Fried pies from Pearisburg: Handed down, golden brown

First United Methodist Church of Pearisburg, Virginia, has been making these fruit-filled handheld pies for some 40 years to raise money for different projects. This year, the church made and sold 710 apple and cherry pies to help fund improvements in their building.

Particularly in the American South, people of a certain age loooooove fried pies. Not only are they decadently delicious, fried pies also remind folks of their mothers or grandmothers, who handed down the tradition of making them from their mothers and grandmothers.

“I sold 78 of them in 15 minutes as I was getting my hair cut,” says Pastor Brian Burch, who apparently made a killing at $2.25 per pastry during his appointment at Jack & Jill’s Hair Salon.

Some history accounts connect these turnover- or empanada-like sweets to the Medieval ages. More recent sources recount how cooks in the 1800s created quick mini pies at the end of the day using leftover biscuits and stewed fruits in the pot.

Today, fried pies provoke nostalgia for foodies old and young, inspiring food trucks, market stands and meat-and-three menus all over. Purists insist on making the dough from scratch and cooking down dried apples or dried peaches with a little water, sometimes with extra sugar thrown in. Reconstituting dried fruit reportedly produces a more authentic, chewier, concentrated flavor, since dried fruit is what cooks of yesteryear used when fresh fruit was out of season. Frying the mini-pies in a cast-iron skillet with shortening takes authenticity a step further.

The “fried pied crew” in Pearisburg takes a more conventional approach, using canned biscuit dough to encase fresh apples from a nearby orchard, peeled and sliced before being cooked down to pie-filling consistency. Cherry fried pies from First United Methodist are prepared with fruit from an Amish farm. Blackberries, peaches, and chocolate are popular fillings for other pie purveyors.

Below, Jan Houck shares her church’s recipe for fried pies — seasoned with her own memories of “peeling parties,” pan-frying and sugar-dusting over the years in the First Pearisburg kitchen.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Jan said. “It’s a lot of work. But we have a good time doing it.”

Pearisburg Fried Apple Pies

Makes an estimated 100 pies

  • 7 quarts peeled, sliced Golden Delicious apples
  • 4 ½-5 cups sugar (adjust as needed)
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon (or more to taste)
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 ½ cups cornstarch, mixed well with 1 cup cold water
  • Refrigerated canned biscuits (About 100 biscuits total)
  • Canola oil for frying
  • Mixed cinnamon and sugar for dusting

In a large, heavy saucepan, cook apples, sugar, spices and lemon juice 10 to 15 minutes, until warm and bubbly. Stir often to prevent burning on the bottom of the pan. Mix in cornstarch and water, stirring and heating as mixture thickens, about 30 minutes more. Allow to cool.

Remove and separate chilled biscuit dough from the packages. Using rolling pin on a lightly floured surface, roll each biscuit dough into a ¼- to 1/8-inch-thick circle.

On one dough disc, place 1 heaping tablespoon of fruit to the side (not the center) of the dough. Use your finger, lightly wetted with water, to moisten the dough’s edge, then fold the dough over. Press and seal edges together, making pies into half-moon shapes. Use a floured fork to make crimp marks along the sealed edge. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.

Heat about 1 inch of oil in large electric skillet to 375 degrees. Fry pies about 3 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar.    

Epilogue: We snagged 50 of these beauties for our free drive-thru Sunday breakfast at Norwood United Methodist Church on Labor Day weekend in Knoxville, Tennessee! We were thrilled to share them with our guests. Many thanks to Rev. Brian Burch for sending them our way, and to Rev. Kim Goddard, Holston Conference’s New River District superintendent, for delivering them to us.

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