Mile High Srawberry Pie

Fresh Strawberry Pie

July 25, 2022
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This fresh strawberry pie, stacked high with just-picked farmers-market berries in a strawberry-juice glaze, comes with a great backstory. Liberace (pianist Vladziu Valentino 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 Bros. Department store, of Allentown, PA. 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 ‘60s.  Following in the footsteps of his father Max and his Uncle Charles, who founded the department store chain in 1897, Max Jr. made shopping spectacular, with flower & fashion shows and, “every week a different celebrity,” says Jill Youngken, assistant director and chief curator at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum in PA, 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’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 pie drew people into the store.

Many home-cook versions of the pie recipe have circulated since the last Hess’s closed in the ’90s, some with questionable inclusions such as red-food dye or Jell-O.  Our recipe avoids those ingredients and comes closest to the original store version. We 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’s original had several cups of whipped cream on top. You can do that too, or, do as we did and garnish with just a dollop of cream so that the strawberries show more. (Guests can add extra whipped cream at table. )

The pie is best made with just-picked strawberries, fresh from your garden or the farmer’s market, but when that season is through, choose small fresh organic berries from your grocer.

Todd Nichols of Nichols Farm and Orchard, in Marengo, IL grows 14 to 15 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 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. For more fresh strawberry recipes, try our Banana Stuffed French Toast, Strawberry Shortcake, Strawberry Refrigerator Cake, or our Red White and Blue Trifle.

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