Impeccable swirls of icing, sugar flowers that defy a human made them — for all the professional flourish we admire in the cakes and pastries we buy, the highest compliment we still pay a pie is that it tastes homemade. The idea that pie should come off as homespun may be one of the reasons it's rare in higher-end restaurants. And why pie is still not the next cupcake, no matter what the cool-spotters promise.
At the same time, if there's a dessert that better captures the spirit of the can-it-yourself, hyperpersonalized side of the food world, I can't think of it. While the number of professional pie shops has been growing over the past few years, roving pie bakers are making their way up from the underground as well. A few deliver only upon request, while others show up at street corners or pop-up windows. If you can't bake pie yourself, they seem to be saying, you'll have to hunt it down.
Take Pie Fridays, for example. Every Friday and Saturday evening, Sunde White fills the drawers in a 3-foot-tall red cabinet and rolls it down to the corner of Valencia and 19th streets. She began baking pies for customers when she tended bar at the Rite Spot, but after she left the bar, her fans kept sending word that they missed her baking. So a couple of months ago, she put up a website and started making appearances. Each week she comes up with three or four new flavors, then puts out word through her mailing list and Twitter feed, @piefridays. Her slices, while $6, are giant, and halves cost $3. Whipped cream is doled out of a plastic container.
The tops of her double-crusted pies roll and dip in giant swells, the wave of golden pastry cresting around the lip of the pan. White says she uses butter with a little margarine in the crust, and you can taste it some, but all is forgiven when you see it flake off in large sheets. I've visited her stand twice, staining my tongue on a black and blue (blackberry-blueberry) and repositioning the crumbles of housemade toffee on the top of an apple-toffee pie so that each bite gathered up a forkful of tart-sweet apples and deeply caramelized sugar. While Shaker pies packed with shaved whole lemons are ubiquitous in San Francisco right now, White's "super duper lemon pie," which adds egg yolks to the filling to form a thick, citrus-bright custard, outshines them all.
White's willingness to play with fillings is surpassed by Jaynelle St. Jean, whose PieTisserie mobile "pie window" showed up at street cart gatherings until she took over the front window at 1015 Clay, a temporary restaurant in Old Oakland, for the summer. During lunch, she dispenses slices of pie ($4.25) filled with exotics like puréed, roasted beets and Okinawan purple sweet potato, though on the day I visited, the only extreme pie I found was her "pecanté," in which she'd snuck just enough chile powder into the sticky filling to prickle the tongue. The butter crust had been overbaked. However, a key lime pie with a graham-cracker crust, all fragrance and tang with a discreetly bitter ending, was perfectly correct. And her chocolate pretzel pie, with its salty crust of ground pretzels and creamy chocolate mousse, tasted of nostalgia and some deeper delight.
In San Francisco, another pie pop-up appeared last month in the courtyard of the Stable Cafe on Folsom. The babes in the Three Babes Bakeshop — Lenore Estrada, Katrina Svoboda, and Anna Derivi-Castellanos — talk up the care they take in picking ingredients, securing organic fruit from Ferry Plaza Market farmers, and getting walnuts from a friend's farm outside Stockton. Right now, they're baking 80 pies a week, delivering whole ones to subscribers ($32-$38, plus $5 delivery fee) on Fridays and selling slices ($5) on weekends out of the shipping container behind the Mission cafe. A tart nectarine-blackberry crumble pie could have used a few more tablespoons of sugar, the muted sweetness of a salted honey walnut pie made it taste more like salted caramel than a jar of Karo, and olallieberry buttermilk pie dispersed thumbnail-sized fruits across the surface of a light, almost whipped custard. Three Babes' berry lattice pie may have been the most photogenic, with sweet, purple fruit bubbling out from the cracks between strips of oven-bronzed crust, a pie as abundant as June itself.
All these new pie bakers avoided lard and Crisco, both of which make crusts crisper and last longer. But an all-butter crust, though it tastes great, toughens easily and can soften a few hours after baking. Unlike many I bought, Butter Love Bakeshop's pies didn't need to be warmed in the oven to recrisp. Longtime pastry chef Esa Yonn-Brown has mastered her mother's all-butter crust so that it stays crunchy even days after the pie arrives; when you break off a chunk, the cross-section is made up of whorls of paper-thin dough.
While Yonn-Brown works in a commercial kitchen, she has no shop or farmers' market stand. I ordered a couple of pies off her website three days in advance ($21-$24, plus $2 for the pan deposit and $5 for delivery), and she brought them to my door, warm and smelling of browned butter and hot fruit. Her signature butter pie, a pecan pie without the nuts, was so rich I consumed it in small, greedy slivers. And her apricot cherry pie! That marvel of a crust was packed with a couple of pounds of apricots and Bing cherries. Each chunk of fruit held its original shape, tasting only of itself, and all the sugar the fruit needed was contained in the pebbles of streusel covering the surface. It may be the best pie I've ever bought from a pro. It tasted, dare I say, homemade.