Summertime is pie time. Starting with June strawberries, steady streams of fruit, just begging to become pies, crowd around lucky northern Michiganders. My thickener of choice for fruit pies is tapioca. Tapioca allows fruit’s fresh flavor and color to shine through. Other thickeners like flour and cornstarch tend to cloud and obscure them.

Tapioca and tapioca flour are made from cassava root also known as manioc or yuca. Cassava, wild-harvested by hunter-gatherer tribes, was long considered cheap slave food, which rendered it culturally invisible. When raw and unprocessed the two types of this versatile, resilient tuber, sweet and bitter cassava, contain, as a pest defense, varying amounts of cyanide. Processing cassava removes the toxicity.

In the early 20th century, tapioca (imported from Java, but indigenous to Brazil) was unfamiliar to Americans. Producers named it “Minute Tapioca,” probably to entice busy homecooks. A 1923 ad declared, “From beyond the South Seas, beyond Borneo and its head-hunters, from a land of half-clad natives, tropic jungles and villages of straw and bamboo huts. Grown along the slopes of volcanoes, ripened through 18 months of burning sun …this gives to Minute Tapioca something more than ordinary interest, doesn’t it?”

Tapioca’s uses go beyond puddings and pies; it also helps to keep croquettes, patties and meat loaves together, thicken soups, stews and gravies and add creaminess to ice cream … not to mention its many non-culinary industrial uses.

Cassava tubers, similar to potatoes, may be boiled, fried or mashed or ground into a flour for cakes and bread. Boiled yuca (cassava) tossed or mashed with garlic and oil is a Puerto Rican favorite. In the west, cassava is best known in the form of tapioca. Tapioca flour/starch, instant tapioca granules and tapioca pearls are made from starch produced by processing grated fresh cassava. Cassava flour is made from the peeled, ground and dried whole tuber. Cassava and tapioca are quickly becoming popular as alternatives to grain and gluten-free chips, crackers, tortillas, crepes, pancakes, wraps and flour.

Tapioca pearls are prepared by soaking and cooking the flour/starch to make it edible, then shaping and drying it into small, large or giant pearls. Tapioca pearls are popular in Asian “bubble teas.” Tapioca pearls are further processed into instant tapioca by cracking the pearls then cooking and drying them again. Instant tapiocas like Minute Tapioca are partially pre-cooked and granulated pearls. Tapioca granules may be used to thicken regular and Instant Pot stews. Just stir in at the beginning of cooking.

My friend Bill Perkins noticed an absence of Minute Tapioca on grocery shelves this spring and brought it to my attention. In February 2020, The Bangkok Post quoted the president of the Thai Tapioca Trade Association as saying, “… widespread drought is expected to cut tapioca production in the 2020/2021 crop year by 10-20 percent.” Drought, coupled with staff shortages because of COVID-19, has slowed production of tapioca.

I suggested to Bill that he could substitute tapioca pearls (available at Asian grocers) for instant tapioca granules in his next pie. Crush or buzz the pearls into granules in a blender or clean spice grinder and substitute equal amounts ground pearl tapioca for instant-type tapioca.

I wish you all happy pie-making.

Master Filling for a 9-Inch Pie

A good fruit pie filling is firm, with a little bit of juice. A general rule of thumb is to add 4 tablespoons instant tapioca for 6 cups of juicy fruit, which works out to a generous, rounded 1-1/2 teaspoons per cup of fruit. If your fruit is less juicy, use a scant 1-1/2 teaspoons per cup.S oak ground pearl tapioca granules as you would instant tapioca for pies.

Process pearl or quick-cooking tapioca in a blender or clean spice grinder until powdery to make tapioca flour. To thicken gravy or soup and stew, mix plain tapioca flour with water to make a thin paste and whisk it into the hot liquid. Store tapioca products tightly sealed up to one year.

6 C. sliced fruit or berries

1/2 to 1 C. sugar

2 t. fresh lemon juice

3 to 4 T. instant tapioca

Pinch of salt

2 T. unsalted butter, cut up, optional

If using frozen fruit measure it frozen and thaw before using. Toss fruit with sugar, lemon juice, tapioca, spices or extract and salt; rest 15 minutes. Turn into pie shell. If using lattice top crust, reserve 1/4 of filling without tapioca. Fill crust with tapioca fruit filling then top with reserved no-tapioca filling. Scatter optional butter on top of filling before covering with top crust.

Filling for 9-inch Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie

3 C. hulled and sliced strawberries

3 C. trimmed and 1-inch cut rhubarb

3/4 to 1 C. sugar

2 t. fresh lemon juice

3 to 4 T. instant tapioca

1/4 t. cinnamon

Pinch of salt

2 T. unsalted butter, cut up, optional

Filling for 9-inch Classic Cherry Pie

6 C. frozen or fresh, pitted tart cherries, about 2-1/2 pounds

3/4 to 1 C. sugar, more to taste

2 t. fresh lemon juice

3 to 4 T. instant tapioca

1/8 t. almond extract

2 T. unsalted butter, cut up, optional

Filling for 9-inch Blueberry Pie

3 heaping pints blueberries, picked over or 6 cups

1/2 to 1 C. sugar

2 t. fresh lemon juice

3 to 4 T. instant tapioca

1/4 t. ground cinnamon or allspice

2 T. unsalted butter, cut up, optional

Filling for 9-inch Peach Pie

3 lb. peaches, 6 cups peeled, pitted and sliced 1/4 inch thick

1/2 C. packed brown sugar

1/4 to 1/2 C. granulated sugar

2 t. fresh lemon juice

3 to 4 T. instant tapioca

1/4 t. nutmeg

Pinch salt

2 T. unsalted butter, cut up, optional

Nancy Krcek Allen has been a chef-educator for more than 25 years and has taught professional and recreational classes in California, New York City and Michigan. Her culinary textbook is called “Discovering Global Cuisines.”

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