When my sister relocated from one of my favorite Pacific Northwest pie cities to Toronto, I was skeptical. Would a 90-minute Porter Airline flight set me down in a pie wilderness or would I encounter an urban center bustling with pie options? Was there more to Toronto than a bakery box filled with caramel butter tarts and custardy pastel de nata? I needn’t have worried; Toronto is home to Wanda’s Pie in the Sky.
Wanda Beaver is the art student-turned entrepreneur of Pie in the Sky. Raised in Niagara, Wanda’s inaugural foray into pie baking was at age nine with a sour cherry pie made with cherries gathered from her own backyard. The Ontario sour cherry pie is not only Wanda’s favorite, it has received several Best of Toronto awards. Now Magazine has voted Wanda’s the Best Dessert in Toronto in their Reader’s Choice awards. and Toronto’s source for local news and culture, blogTO, has named Wanda to four separate “Best Of” lists. On an average day, between 100 and 150 slices of pie exit the building. On weekends, it’s not unusual for more than 1,000 slices to take wing.
Located on the edge of Kensington Market where Augusta meets Oxford, Wanda’s Pie in the Sky is a Toronto landmark. The café is outfitted with an eclectic mix of casual tables and chairs, as bright as Wanda’s famous 7-layer rainbow cake. Cozy seating is available both indoors and on the sidewalk patio. Serving more than just sweets and beverages, the café offers plenty of breakfast and lunch options. Wanda’s bold signage indicates they are indeed, a vegetarian establishment, but they don’t “hit you over the head with it.” Simple truth served alongside good eats and fine coffee makes for a sustainable business; Wanda’s has been serving Torontonians for more than two decades.
Stepping inside the bakery/café, a dizzying assortment of fruit, cream, custard, and nut pies beckon from behind a sprawling glass-fronted display case. Available in comfortable 6” sizes, generous 9” options, and humble single slices, the pies taunt. Seasonal fruit tucked beneath flaky crusts vie for your attention against rich custards dressed in swirls of whipped cream.
It’s easy to be drawn to the Ontario Sour Cherry Pie sitting center stage in the display case. Embellished with piecrust cut-outs, the pie stared me down as I fell victim to the plump sour cherries poking through its rick-rack lattice. The scarlet fruit refused to loosen its grip on me until I opted for the 9” pie. With the intention of divvying up the goods amongst a group of former Seattle-ites, I watched as the pie was lowered into a box lined with gingham tissue paper. Tied securely with baker’s twine and stamped with Wanda’s signature logo, the packaging alone transformed the baked good into a gift.
Not limited to pies, Wanda has her fair share of cake and cookie fans, particularly those clamoring for her impressive rainbow layer cake and the decadent dulce de leche macarons. Juggling my pie box and a fair trade, organic coffee required all the dexterity I could manage. Additional taste testing would have to wait until a future visit.
Wanda is my kind of pie baker, allowing the fruit to shine, opting for hand-rolled piecrusts made flavorful with butter and flaky from a canola based shortening. Still, Wanda’s desserts should not be considered part of your Whole 30 meal plan.
A recent analysis provided to the Toronto Star by The Dish, (a column dedicated to nutritional health and food analysis) revealed that a slice of Wanda’s sour cherry pie boasts 536 calories. More sobering was learning that an overly generous slice of Wanda’s Rainbow Cake contains a whopping 1,230 calories. Obviously, inviting a few more folks to your rainbow cake and sour cherry pie party might be a good idea.
I've somehow made my way to Zagreb, Croatia and almost as quickly, I have made my way to their iconic dessert.
Croatia has been on my list of places to visit for quite some time. Why? I honestly can’t say. After I left for college, my parents and sister hosted a Croatian exchange student who was, through my few interactions, very nice. All I remember speaking to her about was Croatia's love of meats and maybe motorcycles.
Prior to leaving for my 24 hour trip to Croatia I researched a few things - their currency (it's not the euro), the language(s) they speak, and of course, where to eat. Sadly I came up slightly short on baked goods but there is one item that stands out; Kremsnita or cream cake.
After taking the Flix Bus at 6:30 am with a gaggle of sleep-deprived youths who had clearly been on this bus over night, I set out to explore Croatia's capital city.
Arriving at the city center, I found a farmers market that I'm told has been there since c.1930. The market was filled with locals and plenty of produce. I should also probably mention that the temperature hovered near 95 degrees, so sharing close quarters with the people (and the flies) in this farmer’s market gave me a good excuse to go find a coffee.
Away from the crowds and sun, strolling through Zagreb's cobblestone alleys happily caffeinated, I made my way to lunch; meat. "Grandpa's Special" did not disappoint. Karla, if you're reading this, thank you for informing me of the meats. A large beer and at least 70g of protein later I was ready to walk again, this time with a mission to find cream cake.
I took my time walking down from the upper town to the lower town where cafes are situated in the middle of every street. Thus, I stumbled upon Vibcek Slastičarnica: Tradition & Quality Since 1977. The facade of this cafe is ever-intriguing, not because of it's glitzy store front, but rather the opposite. I've spent many years in search of pies and baked goods with No More Mr. Nice Pie. When I see an understated bakery, I can spot it a continent away.
I hurried across one of Zagreb's most iconic streets avoiding StraßenBahns in each direction (because finding baked goods is my favorite sport).
10 Kurns later ($1.60) I have what appears to be a block of the densest dessert I've ever encountered in front of me. However, the look of the cake is as deceiving as the cafe's understated storefront - it is as light as a cloud. My fork has no trouble slicing through a thin layer of chocolate followed by a light cream, a clotted cheese, and finally shattering a layer of phyllo dough. I cannot stress how light this cake is. It's almost like a whipped-cream-weighted cheesecake. I am a happy guy. Sustained by a slice of Kremsnita, I set out to find my hotel in 96 degree weather.
A trip to London, whether a short layover or a more extended visit requires a few 'musts' if you're to do it right: the wherewithal to look every way possible when crossing the street, a jet lag-induced tour of the English capitol's most celebrated landmarks, many proper pints with friends (none of that 12-14 oz. malarkey) and of course, a pie.
After dropping our bags with cousin Katie, we set out to accomplish at least three of the aforementioned tasks before jetlag won out demanding a nap. Katie had plans for us post snooze; a visit to a local spot with an atmosphere suggestive of traditional pie offerings.
Our chicken potpie dreams were quickly squashed when the barkeep informed us, "We haven't got that tonight." Sad, but we figured a fish and chips would suffice. "Ohh, we haven't got the fish and chips neither."
Enjoying trademark British cuisine would have to wait for another day. Turning to our cousin the Anglophile, we suggested she order while we re-evaluated. Katie ordered a Caesar salad which is, to be fair, a s!*t ton of mayonnaise with a few leaves of iceberg lettuce. It’s true; you can take the cousin out of the country, but not necessarily the cousin away from the Caesar.
Our time in London was action packed. We explored areas and museums I had not been to in the past and Sweet Soprano’s maiden visit to the UK included a fine overview.
There was however, a common theme clouding our week of culinary adventures. More times than not, kitchens were out of stock. From beers to breakfasts, we were continuously moving from first to second to sometimes third choices. We couldn't help but question, was the whole city short on supplies? Had this menu not been updated since the 1800's? Would the pie of our dreams ever be both on the menu and in the kitchen?
Thankfully, we learned that our second and third choices were generally delicious. This was especially true on our last day in London, desperate to experience the meat pie. We were told that PieMinister was the place to go and given the amazingly punny name, were eager to check it out. Sadly, our overly booked final day made this challenging. Desperate for our pie fix, we tasked our friends with locating the best pie in the area. This turned out to be just fine, thanks to the stumble-upon skills of our friends; we ended up at Windmill in Mayfair and were very happily surprised.
Passing through the after work regulars having a smoke and a pint on the sidewalk, we made our way inside to find a true pub with a touch of posh. Our friends gave us the rundown of the menu. The steak and mushroom pie was the way to go, not for it's filling (although a definite plus) but because the crust was made with ye olde lamb's fat, not today's go-to butter. This pie was, in a few words, worth the wait. Not only were we able to order our first choice, but found it as traditional as it gets. Even before cutting into the steaming hot pie, the color of the crust told us this was going to be spectacular. Tucking our forks into the pie was as satisfying as we had hoped - crispy, flaky, but sturdy. The filling was well contained and did not cause a soggy bottom in the least.
We're not one to miss the opportunity to give a gravy shout-out and this brown sauce certainly deserved one. Our friend in a similar state of mind asked the waitress for a bit more of it. And that, they had plenty of.
Reflecting on our stopover in London while we waited for our next flight, it was agreed we could do with some greens in our diet this week. We ordered the vegetable full English breakfast but of course, they "hadn't got that today." Not surprised, we reminisced about our great pie success at Windmill and looked forward to the next leg of our trip- Wurst, Bier, und Küchen, wir kommen.
-MeisterMeister und Süß Sopran
The sandwich board sits smack in the middle of the sidewalk. Two words and I’m a goner; Toast and Coffee. What started as a jam business is now one of LA’s all day breakfast destinations, with a queue that winds around the corner from 6:30 am when they open until 4 pm when they close. What Sqirl doesn’t tell you on its signage is that the toast you are about to eat will forever change your opinion concerning breakfast bread. Toasted until golden, no, beyond golden, the slice of brioche is not a slice at all, it is a slab. Far exceeding pedestrian Texas toast proportions, the toast that is featured on Sqirl's menu borders on burnt, not burned. Burnt in the most delicious of ways, reminiscent of the caramelized twinge of burnt sugar.
I order the Famed Ricotta Toast and Jam. Unable to choose just one jam, I timidly ask for three. A Gulliver-sized portion arrives, hanging on to its plate for dear life. Smothered in House Straus milk ricotta, the cheese spills over the edges of the toast, a petticoat peeking out from beneath a skirt of seasonal jams. Aprium/Olallieberry, Santa Rosa Plum/Flowering Thyme and Strawberry/Rose Geranium. This jam is too exquisite to be slathered on bread, it deserves to be eaten with a demi-tasse spoon.
My lunch partner Ann Marie has sensibly ordered a little protein in the form of a vegetable quiche. Baked in a springform pan, the vegetables and custard are more soufflé than frittata, surrounded by a buttery crust and served with a fistful of just-picked salad greens.
I am beginning to descend into a bottomless food coma but not before ordering a slice of Raspberry Rhubarb pie. The pie crust is sparkly with coarse sugar, the fruit sweet enough with just the right amount of pucker. I very well may have found my dream meal and I am heartbroken when it ends.
The following morning, I have the great good fortune to meet Squirl’s pastry chef, Meadow Ramsey. Food people are like theatre people, sharing a common bond and understanding of the crazy workplace in which we spin. Meadow’s kitchen space is tiny, her culinary talent ginormous. She graciously hands me a brown paper bag as a parting gift. Inside I discover not one, but two desserts, or in this case, flight nirvana.
On Wednesday at nigh noon, I begrudgingly board Virgin Air bound for the Garden State. Having forgotten Blondilocks’ adage that ‘jam is a liquid,’ I must check my bag or relinquish my jar of Sqirl’s Rhubarb/Kumquat. There is no discussion; my bag is checked. Safely tucked in my carry-on is a small brown paper bag, a plastic fork and sustenance for the plane ride home. Thank you, Meadow. The malva pudding cake and raspberry-rhubarb pie are all that separate me from the maddening crowd, otherwise known as Flight #166.
They had me at donut.
Perched on half sheet trays, old-fashioned cake and raised donuts eyed me from behind the glass, taunting. Butter pecan crunch, chocolate the color of midnight and pineapple habañero. I wanted one of each and whatever the sleepy-eyed fellow seated at the counter was having.
Was I staring? Indeed I was, fixated by the mountain of cinnamon buttered waffles and golden fried chicken. You knew it was crispy because at the other end of the counter, you could hear the batter-dipped chicken as it hit the sizzling oil. The fry cook was also working the griddle, protecting sunny side eggs from wayward hash browns.
As smitten as I was by the food component, it is important to note that the handsome gentlemen working the line and serving the masses were attired in bandanas. And they wore them well. At the bakery, our headwear is more Anatevka, less hip-Lower-Eastside.
We were surrounded by hip; friends in pairs and families with strollers. Loners at the counter finding company in green-rimmed plates of biscuits and gravy, scrambles and grits.
It is impossible to pick a favorite from the meal we fought over, our forks and knives tangled in a friendly duel. I also believe that daily consumption of one pineapple habañero donut coupled with a sensible running regimen may very well extend my life. A donut that features the best of crispy, sweet and sassy is possibly just as critical to a good morning as a cuppa joe.
There was one downside to our visit; having reached food flux capacitor, I had to take a pass on the pies. It was a tough call, especially after watching a neighboring table order a slice of the bourbon pecan and a slice of the smoked s’mores pie. Rumor has it the banana cream tucked into a Nilla wafer crust has a huge following. Ditto the lemon chess and the double crusted apple.
Staggering towards the door, the tower of donuts seemed to nudge each other, winking in my direction their donut voices stage whispering, “It’s just a matter of time… she’ll be back.”
Do not question the power of the donut.
Little Pie Company rolled out in 1985, offering grandmotherly pies to a city dubbed the Big Apple. They were one of the first NYC bakeries strictly devoted to pie. Their Sour Cream Apple Walnut was the one I carried like a beacon, lighting the way to A Slice of Heaven’s menu where it lingered for nearly a decade.
Tucked away on West 43rd Street, large picture windows frame Little Pie Company’s kitchen, allowing a generous peek behind the scenes. Perched on their red leatherette bench enjoying a cup of coffee last Sunday, I had a clear view of the open kitchen. Stainless steel worktables mirror canisters of cloves, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. Cases of minute tapioca and flake sweetened coconut flank the floor-to-ceiling Hobart mixer. Adjacent to the kitchen, wooden tables tuck in closely against a red leatherette bench. The display case of sweets tempts from every angle.
The proximity of the neighboring table allowed me to see their signature Sour Cream Apple Walnut pie up close. So close in fact, that the Bassett’s vanilla was à la mode-ing dangerously within reach. This is my New York City pie, the one that always makes me long for Manhattan. Pie has the ability to relentlessly tug at me, pulling me backwards in time. My pie memories always have a soundtrack, and the Sour Cream Apple Walnut plays a Sony Walkman medley from 1985. Some of those songs were best left behind although I wonder if Wham! was involved with an early morning baker, sparking the inspiration for wake-me-up-before-you-go-go.
Little Pie Company has expanded their menu over the years, now offering cakes, cookies and muffins. The word on the Great White Way is their strongest suit remains their free-from-preservatives pies. Based on the pie box parade exiting the bakery on Sunday, I would tend to agree.
Short on time and unable to transport a pie ‘to go’ there was an easy fix for this pie craving; bake my own. Leafing through A Slice of Heaven’s faded recipe book, the typewritten list of ingredients on yellow paper was sandwiched between apple dumplings and Jewish apple cake. My disbelief that thirty years had passed was somehow tempered in the buttery crust, brimming with granny smith apples lounging on sour cream custard. Brown sugar-walnut crumble teased as the pie cooled; I plucked one of the walnuts burning my index finger and then my mouth. Patience is not my strongest suit nor is the ability to turn off the soundtrack of this pie. Sour Cream Apple Walnut? I do not consider myself a material girl but clearly I'm crazy for you.
Purim has gotten lost in the pre-St. Patrick’s Day cookie frenzy. The Hamantaschen have nudged their way onto the counter, vying for space next to plaid shamrocks and sugared beer mugs. This week the retail bakery has felt like the weather, a wintry mix of challenges. Two customer interactions stand out above the rest. In first place was the gentleman wishing to order a cake, specifically a 10” cake. He wanted to know how large the 10” cake would be. In second place, and my personal favorite, was a phone conversation I had with Young Mother, concerned about the ingredients in the Hamantaschen. The ingredients were read in excruciating detail, including the label from the jar of thick apricot preserves. Nary an ingredient was cause for alarm yet Young Mother was determined to be alarmed. We discussed ‘shared equipment’ and residual flour dust dangling in the air. She raised additional concerns, asked once again for the list and the reading of the jam jar. Isn’t it enough that I can manipulate 3½” circles into triangles?
At 2 pm on Thursday, I watched in horror as the Sysco delivery truck unsuccessfully navigated the icy intersection at the corner of Baker Street and Maplewood Avenue. Three snow covered police officers, their patrol cars ablaze with flashing lights, served as truck traffic controllers. Arms waving and halting, they attempted to guide poor Sysco-man as he struggled to align his tires with the road. My Sorel boots were having their own problems, skidding across a street more skating rink than pavement. Limbo-ing beneath a tree limb heavy with snow, I reasoned, it could always be worse. It could be Boston.
If I had my druthers, my Purim Hamantaschen would come from Kupel’s Bakery in Boston. Kupel’s offers the triangular cookies year round, in assorted flavors. Available in both small and large, they are deliciously rich and crumbly, sweet with jam and crunchy with poppy seeds. Not only are the baked goods worth traveling the NJ Turnpike to the Mass Pike, I’ve yet to hear a customer demand a list of ingredients from the affable crew behind the counter. And because it’s a Kosher bakery, Hamantaschen never compete for space with shamrocks.
Seattle is one happenin’ pie town, showcasing its seasonal bounty in both sweet and savory options. Coffee shops, cafes, high-end restaurants and the most casual of markets boast pie temptations. The smallest touches distinguish these pies from their East Coast counterparts. Cardamom, ginger and lavender are used with just enough abandon to enhance, without overpowering. Local means local, as in the delicious Marionberry, the “Cabernet of Blackberries.” Salt is its own ingredient, teaming up with vanilla beans, lemon zest and espresso. Pies are generously spiked with bourbon, judiciously textured with cocoa nibs. Not a single pie stop along the way disappoints.
A La Mode Pies on Phinney Avenue may be on my short list of new best friends in Seattle. There are enough choices to induce a pie coma, and for those who require à la mode gilding, superb Bluebird Ice Cream is available. ALMP tucks Marionberries into a crust spiked with Holmquist hazelnuts, the sum of these two ingredients quintessential Pacific Northwest. Their rich Peanut Butter Mousse towers over a chocolate lined pie crust, generously crowned with ganache and salty peanuts. Apple & Ginger Pear is double crusted and mighty impressive, elbowing for room on a sheet tray just out of the oven. Had I not recently traveled with a freshly baked pie on my lap, I would have considered flying home with one. Next time I’ll plan accordingly and also allow room in my personal food pyramid for a slice of their Bourbon Butterscotch.
Ballard’s Pico Café is tucked within the sprawling Ristorante Picolinos. Their lattice-topped Marionberry pie is comfortably sized, just enough for breakfast or a mid-day pie pause with a rich cup of locally roasted Caffee Umbria.
High Five Pie in Capitol Hill and Pie in Fremont are retro and modern, updating old-fashioned pies into new-fangled offerings. There are handpies, mile wides, slab pies and lollypop-pies. Butter serves as the common denominator.
Thank goodness Sibling Baker suggests we swing by The Book Larder, Seattle’s Community Cookbook Store. After extensive pie-ing, the quiet of a cookbook store is essential. Or as they like to say at A La Mode Pies, it was time for me to Piece Out.
Traveling to Hacklebarney Farm does not involve over the river, but it certainly requires through the woods. The Chester, New Jersey farm is extremely popular for its wood-pressed apple cider and cider doughnuts. But based on the lines wrapping around the quaint barn, it appears their pies have a very loyal following. My original intention was to buy one half-gallon of apple cider and a basket of local apples. What was I thinking? In order to secure the cider, I had to first find the end of the line and wait my turn for access into the farm store. We inched along like lemmings, with the folks ahead of me repeating the same mantra, “Pie.” What was all the fuss about?
The farm store is situated in their circa 1853 barn with the bakery adjacent. Within the span of the 45 minutes (I know, crazy) that I waited on line, I observed towering trays of hot apple cider doughnuts enter the farm store through one door, and within moments, empty trays exit the same door. It was somewhat frightening. Once inside the tiny confines of the market, I was up close and personal with the pie table. I have to admit, they were impressive. For a commercial enterprise, despite the pie press that saves the pastry crew the effort of rolling pie shells, (imagine that) the pie assortment was tempting. And fresh, with steam still escaping through their lattice topped crusts. What I found staggering, was that people were buying more than one pie at a time. One of each flavor and placing orders for Thanksgiving. That is an awful lot of pie.
A separate counter was designated Cider Doughnut Central and again, folks were buying doughnuts by the dozen. I didn’t even have to walk through the market, the crowd just moved me along, until I had reached the cider cooler. Sheepishly, I selected my little half gallon of cider and paid.
The cider was truly delicious and provided the key note to my cider caramel recipe. I’ve been thinking about it and if I had it to do all over again, I might just consider entering the exit door of Hacklebarney’s tiny market in order to purchase a solitary jug of cider. I know, Rule Breaker. What’s the worst thing that could happen? I might be ushered to the back of the line and sentenced to 45 minutes of waiting.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the pie emporium, Pie Face. Is it the same as baking your own pie at home? Not quite. But it’s worth noting that some locations are open 24 hours a day, (my kitchen is not) and they also deliver. If you are Desperately Seeking Pie, this is worth knowing about.
I came across the Pie Face near the Ed Sullivan Theatre a while back. Smiling from behind the glass bakery cases were both sweet and savory pies. I admit I was rather taken with the mini cherry pie. Dozing with a broad grin, the happy little pies were stacked by the bakers dozen. Teamed with a “flat white” (espresso and steamed milk), the diminutive sweet was a happy combination of cherry and crust. They also offer Lamingtons, little sponge cake treats filled with jam, dipped in chocolate and rolled in coconut. (As a chaser; it’s always good to have a chaser when the pies are mini and the coffee is large.)
There appears to be a devoted audience for their savory pies, but I took a pass on those. I have a bit of a history with Australian meat pies stemming from my days at the farm. The owners became smitten with meat pies on one of their holidays Down Under, and returned bearing “pie molds” which are commercial pans devoted to the crafting of savory double-crusted pies. Whenever I’m working with vast quantities of any kind of baked good, it squelches its novelty (and appeal). Rolling out crusts on the commercial dough sheeter, draping it over the pie molds, filling each round with a medley of meats and ‘veg’ and then topping it with another draping of dough is a process and a visual I will never forget.
Forgive me if I stick to the sweet side of the pie counter at Pie Face. For mass marketed baked goods, they do a fine job. And any place that offers delivery of caffeine and double crusted sweets is worth adding to one’s speed dial.