Tale of Two Pie Heavens: Part 1

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Once upon a time a wise man, I think it was Jack Handy, said: “When you die, if you get a choice between going to regular heaven or pie heaven, choose pie heaven. It might be a trick, but if it’s not, mmmmmmmm, boy.”

Some people’s idea of pie heaven is holing up in a warm kitchen with a lot of cold butter, a rolling pin, a heaping fruit basket, and a library of spices, while other people’s idea of pie heaven is walking into Random Order bakery, pointing to the brandied peach pie and handing over their money. Let’s not quibble–there’s no right or wrong pie heaven.

But with Thanksgiving on the horizon, it’s time to think about where you stand, because while the turkey gets a lot of space on the T-Day playbill, it’s the pie that brings down the house–warm spicy pumpkin pie, could-die-happy-now chocolate pecan pie, cinnamon and nutmeg-laced good-old-fashioned apple pie.

Whether you believe the road to pie heaven is paved with good intentions, Grandma’s secret lard-laden crust recipe, or cold hard cash, Portland’s pie scene has something for you.

The Do-It-Myselfer

You love pie. You think about pie all the time. Your favorite movie is “The Waitress” and you’ve got an entire recipe box stuffed with 4×6 cards bearing neatly printed pie recipes going back six generations.  You don’t need more pie recipes but as you learned in your Economics 101 class, there are needs and there are wants, and who doesn’t want to discover another way to make pie?

I followed the scent of fresh nutmeg and maple sugar all the way to lovely baketress Anja Spence’s Northeast Portland kitchen this week in search of a perfect pie recipe.  Anja–local pastry chef, dessert caterer and all around delightful person, is the woman behind Miss Zumstein’s Cakes and Desserts–and is responsible for the mouth- and heart-warming selection of pies at darling downtown coffeehouse Half and Half, the divine little cookies at Heart Coffee & Roasting, and the luscious 4″ tartlets that croon their dessert siren song to you as you hover over the goodie case at Pastaworks markets.

anjawithpieWhen I arrived, Anja was just putting the finishing touches on one of her Thanksgiving ’09 pie specials–a gorgeous, deep golden Maple Custard Pumpkin Pie, the secret to which is the addition of maple syrup to the pumpkin custard filling. Baking in a nearby  oven were crisp little maple leaves dusted with turbinado and maple sugar, which would perch atop the pie in a fluttery buttery pile when finished.

Anja’s been one of Portland’s finest pie makers for several years now, but like many of us, her pie-loving roots grow deep.

“Absolutely,” she replied when asked if she grew up in a pie-friendly family. “The Spence family dessert is baked Alaska–in a pie shell,” she went on. “Grandma would make it in the summer with fresh strawberries and meringue on top. Now she’s gone, so I’m carrying on.”

Anja, who graced the kitchens of locals favorites like Castagna and Genoa before starting Miss Zumstein’s, shared some of her philosophies on pie while we waited for the maple leaves to brown.

The secret to a perfect pie, she opined, is in the crust. “The crust is the vehicle for the yummy filling,” she said. ” I have two pie crust recipes, a cream cheese dough that’s really easy to roll out, and the extra fat coasts the flour and creates spaces around it, making the crust very flaky, while the acid from the buttermilk makes it tender. Then I have an all-butter crust that really holds its shape, that’s what the maple leaves are made out of.”

“And I keep the ingredients really cold,” she added. “Ice water, and really cold butter. I’ll chop up the butter and put it back in fridge before I make the dough to get it even colder.”

While Anja readily admits that cakes (one of her stunning creations is set to appear in the December issue of Oregon Bride) and cookies (I’m proud to say that my boyfriend was the first member of Anja’s Cookie of the Month Club) are her first love, she says there is nothing quite like a pie.

“Pies are so cozy,” she said with her sweet smile. “They’re the ultimate hand-made dessert.”

And in the spirit of the season, Anja was kind enough to share the recipe for her easy to make and just as easy to love Maple Custard Pumpkin Pie.

by Anja Spence of Miss Zumstein’s Cakes and Desserts

1 ½ cups pumpkin puree
1/3 cup maple syrup
¼ cup brown sugar
1 cup whole milk
½ cup heavy cream
2 eggs
2 T all purpose flour
1 t cinnamon
pinch of fresh nutmeg
1/2 t ground ginger
½ t salt

Mix all of the above and pour into favorite unbaked pie crust in a 10”pie shell. Bake at 400 degrees for 40 minutes or until done.

Cut out pastry leaves, brush them with an egg wash, dust with maple and turbinado sugar, bake until golden, top pie.


Miss Zumstein

Although Anja has provided you with the tools to create your own perfect Thanksgiving pie, she is also quite happy to bake a pie for you, which leads me to the Part Two of this article: The Someone-Else-Please-Do-It-For-Me’er