By John Adamian
11:21 AM EDT, October 15, 2013
Some have suggested that there are two types of dessert-minded people — pie people and cake people. Pie is rustic and of the common folk, the thinking goes. Pie is a frugal way of making the most of some baking scraps and leftover fruit. Pie is soft hearted. Cake is slightly more fancy — a little on the dry side, rigid, perhaps. Let them eat cake, and all that. But there’s room in the world for both, right? That’s one of the clever ideas advanced in the new book by CT pie mogul Michele Stuart, owner of Michele’s pies in Norwalk and Westport. Stuart has won 27 first-place National Pie Championships Awards, and her pies have been featured on Good Morning America, in the New York Times and elsewhere.
Stuart, who spoke to the Weekly recently in advance of the publication of Perfect Pies & More, her second book (available Oct. 22), came up with the idea of bridging the cake-pie divide. “We have a lot of people who come into our store and ask if we do cakes, and we don’t,” says Stuart. So she hatched the concept of the Birthday Cake Surprise “Pie” — one of a number of “whimsical pies” that she includes in her book. It’s a way to “have your cake and eat your pie, too” as she puts it. The pie is an “airy vanilla cake wrapped in a flaky pastry shell.” Other forays into new frontiers of pie-hood include a Cannoli Party Dip Pie and Girl Scout Cookie-themed Thin Mint Chocolate Cookie Pie.
But despite the taste for whimsy, Stuart’s recipes are rooted in tradition and in a sense of how fresh-baked treats can serve as a powerful sense-memory later in life. Just a whiff of mom’s apple pie can bring on warm surges of nostalgia. “Although I love indulging in pies and treats,” writes Stuart, “what I love most is the bonding experience they provide with loved ones, and how they become a deliciously tactile way of keeping memories alive.” If you ever wonder about how to provide your children with deep and sweet recollections of their youth, you could do a lot worse than filling the house with freshly baked pies. “Pie brings back a lot of memories,” says Stuart.
Stuart grew up in Westport and she got her start baking family recipes.
“I grew up baking with my grandmother [who was from Stamford],” says Stuart. “That’s the whole premise of the first book.”
But pie crust is one of those culinary benchmarks that can get first-timers all jittery, nervous about butter temperatures and over-mixed flour. “The pie dough is the most intimidating part,” says Stuart. Anyone can make a pie filling, she says. But mastering the crust takes a little work. Stuart stresses that it’s all in the way you handle things — you could give two people the exact same set of ingredients, the exact same instructions and the exact same equipment and they’ll come up with two different crusts. There’s a zen art to making pie crust, knowing when to not do too much. “If you overwork it, it’s going to be tough,” warns Stuart.
So chill out, or at least know the things to get obsessive about — like temperatures and freshness.
Stuart firmly advises home bakers to use a separate oven thermometer placed on a rack inside the oven to know exactly what temperature you’re baking at. (It’s her number-one recommendation.)
It takes a particular kind of person to be a baker. The connection to grain, the warmth of the oven, and people’s associations of comfort and home all give bakers a kind of nurturing, of-the-earth aura. And yet the hours are brutal — up before the sun. Plus all that kneading and slapping of dough can be a workout. And good bakers have to have an almost clinical attention to detail. A mix of Type-A personality traits and the more laid-back serves the baker well.
Stuart is clearly of the slightly Type-A variety. She perfected the pies and wrote the recipes for the new book while she was pregnant. (The new book also includes recipes for cookies, crisps and cakes.) She opened her first pie shop in Norwalk back in 2007. And the Westport shop opened in 2012. Before that she made a name for herself by baking pies at her family’s vacation home in Vermont and selling the desserts at farmers markets in the Green Mountain State. (Connecticut evidently requires baked goods sold at state farmers markets to be made in a commercial kitchen, for health concerns.)
In the spirit of embracing local produce, Stuart says at her shop she only makes pies with fresh fruits and produce, grown regionally whenever possible. Pumpkin and apple pies in the fall. Blueberry pies in the summer.
With a new infant in the family, you might expect Stuart to be taking a breather. But that’s not her style. “I’m here all day long,” she says. “I’m here early until well into the afternoon.”
Though never without its diehard fans, pie is clearly on the rise. Stuart says more and more people are asking for pies at their weddings, or for mini-pies as party favors. (The new book includes a cool recipe for individual pies in a jar.) Despite that trend, we discussed the notable absence of pie-centric shows among all the food-related reality TV and cooking programs. (Hint, hint, Food Network.) Who knows, maybe a pie-making show is in her future. She seems to have the tireless drive and taste for spreading the gospel of pie. If she’s struck with a bit of pie inspiration, she pounces.
“Once I get an idea in my head,” she says, “I just go for it.”
Perfect Pies & More
By Michele Stuart/Ballantine Books. $26, or try her pies at Michele’s Pies, 666 Main Ave # 9, Norwalk, (203) 354-7144, 180 Post Road East, Westport, (203) 349-5312, michelespies.com
White Chocolate Raspberry Swirl Pie. (Ben Fink Photography)