Max Hess, Jr. was the P.T. Barnum of the department store world, a master at selling with flamboyance and showmanship. Following in the footsteps of his father Max and his Uncle Charles, who founded the Hess Bros. department store chain in 1897, Max Jr. made shopping there an entertaining experience, with flower & fashion shows and “every week a different celebrity,” says Jill Youngken, assistant director and chief curator at the 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…and, the pie. A big slice of the Mile-High Strawberry Pie that Hess’s 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’s–said he didn’t care because the restaurant drew people in to the store.
Many home-cook versions of the strawberry pie recipe have circulated since the last Hess’s closed in the ’90s. This recipe, using fresh strawberry juice thickened in to a glaze and poured over carefully stacked fresh strawberries, comes closest to the original store version. We’ve left out the red food coloring that some cooks add. (The glaze is bright red on its own.) And we followed America’s Test Kitchen’s practice of adding a little pectin to the cornstarch thickener to achieve a finished pie that’s neither gummy, nor gelatin-bouncy. Hess’s original pie had several cups of whipped cream on top. You can do that too, or, do as we did and garnish with just a dollop, allowing your guests to add more cream at table.
Footnote: It’s true. Liberace loved Hess’s strawberry pies almost as much as his spangles. Jill Youngken, assistant director and head curator at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum & keeper of Hess-history esoterica, confirms that pianist Vladziu Valentino Liberace—once the world’s highest-paid entertainer—had dozens of these pies shipped to his friends each year at Christmas.
- 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp sugar
- pinch salt
- 1/2 cup very cold unsalted butter
- 2 to 3 Tbsp ice cold cream or evaporated milk
- 10 cups whole, fresh, medium-sized berries, stems removed. 8 cups will be used whole; 2 cups will be made into the strawberry juice
- 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
- 1 cup pure-cane sugar
- 2 Tbsp cornstarch
- 1 1/2 tsp pectin
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- PLUS OPTIONAL STABILIZER: 3 Tbsp white-chocolate instant pudding mix
- Sift flour, sugar and salt together. Using two knives, or your fingertips, cut in butter until the mixture is like wet sand with a few larger pea-sized bits in it. 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.
- While pastry is chilling, wash and stem all but two of the prettiest, smallest strawberries. (Note: I used farmers market berries, smaller than those you find in the grocery store. If you use grocery-store berries, try to choose those that aren’t gargantuan–they’ll fit together better in the pie.) Set those aside. In a large bowl, toss 8 cups of the remaining stemmed berries with 1 cup confectioners sugar. Set aside to marinate for 1 hour.
- Place oven rack in lower third of oven. Preheat oven to 425. Roll out pie crust. Fit into a 9-inch pie pan. Create a decorative top edge. Prick bottom of pie crust. Line crust with thin-gauge sheet of foil. Fill foil all the way up with raw beans or pie weights. Place filled pie-crust pan on a cookie sheet and place on lower rack of the oven. Bake for 15 minutes at 425. Reduce heat to 350. Remove foil and pie weights. Continue baking pie crust for an additional 15 minutes at 350 until crust appears golden and baked through. Cool on a rack.
- In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat water with remaining 2 cups strawberries. Continue to heat until strawberries are tender. Mash the berries to break them up. Pour mixture into a fine strainer/sieve and rub/press through the sieve, capturing the juice. 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 first–just heat more ’til it clears.) Set strawberry glaze aside.
- Brush bottom of prepared pie crust 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 over all. Place pie in refrigerator to set for 1 hour.
- While pie cools and sets, make whipped cream garnish. Whip heavy cream with confectioners’ sugar and vanilla until the cream holds peaks well. OPTIONAL: For a firmer whipped cream, Hess’s added a commercial stabilizer. If you want that effect, here’s an easy, home-cook alternative: Whip cream with just 2 Tbsp of confectioners sugar and 1/2 tsp of vanilla until the cream begins to form very soft peaks. Then whip in 3 Tbsp of instant white-chocolate pudding mix until set. NOTE: the only downside to using instant pudding mix as a stabilizer is that the cream will get a bit gummy if held very long. Best to serve immediately if you are using the stabilizer.
- For a pie that looks most like Hess’s, you’ll want to cover the pie with a “mile-high” mountain of whipped cream. But if you prefer to let the strawberries show off more, simply garnish pie with a dollop of cream in the center of the pie & top with one or two small, stemmed strawberries. Serve remaining whipped cream in a big bowl.