although her pies are seasonal, apple is her number one seller. She notes the crust for fried pies is different than the crust required for traditional pies. In fact, the reason fried pies are common in the South is the crust is made from leftover biscuit dough. "Fried pies are just Southern for turnover," she adds.

Where to find these pies:

Divine Pies. 4201-A Monroe Road. 704-372-7202. Saturdays at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, 1801 Yorkmont Road. www.divinepiesonline.com.

Carolina Pie Company. 704-662-0154. Available at the Common Market, and The Meat House in Charlotte. Other area retailers listed online: www.carolinapie.com.

A Lit'l Taste of Heaven. 704-753-4107. Saturdays at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market. http://alitltasteofheaven.blogspot.com.

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