Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Jun 3, 2012
10:37 AMSmall Dishes
I’ve written about it many times before and I’m sure I will again. My, oh my, I love pie! It’s been around forever and is as unsophisticated as it gets but I never tire of it. A recent trip to Kentucky where pie is still the dessert of choice reminded me just how much I do like it. There like elsewhere in the South, custard pies topped with meringue are favored—fruit like peaches, cherries and blackberries are more often reserved for cobbler, a messy deep-dish affair.
But I’ve enjoyed memorable pies everywhere in the country: wild blueberry in Maine; pecan in New Orleans; shoo-fly in Pennsylvania; and my all time favorite, strawberry rhubarb, right here in Wisconsin. I regret that when pie does make it to the restaurant menu around here, inevitably its key lime pie or a gussied-up French-style tart. Maybe that’s why I make it so often at home. (I have a growing album of my creations on Facebook.)
Pie inspired me to learn how to cook. Growing up, it appeared at almost every meal of note unless it was someone’s birthday when we’d of course have cake. My grandmother made great pies but not as good as Barney’s. During high school, a friend introduced me to Barney’s Callas Grill, an art deco café in downtown Owensboro, Kentucky. Locals swarmed there at lunch for “meat and three” but for me it was all about the pie. Butterscotch, raisin and cherry were my favorites. What set them apart from any other I’d ever had was the rich and impossibly delicate pastry. I was determined (and have been ever since) to make the very best pies possible.
In fact, any pie is only as good as its crust. If it’s tough or soggy it’s a disaster. I’ll be the first to admit that there are many different notions about what makes the perfect pastry. My sister favored the thick cakey kind made with lard and milk. I gravitate to soft, flakey and buttery. Finding a recipe that you like is only the beginning because technique is every bit if not more important as ingredients. I’m not sure how the expression “as easy as pie” came about. In my opinion, crumb crusts aside, it takes some experience—much trial and error—to produce a superior product, but well worth the effort.
On my recent trip to Kentucky I gorged myself on pie. Though seemingly less favored in these parts, it’s very much there to be enjoyed if you look for it.
Nick’s Restaurant. It’s not surprising that a diner that prides itself on its lack of trendiness would embrace pie. At the “home of good food” right there along with the hand-carved turkey and hot roast beef sandwiches is a selection of homemade pies made daily by owners Dino and Tom Christ’s mom, Soula.
Hubbard Avenue Diner. Whether a slice or a whole pie, it’s all about variety here with about a dozen everyday choices plus another six that change monthly. Post a photo of someone in a Hubbard Avenue Diner t-shirt on its Facebook page and you’ll get a free slice of pie and might win a $50 gift card. Whole pies are also available at Metcalfe’s Markets.
Koffee Kup. This coffee shop has been a fixture of Stoughton’s Main Street seemingly forever—actually for more than 100 year! Supposedly the quirky “K’s” comes from Norwegian settlers’ misspelling of coffee. Besides “The Mess” for breakfast the place is best known for its homemade baked goods including a daily selection of pies.
Norske Nook. Indubitably, it’s the state’s number one destination for pie. Opening in 1973 in Osseo, there are now also locations in Rice Lake, Eau Claire and Hayward. Its award winning pies—23 blue ribbons at the National Pie Championship—all come with a hand-rolled crust. A dozen kinds are always on display but my personal favorites are the fresh strawberry, sour cream raisin and lemon meringue—worth the trip! If you can’t make it to western Wisconsin, many can be ordered online.
The Elegant Farmer. The Wall Street Journal dubbed its baked-in-a-paper-bag apple pie best in the country. It comes in four year-round and five seasonal varieties and all for store-bought are hard to beat. Locally, you can pick one up at Metcalfe’s Markets and Jacobonson Bros.
Frozen blueberries will work just fine, but you need to use fresh rhubarb. Chilling the pie before baking will help it keep its shape.
Pie Pastry for a double crust 9-inch pie
1-1/3 cups granulated sugar +1 tablespoon
3 tablespoons instant tapioca
1 tablespoon flour
2 cups fresh rhubarb, cut into ½-pieces
2 cups fresh or thawed frozen blueberries
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small bits
1 egg beaten with ¼ teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Prepare pastry and chill thoroughly. Combine tapioca and flour in a spice grinder or small food processor and pulverize. Add to the 1-1/3 cups sugar. Turn rhubarb into pastry-lined 9-inch pie pan; sprinkle with half of the sugar mixture. Repeat with blueberries and remaining sugar mixture. Dot with butter. Cover with top crust which has slits cut in it or lattice strips. Seal and flute edges. Chill the pie for 1 hour (or place in the freezer for 20 minutes). Brush with the beaten egg mixture and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar. Bake for 25 minutes in the preheated 400-degree oven. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake 30 to 40 minutes more until golden brown and juice begins to bubble through slits in crust. Serve warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice cream if desired
Serves 6 to 8.