This pie assignment feels like finals week in college: pulling late nights, studying, researching and consuming massive amounts of sugar and butter. I have the teenage zits on my face to prove it.
I decided to sleuth mostly in downtown Raleigh so that I could hunt on my bicycle, in hopes of actually converting the calories to energy. I discovered that, like our state capital, downtown pies represent inspired and carefully confected interpretations of a classic tradition.
At The Remedy Diner, Raleigh's new modern, gritty take on a diner, you can expect service with a rock star 'tude. One night, an indie rock band lined the bar, a Lincoln Theatre backstage pass hanging from each of their black skinny jeans.
The pies are so brazenly authentic, they're made by Mom—Sheila Holder, the mother of one of Remedy's owners. Most of Sheila's homemade pie and crust recipes come from a community cookbook given to her in Tarboro at least 30 years ago.
"It's just this little tiny cookbook, all these country women got together with their recipes," Sheila says.
"My poor mother has worked herself to death," says co-owner Angie Holder, who opened Remedy with her boyfriend, Scott Williams. "I think she likes it though."
Remedy's pie selection has become an addiction among locals-turned-pie-junkies itching for a sweet bite.
The blueberry cheese pie flies out of the kitchen; I had to visit three times before I landed my own slice on a Saturday morning. Fresh farmers' market blueberries (Sheila has frozen them to get through the winter) sit brightly atop a creamy, cheesecake-like filling, the tart berry taste complementing a rich sweetness, all nestled in a light graham cracker crust.
"We run out of it almost every day," Holder says. "The problem is, we are so small, we don't have much space to store extra. So we make enough to be able to refrigerate for the week."
Other pies on the menu include chocolate chip, key lime and a vegan coconut cream that dazzles even a carnivore's sweet tooth, leaving one none the wiser that the cream is made with tofu and just the right amount of sugar and coconut. Seasonal pies include pecan and a pumpkin variety made with walnut cinnamon streusel topping. All pies are $4.25 a slice. Whole pie orders should be made 48 hours in advance.
Just down Hargett Street, you can find pie at President Barack Obama's favorite place for PBR: The Raleigh Times Bar, which serves a slice of key lime on its dessert menu that strikes a great balance with sweet, dense creaminess and tart lime.
At The Borough, bartenders-slash-waitresses may be Hula-hooping between serving up sass as cheeky as their nicknames. Have you met Sneaky, Schmitty or The Funk? You most likely know The Rocket—owner Liz Masnik—whose whims inspire a slew of mostly pie desserts to keep each week a surprise.
Masnik dishes out her pie ideas with a gleam in her eye and a spurt of expletives—kind of like her pies, which give you a jolt when you least expect it. Take the pumpkin whoopie pie I first tried. Not technically pie, the whoopie pie, devoid of a crust, is a cake-like version of an Oreo. This one included a Stoli Vanilla vodka-spiked cream cheese frosting made by Masnik ("I ran out of vanilla, so I thought, 'eh' and put a bit of Stoli Vanilla in there") sandwiched between two perfectly spiced and moist pumpkin cakes made by Borough pastry guru Cody Moorefield. But how could I deny The Rocket's takeoff into a new realm of desserts?
"Beer and pie is my favorite meal, hands down," she says. "If someone wanted to woo me ..."
Wooed we were by those pumpkin whoopie pies.
I had to go back when Masnik texted me her latest pie amalgamation: green apple peanut butter pie. It's another crazy notion passed over to Moorefield, who magically created an idyllic, grown-up version of the nostalgic after-school snack. I dove my fork into the warm, cobbler-like dessert, paired with a Harvest Time pumpkin ale for a pleasant balance of tart apples, creamy peanut butter (invisible to the eye but a nice surprise to my taste buds) and graham cracker crumbles topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. With a cherry on top. Stay tuned: Now the Rocket plans to blast off into the stratosphere by toying with pear and Gruyère.
On Morgan Street, there's more than pizza pie at Moonlight Pizza. A favorite is the peanut butter pie, sinfully sweet and prepared by local Edible Art Bakery & Dessert Cafe.
On Hillsborough Street, Frazier's reminds us that a college strip can serve more than pubs and fast food. So while desserts are not the focus of Frazier's inspired cuisine, Chef Jeffrey Satterly acknowledges that a bit of sweet decadence at the end of a meal carries diners through the full experience.
He talks to me about making desserts as he spins ice cream: "I enjoy it," he says. "It's just a pain in the ass."
His banana cream pie is served on what he calls a "vessel." He's referring to a round, almost shortbread-like crust as the base for his decadent mini-pie. A simple pastry cream adopted from famed chef Gordon Ramsay fills the crust, but the heart of the dish are the caramelized banana bits drizzled with coconut rum-laced caramel and the generous scoop of hazelnut whipped cream. Spiced pecans serve as the Southern garnish to round out a rich dessert that wowed even this writer.
For pieces of pie that will take literally days to finish, mosey on over to Five Points. According to Marget Ballard, who opened Hayes Barton Cafe and Dessertery 12 years ago with her husband, Frank, "Desserts are the finale. That's what we're known for."
Pull up a chair at the 1940s-inspired shiny diner and take notice of an impressive shelf of desserts, with slabs of pie as tall and coveted as Frank's coif.
Like all of Hayes Barton's famed pastries and cakes, the apple pie is a monster, at least 6 inches tall, made with 15 Granny Smith apples, hand-cut into thin slices and stacked atop a homemade crust sweetened with a teensy bit of cream cheese. Other triple-size pies include meringues, sweet potato pecan, strawberry rhubarb in the summer and a white chocolate banana mousse pie that only Frank is allowed to make.
"We sell dessert all day," Marget says. "Some people say, 'Can I get it to go? I wanna eat this in bed!'"
Nightcaps in the form of pie are $8 a slice, with whole pies ranging from $30 to $35.
For a more traditional apple pie, The Pit offers a great, gooey warm version with cinnamon ice cream.
Bustling about the Triangle, we tend to forget about pastoral Holly Springs in southern Wake County. But I've discovered a gem that will get Durham, Chapel Hill and even inside-the-Beltline folks over there for buttermilk pie. For this Southern treat, call Jackie Greene, the one-woman show at Sweet Cheeks Bakery. Out of her modern Holly Springs kitchen (certified to run as a business by the N.C. Department of Agriculture), Greene bakes old-fashioned goodies reminiscent of her youth. Growing up in South Carolina with her sister, grandmother and aunts, Greene can't recall a time when she wasn't cooking and baking.
"Before I went to school, I had to cook a four-course breakfast. And feed the hogs. And feed the chickens," she said. Her grandmother, who always said "Sunday wasn't a Sunday without something sweet," instilled in Greene a skill that she could "live by" after she was gone.
It turned out to be a blessing: Greene was laid off after working as a corporate manager for years. She prayed. "The Lord said go back to what you know. And once you kind of get something in your spirit, you go with it. I took a leap of faith."
She opened Sweet Cheeks in August, and most days she wakes up at 3 a.m. to start baking made-to-order cakes, pies, brownies and cookies.
Greene pulls out a cookbook called Step-by-Step Guide to Cooking, published in 1978, when she was 13. She remembers ordering it from the Fingerhut catalog, one of many cookbooks she would become addicted to purchasing with the help of her aunt. The inside covers are scribbled with hearts and zodiac signs ("That must have been my high school boyfriend!") and recipe notes jotted down in teenage handwriting.
Greene's pecan pie is her favorite, but the buttermilk pie is a best-seller, too. She didn't even know how to make it until her husband, Carl, kept running to the farmers' market specifically for this pie when they lived in Winston-Salem.
"You mean to tell me that I bake, and you go to the farmers' market almost every day to eat this pie?" she would tell him. Offended, she perfected her own recipe: a slice of heaven. Eggs, sugar, vanilla, nutmeg and a tad of buttermilk settle into a custard that browns by a chemical reaction of buttermilk and sugar. The slice becomes encrusted on top with a very thin, spongy crunch of a layer almost reminiscent of a meringue texture. When my teeth pierce the crust, the filling explodes into a smooth sweetness, absent any sour buttermilk.
"I have turned a lot of people onto this buttermilk pie. At first they toot up their nose and say, 'I don't want no buttermilk pie.'" Now it's the third most requested pie at Sweet Cheeks.
"[And Carl] doesn't go to the farmers' market no more."
Check out Sweet Cheeks on the Web at www.scbakery.com to place an order.
Stick Boy Bread Company in Fuquay-Varina offers wholesome artisan breads and apple, cherry and cranberry-walnut pies. Visit www.stickboyfuquay.com to see what pies they're cooking this season.