How to Make an Exceptional Summer Pie, According to Four & Twenty Blackbirds’s Emily Elsen
Sisters Emily and Melissa Elsen experienced the delight of a toothsome dessert at an early age. They grew up in the tiny town of Hecla, South Dakota—“not the ranching, mountainous region, but the rural plains, like Laura Ingalls Wilder,” Emily says—working in their family’s restaurant, run by their mother and two aunts. Their grandmother Elizabeth made its pies, which regularly drew in hungry customers. In 2009, the pair channeled the work ethic and honest use of quality ingredients demonstrated by their relatives into the Brooklyn bakery Four & Twenty Blackbirds, which produces idiosyncratic pies, in varieties such as black-bottom oat and lavender honey custard, that are as distinct as they are delicious. (It also ships them nationally, via Goldbelly.) As summer picnics were beginning to pick up steam, Emily recently spoke with us about the pie she suggests making when the weather is warm, about cooking with personality, and why a home-baked pastry, even an imperfect one, is a reliably foolproof treat.
“We move through the seasons and bake with the fruit that’s available at the time. In the heat of summer, if you don’t want to turn the oven on, you can do a crumb crust with a chiffon, an easy, no-bake type of filling that [gets its light consistency from meringue that’s folded into custard, and chilled]. My preference is to use the best summer fruit you can find, make a decent crust, and just do it.
Pie is a very universal savory sweet. What I think sets our pies, and any great pie, apart is taking a very individual approach to making them. For example, we don’t have straight-up apple pie, but we have salted-caramel apple pie. We don’t have a quintessential banana cream pie, but we have our take on chess pie [a classic Southern dessert with a filling of flour, butter, sugar, and eggs], including lemon, chocolate, and buttermilk versions.
Ingredients are also important. Two years ago, we started working with foraged fare and continue to work with people who bring great food to the table from their farms. We also pay attention to, and stick with, high-quality handmade crust. That means crust that’s not an afterthought and that you want to eat, made with high-fat butter—eighty percent or above—good flour, and a little apple cider vinegar.
What attracted Melissa and me to pie is that it doesn’t have to be perfect when made at home. As business owners, of course it has to be flawless and repeated, because we’re delivering a product to a customer. But as a home baker, you’re just putting it together and making something delicious. And it will be wonderful. You can’t go wrong with good crust, good fruit, and whipped cream.”