Between Halloween and late December, internet food sites buzz with searches for two of the biggest food days of the year: Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s not all about turkey and sides, however. According to the American Pie Council, approximately $700 million in pies, or about 186 million units, are sold in grocery stores every year. This does not include pies sold in restaurants, bakeries and membership stores, such as Costco.
In fact, the pie council reports, if we lined up the number of pies sold at U.S. grocery stores in one year, they would wrap around the globe and keep going. That’s a lot of pie.
What makes pie one of America’s favorite desserts, especially during the holiday season? We asked four local pie producers.
Slice of Life
As soon as Maryland native and former stay-at-home-dad Nic Romano dropped his youngest child off at school for the first time this year, he headed out to a commercial kitchen. He rents the facility to bake pies, bread and cookies, which he sells wholesale and via the New Market Farmers’ Market twice a month.
Baking seasonally, he started with peach and apple three-inch mini-pies, which were very successful. In October, he switched to pumpkin, which he makes using locally grown pumpkins.
“It is definitely worth the time and effort to break down the fruit and prepare it for baking,” he says.
He tries different varieties that he finds at local produce stands, but one favorite is the Long Island Cheese. This is wider and flatter than the jack-o-lantern pumpkins found everywhere in the fall; it lightly ribbed and pale-colored rind gives it the appearance of a wheel of cheese, thus the name.
Romano began his baking in the Navy. At ports of call in Ireland, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, he was able to sample baked goods and specialties of other cultures.
After his service, he worked in a college cafeteria and later at Panera, baking bread through the night. His Panera experience and a gift from a friend of a sour dough starter helped him create his own loaves, which he now sells from his business, DaddyBoy Bake Shop.
The name comes from his 5-year-old son, Daniel. Romano and his wife of 10 years, Lisa, have two other children, Anna, 9, and Billy, 7. While Lisa focused on her career, Romano was home with the children, cooking and baking for his family and preparing for this new business venture.
Motherhood & Apple Pie
Founded in 1981, Mom’s Apple Pie is an institution in Leesburg, Virginia, and it’s all in the family. Avis Renshaw and her husband, Steven Cox, run three retail stores as well as Lost Corner Farm, where they grow the fruits and produce used in their pies.
Their son, Tyson, works full time on the farm and comes into the bakery during the holiday season to help out. Daughter Petra worked in the family business for years and then opened her own pie company in New York City, Petee’s Pie Company, which has stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn. And daughter Ansa lives on the farm and does the bookkeeping for the business as well as producing soups for the retail stores.
The pie business is year-round, according to Renshaw. But the company does a typical month’s worth of business compressed into just three days around the Thanksgiving holiday. Thousands of pies are baked and sold from its three locations.
While the top four sellers during the holidays are apple, apple crumb, pumpkin and pecan, apple is still the most popular choice all year long. As the seasons change, so do the pies. During strawberry season on the farm, the stores sell fresh strawberry pies. Then comes blackberry pie, an open-faced pie that is very popular and always sells out.
Recipes are tinkered with year to year to accommodate changes in the produce that is grown on the farm. Multiple varieties of pumpkin and squash, such as butternut squash, neck pumpkins and kabocha, are mixed together to create the pumpkin pie with the best flavor and texture. For the company’s sweet potato pie, white sweet potatoes, which are much sweeter, are mixed with orange and red varieties for the perfect filling.
Pieces of the Pie
A childhood spent canning peaches and baking pies with their mother who “always baked everything” laid the groundwork for three sisters to become known as the Pie Sisters. Opening their Georgetown shop in 2012, Allison, Erin and Catherine Blakely went from having fun together in the kitchen baking with their mom to starting at 4 in the morning to bake thousands of pies, all done by hand.
In the beginning, Allison focused on crust, cutting the shortening or butter into the flour with a fork. Erin focused on filling. They also made some decisions that would set them apart from other pie shops.
Seeing the success of a local cupcake shop and the growing trend of smaller-sized baked goods, the Pie Sisters created pies in three sizes: a standard 9-inch pie, a cupcake-sized mini-pie called a “cuppie” and something called a “pie bite,” which is the size of a mini-muffin, complete with its own mini-crust. These alternate sizes allow patrons to customize their order and please everyone at their holiday gathering.
It also lets regular customers try new flavors without the cost of purchasing a whole pie. All standard 9-inch pies are sold in the glass pie plate in which they are baked.
As Allison Blakely shared, “the pie crust bakes more evenly in glass and you can see when the crust is fully baked, not soggy.”
Additionally, most of their pies were too heavy to sell or serve in an aluminum pie plate. The cost of the glass plates is factored into the cost of the pies, which average between $35 and $37 each, but if customers return the pie plate at a later date, they receive a $2 credit toward their next purchase.
The Pie Sisters also offer savory pies, including chicken pot pie made from their mother’s recipe and quiches. All pies, both sweet and savory, can be ordered frozen and unbaked, so they can be picked up in advance (in their glass pie plates with baking instructions) and baked fresh on the day needed.
Pie Sisters desserts can be found at weddings and birthday parties and company luncheons and on the dessert menus of area restaurants as well as on the tables of their regular customers.
The sisters’ two most popular pies are their bourbon chocolate pecan and their apple caramel crunch pies, Allison says, but during the holiday season, pumpkin is also a favorite. They also offer gluten-free and lactose-free pies.
Having reached her 25th anniversary of teaching first grade for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Mary Wortman was searching for something new, but she had no idea it would be running a pie shop.
Dangerously Delicious Pies is a Baltimore staple founded by Rodney “The Pie Man” Henry, frontman to Baltimore band Glenmont Popes. While touring with his band, Henry would make pies for his crew and sell them at the merchandise table alongside the band’s wares.
In 2012, Wortman and her husband, John, decided to take the plunge and purchase the Canton location from Henry, who was on the road a lot with his band and his frequent appearances on the Food Network. Two years later, the husband-wife duo opened a second location under Henry’s license agreement, a smaller, coffee- house-type of shop in Hampden.
Using all of Henry’s recipes, except for specials, which Wortman’s head bakers have creative license to experiment with, the Wortmans have found success and learned a valuable lesson: “If you have to learn quickly, you do.”
Originally, they both retained their full-time jobs. Eventually, they flung themselves full strength into the pie-baking world, serving 9-inch deep-dish pies, both savory and sweet, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s a family affair, as son Johnny oversees the Hampden location with co-manager Carla Crisp. Mary doesn’t spend much time in the kitchen, but John does a lot of the baking, having traded the world of instrument technology for the science of oven temperatures.
The business’s year-round favorite is the Baltimore Bomb, a vanilla custard single-crust pie that has Baltimore’s Berger Cookies folded into the custard, Mary says. During the holidays, customers go for the more traditional fare, with pumpkin, sweet potato, pecan and apple — either traditional apple or apple crumb — being top choices.
The Wortmans must be doing something right as People magazine recently featured Dangerously Delicious Pies and its blueberry pancake pie as its Best Pie in the state of Maryland.
Need to make a pie for Thanksgiving, check out Nic Romano’s recipe for perfect pie crust on our website, plus tips from the other bakers in this story.