PIE IS HOT: Homespun pastry dubbed top dessert of 2011
FARGO Neither Gwen Johnson nor her fianc? Dane McCartney are big fans of wedding cake. They used to joke that the prettier a cake looked, the worse it tasted. So when they planned their Oct. 30 wedding reception at the Plains Art Museum, they dec...
Neither Gwen Johnson nor her fiancé Dane McCartney are big fans of wedding cake.
They used to joke that the prettier a cake looked, the worse it tasted.
So when they planned their Oct. 30 wedding reception at the Plains Art Museum, they decided to take the cake - and leave it.
Instead, they served pie.
K's Bakery in Fargo made them six different kinds of pie to feed their 170 guests. The pastry-wrapped desserts - varying from pecan and pumpkin to French silk - melded perfectly with the bittersweet-bedecked tables and harvest-y palette of golds, browns and oranges.
"It really fit in with a fall wedding," Gwen McCartney says. "It was nice and warm and feast-like. And the guests really seemed to like it. A lot of people went back to taste the different kinds."
The McCartneys, like people everywhere, have rediscovered the homespun appeal of pie. After a decade of ever-more-elaborately tiered cakes and intricately filled cupcakes, Americans seem to be craving the simple desserts like grandma used to make. Likewise, food-trend experts across the country have made pie-in-the-sky projections, even dubbing 2011 as the "Year of the Pie."
"Pie is hot," Andrew Freeman, a restaurant industry consultant, told the Los Angeles Times. "We predict that there will be dedicated pie shops and pie carts and pie trucks opening in the next year.
"If I'm wrong, I'll eat pie."
Americans ordered 722 million servings of pie at restaurants nationwide last year, an increase of 12 million slices over 2009, according to the market-research firm, NPD Group.
Meanwhile, servings of cake - propelled for the last few years by the cupcake craze - were down at restaurants and specialty bakeries last year, according to an NPD survey. And in homes, per-capita consumption of cupcakes was down 18 percent.
On both coasts, where these things tend to start, we're already seeing shops that specialize in pie happy hours, pie shooters and "lolli-pies" - bite-sized pastries served on a stick.
Closer to home, where cooks still make beautiful pies with carefully hand-fluted crusts and the Sons of Norway designates every Thursday as "Pie Day," one could argue this dessert has never gone out of style. Even so, local bakeries report better-than-ever pie sales this holiday season.
Tracy Walvatne, who runs Josie's Corner Bakery in downtown Fargo with her husband, Randy, says their store's pie sales are always brisk, especially on days when they run a $2.25 pie-and-coffee special. But this holiday season's sales of pie were up 20 percent from 2009, she says.
They've also seen a shifting demographic.
In the last year, "I've seen the younger generation getting into pie," Walvatne says. "I remember when I was growing up, I really wasn't into pie. But it's almost like it skipped a generation, and college students are going crazy for it."
In urban areas, pie has received a glamour-gal makeover. It's being downsized, skewered on a stick and filled with trendy ingredients like salted caramel, bittersweet chocolate-pecan and cranberry sage.
But locally, diners still prefer the old-school slice.
At TNT's Diner in West Fargo, owners Tim and Tammy Hagenson base their pie menu on personal favorites as well as customer requests. They make up to 20 different types of pie, yet have found rhubarb, lemon meringue and banana cream remain perennial favorites.
At K's Bakery in south Fargo, owner Karen Fabre Wills offers 25 different kinds of pie, including a streusel-topped apple pie baked in a paper bag.
Even so, Fargoans typically gravitate toward more traditional, seasonal flavors, such as pecan or pumpkin for Thanksgiving, or banana cream for Easter.
"I'm not trying to be trendy," Fabre Wills says. "I'm traditional. I want to be the person who makes you grandma's apple pie."
This brings up an important point. All interviewed agreed on one thing: The type of pie doesn't matter as much as whether it's well-made.
Yes, despite its down-to-earth appeal, pie can be surprisingly tricky to master. It takes skill and a deft touch to make the most important part of the dessert - a light, flaky, flavorful crust.
"You have to roll it out fresh every day," Fabre Wills says. "When it looks too perfect, you know it's a pre-fab pie."
Nichole Hensen, owner of Nichole's Fine Pastry in Fargo, says the secret lies in good ingredients - including the right ratio of butter to lard (about 2/3 to 1/3). "There's so many recipes out there that are full of little extra ingredients, like 7-Up or vinegar," she says. "If you just use the basic ingredients and use it well, you'll make good dough."
So why pie?
Peter Kelly and Andrea Baumgardner, co-owners of the Green Market in Fargo, say that history shows people will turn toward comfort foods like pie during economic downturns.
Walvatne agrees. "With the recession and dialing back a little bit, it's the ultimate American comfort food. It's the next step to the fetal position, right?" she jokes, laughing. "We're all wanting something to tap into our roots again."
That makes sense, as pie reminds us of loved ones, simpler times and home.
"Grandmas around here probably didn't make some fancy seven-layer torte, but they did make good-old, basic pie," Hensen says. "I think it's associated with our backgrounds and our upbringing."
Tammy Hagenson agrees. She says certain types of pie will prompt customers to reminisce about how their mothers or grandmothers used to cook and bake. "In a sense, it's still a comfort food," she says. "It's like meat and potatoes. It brings back a lot of memories."
Pie also offers a surprising versatility, which is why it has become more popular for birthday parties, office gatherings and weddings. Fargo's Quality Bakery is routinely asked to set up a "dessert bar" at wedding receptions, and that table typically includes a few pies, says owner Pete Fendt.
"We're moving more away from the great, big, huge cakes all over the place, and we're still on the tail end of the cupcake thing," he says.
Annie and Jared Ruprecht were actually a bit ahead of the trend when they served pie at their wedding in 2006.
"I come from a family of bakers," says Annie, when explaining her decision. "My mother, my grandmother and my great-grandmother are all amazing bakers. We always had pie over cake for dessert at home."
So when the new couple opted to include pie, they enlisted the best bakers they knew: Annie's family. Aunts and loved ones showed up early and began churning out pies to serve to their 200-plus guests.
The pies made a stir at the reception from the moment they were wheeled into the hotel. "People were stopping us in the lobby and asking if they were for sale," she says, laughing.
Now one of Ruprecht's cousins is engaged - and would also like to serve pie. "Most people don't get it very often," she says. "You get it at Thanksgiving or maybe the Fourth or July or just on rare occasions. It's certainly a novelty."
The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.