Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The dish on Leah Greenfield’s "Pie in the Sky"

Posted By on Wed, Oct 24, 2012 at 10:28 AM

I’ve never quite understood the expression “easy as pie.” I’d never claim to be a professional pastry chef, but I do occasionally enjoy baking at home. Pie, in all its glorious variety, is often something I make attempts at. Now, I’m not proposing that baking pie is an overly complicated process, but baking an exceptional pie is anything but easy. Most decent diners and classic American eateries have offered pies for decades, filling countless rotating display cases across the country. But I’ve definitely had my fair share of sub-par pies, even at establishments that make them day in and day out. Decent pie may be common, but a superb pie, a pie that makes you wonder why you ever attempt to bake this stuff yourself, is truly a rare delight. There is no shortage of good pie in Arkansas, but if there is one woman who deservedly owns the title “Queen of Pie,” it’s Leah Greenfield, owner and operator of Pie in the Sky.

I caught up with Leah recently to ask her about life in the pie business and hopefully squeeze a few baking secrets out of her at the same time. At the time, she was in the midst of creating a “wedding pie,” for a dinner at the Terry House (why didn’t I think of this when I got married?) but she was kind enough to share her thoughts on what makes her Pie in the Sky such a slice of joy.

“As corny as it sounds,” (as she puts it) Leah inherited most of her recipes from her grandmother, a home cook from Benton, AR. “People my generation do not do a lot of home baking and pie crust seems to be a particular mystery.” In a day where one can just as easily defrost a frozen, pre-packaged pie crust and fill it with slop out of a can, it’s no wonder that genuinely fine pie is a dying art. Leah is keeping family traditions and cherished generational recipes alive and we should all be grateful that she does.

“When I started baking pies, my friends and co-workers were bowled over by a homemade pie crust.” No wonder…Leah’s crust is where the magic truly happens. Obviously, fillings cannot be entirely overlooked, but crust is undoubtedly the soul of a good pie. Many a pie has suffered from a crummy crust, often too flimsy, bland, or stale, too thick or thin, overcooked and dry…I’ve probably tasted them all. Luckily, Pie in the Sky is none of these. Leah prefers a slightly salty crust, without the addition of any sugar. This creates a balanced yet contrasting flavor with the sweetness of her fillings. “I use only five ingredients: flour, salt, shortening, butter, and water. No egg, vinegar, or vodka in my crusts.” The end result is nothing short of perfection. Her crusts are firm and thick enough to support their fillings, but manage to remain flaky and tender. The unsweetened pastry pairs perfectly with their sugary internal counterparts.

Pies in the Sky’s fillings are no slouches either. Leah creates around 30 flavors of pie. She offers many of the traditional favorites such as chocolate, cherry, apple, coconut cream and pecan, but also delves into some of the less commonly seen options such as banana-toffee, butterscotch, peanut butter-chocolate, strawberry-rhubarb, chocolate meringue, chocolate-bourbon pecan, and spicy peach. No matter what your selection, you can rest assured knowing that each pie will be handmade, rustic, and stunningly beautiful. Even Leah’s most basic pies, plain pumpkin for example, will likely be one of the best representations of that flavor you have ever sampled.

Pie in the Sky offers a variety of sizes and prices, ranging from a 10-inch deep-dish pie to the individually prepared, single-serving pie tarts. While the majority of her pies are sold via custom order and delivery, generally requiring 24-hour notice to produce, Leah also delivers a variety of 5-inch mini pies to Terry’s Finer Foods and Hillcrest Artisan Meats each week (typically on Tuesdays and Fridays). This is generally how I like to get my pie fix, mostly because I have a difficult time committing to a single flavor and here I am allowed to sample an ever-changing selection of precious pie.

Leah delivers her pies to homes and businesses all throughout Little Rock, North Little Rock, and Maumelle. Some businesses have even ordered her goods in lieu of cake to throw “pie birthday parties” for their employees. Several customers have ordered dozens of mini-pies for baby and bridal showers. Some have incorporated her pies into their wedding. The pies come delivered in bright Tiffany-blue boxes with red and white gingham bows and make spectacular gifts for any occasion.

If you are still convinced you’d like to attempt baking your own pie at this point, rather than leave it in the hands of a professional, Leah offers a few tips:

“1. Roll out your pie crust under a sheet of plastic wrap. You'll use less flour that way which makes for a more tender crust.

2. Don't buy a lot of fancy equipment like measured cutting mats, ceramic pie weights or specialty rolling pins. I use black beans as pie weights and reuse the same bucket of beans over and over. Crusts need to be weighted down when pre-baking for a cream or custard pie. I line my uncooked crust with parchment paper, fill with beans (black so you won't miss one if it should stray into your crust), and bake until set. Then I remove the paper and beans and finish baking until just brown.

3. Plan ahead! Pies need patience and proper planning; they're stubborn and can't be rushed.

4. Practice makes perfect, but sometimes the mistakes are priceless. I remember baking an Egg Custard pie especially for my grandmother for a Christmas Eve dinner years ago. It was her recipe, and she always got rave reviews. My pie turned out perfectly, and I served dainty slices with fresh whipped cream and a dash of nutmeg. So I was surprised to see a strange expression on Grandmother's face when she took her first bite...until I discovered that I had left out the sugar. It was like eating bland quiche. The sweet lady assured me she liked it better that way and ate every bite! I've baked that pie many times since and always laugh at my disastrous first attempt.”

Don’t let this holiday season pass you by without sampling a few of Pie in the Sky’s artfully-done creations. There is no better time to stuff your face with pie than when you are surrounded by loved ones during the coming months. You’ll be able to breath a little easier knowing that even if you completely botch your 25-lb turkey, the family meal will end on a sweet note with one of Leah’s marvelous pies.

If you’d like more information on Pie in the Sky, check out their website or contact them at (501) 993-3333.

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