Life of Pie: Measuring One’s Holidays in Slices
By Hannah Selinger
J. Alfred Prufrock may have measured out his life with coffee spoons, but I have measured mine out with slices of pie. Prufrock, of course, meant this as an insult toward his life of quiet, banal domesticity. My life in pie, on the other hand, has been exploratory, grand, and infused with flavor. I mean this literally: studying pie has been both a passion and a pleasure.
Long Islanders are acutely dedicated to their pie purveyors. Open the subject to debate and you’re bound to hear a lecture on the superlative holiday dessert. But playing favorites when it comes to pie baking, buying, and eating misses the very point of pie: It’s a corporeal joy, from the first moment of dough kneading to the last cornstarched cherry popped into mouth via trembling tine.
At Sag Harbor Baking Company, owners Margaret Wagner and Mimi Yardley bake seasonal and holiday pies with butter-based crusts.
“I think the crust and definitely a nice, fresh fruit filling makes a good pie,” Wagner confides. Founded in 2011, Sag Harbor Baking Company produces everything holiday-themed, from sugar cookies to pumpkin-amaretto tiramisu cake — but it’s the pies that are in high-demand this time of year. They come in a variety of flavors: pumpkin, pecan, and apple crumb are traditional offerings, while blueberry-cranberry double-crust, apple-cranberry crumb, and the popular walnut chocolate add a little variety to the holiday palette.
In 1999, husband-and-wife team Keith and Nancy Kouris opened the first of several Blue Duck bakeries in Southampton. “I’m a very traditional baker,” Keith says. “Our bottom crust is made with shortening and rendered lard.” These pies are flaky and readily available (Blue Duck Bakery Café also has stores in Greenport, Southold, and Riverhead). At the holidays, the Kouris clan also offers two specialty pies: Mincemeat and Italian grain — or pasteria — pie. Chopped apples, currants, white and dark raisins, orange peel, chopped dried cherries, cinnamon, and cloves give the mincemeat pie its strong spice flavor. Italian households will feel a whiff of nostalgia for the pasteria, traditionally served at Christmas and Easter. Durum kernel is cooked in butter until it opens and is then mixed with vanilla custard, orange blossom water, and rum, all housed in a sucré-like dough. As for that old debate about which fat to use in piecrust, Keith Kouris weighs in: “I’m not a fan of all-butter crusts; they tend to be heavy.”
Westhampton Beach’s Beach Bakery Café, which Simon Jorna has owned and operated since 1988, offers its own version of mincemeat — raisins, spices, and cloves— and it’s available throughout the holiday season. So is the shortening-crusted Three Kings pie (1/3 apple, 1/3 blueberry, and 1/3 peach-raspberry), decorative top apple pie, pumpkin pie, and Dutch apple cake, a lofty pie with a cookie crust. Jorna is Dutch and hires only professionally trained Dutch bakers, who bring the spirit of Holland to this Westhampton bakery.
On the North Fork, Christopher Junda of Jamesport’s Junda’s Crust and Crumb is creating legendary baked goods with shortening — and some butter, for good measure. Junda is a North Fork native who worked in the hotel industry for many years before returning to his roots. “Either do it now or never do it,” he says of his decision, 14 years ago, to open a pie and lemonade stand with $100 in cash. Junda insists he knew, as a child, that he was “going to do a bakery out here.” Today, the Eastern European-style bakery is known for its pies and streudels. Pies are all made from scratch using “grandma’s recipe,” and selections include apple-pear pie, apple-cranberry pie, pumpkin pie, coconut custard pie, and sweet potato brown sugar meringue pie (“Instead of having your sweet potatoes at dinner, you have them for dessert,” Junda says). They also bake traditional apple, apple-raspberry, chocolate-cheese, and cheese-raspberry streudels. Streudels, for which the bakery is well known, are made with butter. “Butter is better,” Junda says. “My grandmother showed me that.”
Speaking of this king of fats, Fairview Farm at Mecox offers their inimitable pies in crusts made from butter, lard, or a combination of the two. You bake these pies (kept frozen at Fairview’s farm stand) at your own leisure, which means you can serve yours piping hot and from the oven when the moment is right. The Ludlow family sells 15 varieties of fruit pie, with the exception of the holiday-friendly pecan and chocolate pecan. Meredith Ludlow has been making these pies herself since 2001.
“They are made with love and by hand,” owner Harry Ludlow says. “And I think you taste that.”
You may hold your own favorite Long Island pie sacred. But let’s agree on this: All East End pies matter, from mincemeat to sweet potato brown sugar meringue. That incomparable joy of the first bite — the marriage of crust and filling, of intent and result—remains one of the final unsullied pleasures of this world. I have measured out my life with slices of pie, and I have regretted not a single one. Follow your heart to the crust you prefer. That’s fine advice for living your best Life of Pie.