by Katherine Hafner
For too long our culture has worshiped the almighty cake. And while no one has a problem with a well-made treat of the chocolate or carrot variety, it’s well past time we celebrate the complexities and delights of the humble pie. Here are three options in our region. Enjoy.
Proper Pie Co.
Neil Smith and Nikki Price were tiring of restaurants. Then Smith, who had worked around the world as a chef on rock tours (feeding the likes of Paul McCartney and Nine Inch Nails), started reminiscing about the savory pies of his native New Zealand – and that gave them an idea. The husband and wife opened Proper Pie Co. in 2012, and it took off. “It took us by surprise, actually,” he says.
Located in Richmond’s Church Hill area just southeast of downtown, Proper Pie offers about four dozen rotating flavors of the savory variety, from curried lamb to barbecue to steak and cheese. There are plenty of options for vegans and vegetarians too, including jackfruit chile verde and a broccoli, chickpea and Gouda roll.
But this being the South, the pair had to put some sweet pies in the mix. The savory pie concept is still “strange to a lot of people,” Smith says. “(We) try to get people to think differently.”
Some of the sweeter pies include apple, lemon meringue and chocolate raspberry. And the blueberry sour cream is a customer favorite.
Their “banoffee” pie – a cross between banana and toffee –made Time Out magazine’s list of the 20 best desserts in America in 2017.
The Rustic Tart
Kimberly Deane has cooked and baked ever since childhood, but until a few years ago she had never made a pie. “They were never pretty,” she says. Her opinions changed when she stumbled across a cookbook by Bouchon Bakery’s Thomas Keller and fell in love with the way he described making tarts.
A real estate agent at the time, Deane took Fridays off to bake therapeutically. But what started as a hobby for her became an obsession for others as she started selling tarts in local shops and at pop-up events.
In late 2016, she opened The Rustic Tart on Granby Street in downtown Norfolk. The place is easy to miss, tucked as it is into a narrow storefront between a cafe and a dance studio. But the bright red door and baby-blue facade draw you in.
Her top seller is a rich, dense, chocolate chess pie, essentially an encrusted brownie. There are other seasonal pies, one savory tart at a given time – such as tomato gruyere – and homemade, small-batch ice cream featuring flavors such as lemon lavender.
And there’s always a “Pie-casso,” or a pie-cake hybrid that’s an homage to her first dessert love.
“I’m not interested in doing a traditional, homemade, baking-at-my-grandmother’s-house pie,” Deane says. “I really want to bring out elegance in the dessert. And I think pie deserves that.”
Sugar Plum Bakery
Baking is a rewarding, multi-step process, easy to divide and conquer. That ethos is what led in 1987 to the creation of the nonprofit Sugar Plum Bakery, which makes a point of hiring people with disabilities.
“That’s why the founders chose to do a bakery, because the baking process can really be broken down into numerous small jobs for multiple individuals,” says Leah Bedell, the bakery’s operations manager.
Founded by two local families, Sugar Plum now employs about 50 people – half with “recognized disabilities,” Bedell says, the other half with what she calls “unrecognized disabilities.” “I think that it’s important for us to show that we all have a disability in one way or another.”
It’s now the go-to spot in Virginia Beach for a host of sweet treats – including pie. Last year, Sugar Plum sold more than 600 of them. During the week of Thanksgiving, Sugar Plum has pies stacked everywhere in the building.
More than a dozen flavors are on offer, many of them seasonal, like strawberry rhubarb and peach during the summer and a praline pecan pumpkin pie in the fall. The bakery adds a new flavor every so often.
Year-round favorites include the Sugar Plum Berry – featuring blueberries, cranberries and cherries – and five varieties of apple, including a French take with raisins and icing.
Bedell believes it’s the quality of ingredients that sets Sugar Plum apart. Any time there’s a change in the industry – such as when partially hydrogenated oil “was no more” – the bakery seeks out the top choice “and we really try our best to keep the best product that we can make,” she says.
Plus, she says, “our crust is phenomenal.”