I admit it; I'm a pie geek. (Not a pie snob; "pie" and "snob" cannot go together! Pie is inherently snob-proof.) I could debate the merits of pie all day.
Pie has to be good, preferably containing fresh or seasonal ingredients—no canned goo, please—and a homemade crust. Those premade, prestamped, prepackaged shells might be a convenience (or a necessary evil), but they're also the reason that many people claim to dislike pie: because it sometimes tastes like cardboard.
Although puff pastry topped with crème anglaise is fabulous, it's not pie. Pie is ... see what I mean? Getting into pie theory, not to mention pie dialectic and aesthetic, makes me ... a pie enthusiast? A pie annoyance?
Most people don't want to discuss pie, they just want to eat it. So read on, and go get some great pie.
One of my first tips led me to Allen & Son. Known for its barbecue, Allen & Son also stocks its menu with homemade pies, cobblers, cakes and cookies. Don't miss the peanut butter pie, which is a frozen pie with graham cracker crust and a drizzle of chocolate on top. Pie at Allen & Son is $3.50 a slice or $14 per pie.
Then it was on to Mama Dip's for a fried chicken dinner, followed by pie. The menu offers pecan, apple, sweet potato and coconut custard, but I got lucky and scored a daily special: chocolate pecan. At $3.25 per slice (same as the other offerings), it tastes like a chewy, nutty brownie on top of piecrust. Good stuff. Mama Dip's sells whole pies for $15; please order 48 hours in advance for whole pies.
Those two venerable Southern spots were just a warm-up: The large farmers' markets, one in each county, promise more pie per square foot than any restaurant can provide.
During a counterclockwise circuit of the Carrboro Farmers' Market, I came first upon Sari Sari Sweets, and baker Leslie Heintzman. Heintzman, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, makes pastries, cookies, cakes, tarts and other baked goods. The phrase "sari sari," according to Heintzman's profile on the market's Web site, "means 'a variety' in Tagalog, a widely spoken language in the Philippines." Heintzman indeed makes a variety of pastries, cookies, cakes, tarts and ... on this day, a small, free-form, cheddar-crusted apple pie, which was mine for $4.
Louise Parrish, of Louise's Old Fashioned Baked Goods, will pack it up for the winter markets, but look for her single-serve pecan ($1.75) and sweet potato ($1.65) when she returns in March. Or place an order at 929-7309.
Almost next door, April McGreger, also known as The Farmer's Daughter, was offering great pie among her seasonal jellies, chutneys, relishes and other goodies. McGreger, a former pastry chef at Lantern, knows her baked goods.
That early November day, she had small muscadine meringue pies for $5 each, and sweet potato fried pies, which McGreger fries in a mix of safflower oil and local pastured lard, for $4. Both are divine, with a tease of ginger in the sweet potato.
Southern food writer John T. Edge has called McGreger's muscadine meringue one of the "100 Southern Foods You Absolutely, Positively Must Try Before You Die." It's a local, seasonal twist on an old-fashioned grape hull pie, complete with a mound of cooked Italian meringue caramelized with a blowtorch, which tastes like a campfire marshmallow. Fantastic.
Unfortunately, the season has probably just passed for the double-m, McGreger said a few weeks later, as she distributed preordered pies (sorghum pecan, sweet potato with gingersnap crust and maple pumpkin) just before Thanksgiving. She emphasizes seasonal ingredients, so look for it again next September. In December, she's likely to serve the sorghum pecan, along with apple or sweet potato fried pies at her booth.
Not to overlook high-end pies, I found many tarts (tartes) and tartlets (tartelettes) that sounded wonderful. All fodder for future hunts. But for straight-up pie, several tipsters pointed to Acme, for both the key lime and the chocolate pecan. So I arrived on RSVVP night, when it was packed inside and pouring outside. I ordered a tower of takeout pie: a large slice each of pumpkin, chocolate pecan and key lime, and headed back out into the rain.
Billy Fiss makes the pies at Acme these days. He's been there a little more than a year and prefers to call himself a baker, rather than a pastry chef. "Pastry chef sounds kind of highfalutin," he said.
Fiss trained under Bill Neal at Crook's Corner, back in the day. He worked at Crook's for 10 years, baked there for three, then left to teach psychology to college students. But eventually he realized he missed baking.
"I like basically fairly simple things, which is the way I learned at Crook's Corner," he said. Pies are "very simple, you just need to know what you're doing."
Asked what advice he'd give to newbie bakers, Fiss replied, "Basic pies are very simple to make. If you can, have good ingredients. I hate to sound like a broken record, but it's the truth ... Second, don't let your fat melt. Then, once you've mastered the basic techniques, you'll be fine."
About his key lime pie, which has a bit of coconut in the graham cracker crust but not enough to scare off the non-coconut-eaters, Fiss had this to say: "I kind of learned this from Bill Neal ... to keep the flavor enhancers on the periphery. Maybe they'll notice it, but hopefully they'll enjoy it. I think coconut and key lime go well together." Slices at Acme are $4.95 each, served with whipped cream.
Durham was really the beginning of this project, which began as a wish for vestiges of diner culture, the days of pie and coffee. Is there anywhere you can get pie and coffee at any hour?
Well, yes. There's Honey's. Honey's offers several kinds of pie and makes its German chocolate on the premises. German chocolate is a misnomer—there is no such flavor—but it's become a shorthand term for chocolate cake with coconut. And that's what this pie is: like a chocolate chess with coconut. The crust appears to be premade but was enjoyable with coffee anyway. Slices are $2.99 each.
The same pie-hunt strategy that worked in Orange County would definitely work in Durham: Head to the farmers' market.
No need to sample the current offerings at Scratch, Phoebe Lawless' booth. I was an almost-charter member of her CSP (Community Supported Pie) and only quit in a misguided attempt to reduce my overall butter intake. So I know and recommend anything that she puts in a pie, be it savory and unfamiliar (salt-roasted beets with Chapel Hill Creamery's quark cheese) sweet (buttermilk sweet potato) or a little bit of both (bittersweet chocolate and sea salt). Small pies are $5-$7 each; larger ones are $15-$22, depending on ingredients. A four-week CSP subscription is $65.
Faith in Phoebe meant I never before took the opportunity to wander around the rest of the market's bakery booths. So, this trip, I did. Angels Nest Farm and Bakery prepares several flavors of turnover-sized pies for $3 each, including an apple filled with thin slices and raisins, and a chocolate with a creamier-than-pudding, almost-ganache filling. Yum.
I also found a repeat vendor—someone who sells at both the Durham and Carrboro farmers' markets—Sweetwater Pecan Orchard, which sells its cheekily named "Soon-To-Be-Famous" Pecan Pie year-round. A quarter pie is $3.50; half pies are $7 and whole pies are $12.
Finally, I struck gold at the Mad Hatter Bakeshop & Café, which sells pie by the slice ($2.50 each) and whole pies to order. The apple, pecan and pumpkin, all on homemade crust, were all great. The apple featured thinly sliced fruit covered in brown sugar streusel. The pecan had just a bit of chocolate drizzle on top. The pumpkin had a creamy, almost mousse-y texture and assertive spice.
Mad Hatter pastry chef Dorian Muench, who has been on the job there for almost a year, has been tweaking the pies ever since.
"I have recently gone through about five crusts," she said, jump-starting a nice exchange about the relative merits of American-style crusts (shortening, flour, salt, water), pate sucree (French-style, containing butter and sugar) and pate brisee (also French, also butter, but less sugar than the sucree). "There's always room for improvement, but I'm pleased with our product," she said. "We worked hard to get the pies in shape before pie season."