Just before Thanksgiving, The New York Times declared that pie is the new cupcake. In Brooklyn, that trend has been building for some time. About a year ago, pie shops began to pop up across the borough much the way cupcake outlets proliferated around Manhattan during the Sex and the City era. And while we wouldn’t kick a cupcake to to curb, we have to say, we like pie best. At the end of the day, a good cupcake is just a tiny cake, but a truly great pie is straight up magic.
Brooklyn has long appreciated a good pie–Enid’s held its 8th annual apple pie contest last October, which has turned out plenty of innovative, bacon-laced, rosemary-scented versions of the classic. The Bedford hosted the fourth annual Brooklyn Pie Contest in late January (savory–Cuban Picadillo pie and sweet–Shaker Lemon pie were the winners). Pie in the Park is a less competitive pie festival held in Prospect Park each August. And the opening and subsequent success of Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Gowanus certainly drew attention to the pie trend. “That’s not really what we set out to do,” says Four & Twenty co-founder, Emily Elsen. “We set out just to make good pie, but the mentions in the press don’t hurt.”
Wherever it came from, there are now three major pie shops sprinkled throughout Brooklyn, all with their own take on classic pie varieties. This is not to say that there aren’t delicious slices available at other bakeries and on menus–we hear the newly opened Mable’s Smokehouse in Williamsburg has a mean sweet potato pie, M. Wells in Long Island City rocks a savory Quebecois meat pie, and the Roebling Tea Room often serves up Maryland-style chess pie worth sampling. For the purposes of this article we’re talking shops that specialize in pie, with many different pies on their daily menus and proprietary flavors.
Blue Stove in Williamsburg prepares mostly straightforward renditions of pie staples and doubles as an excellent coffice. Pies ‘n’ Thighs in South Williamsburg is a veritable down-home cooking mecca, making some of the best versions of classical pie flavors in Brooklyn along with a full menu of savory soul food. Four & Twenty Blackbirds, on the other hand, takes a bit more of an out-of-the-box approach to pie making, always experimenting with new, offbeat flavor combinations. According to Elsen, one of her favorite pies at Four & Twenty, the salty honey pie, was an experiment that was ultimately created by accident. The flavor selections at Four & Twenty Blackbirds change with the seasons. The salty honey pie for instance is only available during the wintertime. The strawberry balsamic pie on the other hand, is a summer favorite, and the recipe can be found in the recent Pie in the Park cookbook.
Whether it’s a trend or not, each of these pie shops seems to be thriving. It would appear that pie, a food that, according to Wikiepedia, been around 9500 B.C. (if you want to go deeper than Wikipedia on this one, check out Pie: A Global History by Australian author Janet Clarkson) is here to stay. Whether it’s the way a scoop of ice cream cools atop a hot apple pie, or the texture of a pumpkin filling soaked crust, or a half-soggy Nilla wafer engulfed in banana cream, a craving for a particular pie flavor is hard to shake. Here at Brooklyn Based we created our own kind of pie chart mapping out which pie palace has the best of each flavor. After trying our selections for this pie-off, you just might find yourself siding with pie, in the great cake versus pie debate.
Best Banana Cream
Pies ‘n’ Thighs
Pies ‘n’ Thighs makes the absolute creamiest, banana-iest banana cream pie crammed with banana slices and Nilla wafers on top of a Nilla Wafer crust! Every element of this pie is perfect and this just might be Pies ‘n’ Thighs’ best slice. Which is a big claim for a place with a rotating cast of several dozen flavors ranging from grapefruit curd to chocolate peanut butter.
There are few pies more decedent than a well made pecan pie. At Blue Stove, the pecan pie is done just the way it should be, with a caramelized, fresh pecan-topped upper layer and an almost translucent, gel-like sugary center. Blue Stove’s pecan pie is a sugar injection that’s probably best shared with a friend, but if you have a pecan pie craving, this is the best way to satisfy it.
Four & Twenty Blackbirds
Runner Up: Pies ‘n’ Thighs
Pumpkin is one of the most intricate of the major the pie flavors. So many elements must be in place to make a great pumpkin pie: The filling has to strike the perfect balance of sweet and spicy. But, filling that’s overly spicy completely can overwhelm the other flavors. The filling must be creamy, but still have body. Lastly, the crust on the bottom has to capable of soaking up the filing. The pumpkin pie at Four and Twenty Blackbirds perfectly executes each of these components. Pies ‘n’ Thighs makes perfect pumpkin filling. It may even be preferable to Four and Twenty’s filling, but the crust is hard and doesn’t get soggy the way a pumpkin piecrust should, and for this pielover, that’s the best part.
Best Key Lime
TIE: Pies ‘n’ Thighs and Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies
First, the criteria: It mustn’t be dark green! If the filling of a key lime pie is the same color as the peel of a lime, it ain’t right. The color of a perfect key lime is not found in nature, and is closest to something you’d find on the sweater of a character in a Saved by the Bell episode, almost neon, sort of like a faded yellow highlighter. The key lime filling needs to be a delicate balance of tart, sweet and creamy. Some pie makers use pre-packed lime juice, claiming it’s better than fresh squeezed, while others squeeze the limes themselves. Some use only key limes, which are smaller and more tart than other limes, while some use a mixture of key limes and regular limes. The crust must be firm and made of graham cracker.
In the Florida Keys, it’s traditional to add a heaping mountain of merinue atop a Key Lime pie–although not every place does this, and some even serve a naked pie with a dollop of whipped cream on the side. Neither Pies ‘n’ Thighs nor Steve’s bothers with meringue. Pies ‘n’ Thighs simply makes a perfect key lime filling. The color is perfect. It’s tart, but not too tart and the crust is a hard graham cracker crust. Steve’s Authentic makes a fantastic filling, but it’s not quite as creamy as Pies ‘n’ Thighs, and it’s more tart which may appeal to some diners more. When it comes to crusts however, Pies ‘n’ Thighs has a long leg up on Steve’s Authentic. Pies ‘n’ Thighs crust has a strong graham cracker flavor, and you could actually pick up a slice of their pie and eat it. Steve’s is way crumblier, and toned down. Steve’s though, gets extra points for making a personal-sized pie, and for putting that pie on a stick, then freezing it and dipping it in chocolate.
Best Apple Pie
TIE: Four & Twenty Blackbirds’ Salted Caramel Apple Pie and Blue Stove Cheddar Bacon Apple Pie
This category made for the most difficult decision. Each pie shop has their own, interesting take on apple pie. Pies ‘n’ Thighs does an apple cheddar, and Blue Stove does bacon-apple-cheddar while Four and Twenty Blackbirds does a salted caramel apple. Ultimately, the two best apple pies in Brooklyn were so different from one another that it was like comparing apples and oranges–or maybe pie and cake.
The perfect apple pie is a serious matter of personal taste. Some eater like their apple pie filling to be less cooked and firmer–they want feel as though they’re actually eating apples. Others want the filling share little common the actual fruit, and any trace of tartness is a dealbreaker. Some eaters prefer a harder crust while others want a soft strudel-type crust. Some want flakey, some want chewy. Personally, I’m a soft/chewy/fake apples kind of guy.
At Blue Stove, a straightforward apple pie is on the menu, but their bacon-apple-cheddar pie is a must-eat experience. Blue Stove makes prepares their apple filling to a perfect happy medium between the totally soft and totally crisp approach–a little something for everyone. Their crust is nice and chewy. And, the combination of the apples, gooey cheddar chunks and thick bacon bits is absolute tsunami of flavor. However, you need to be in the right mood for this pie and it’s often best enjoyed as a breakfast item. We’ll declare it right here and now as the winner of the best breakfast pie in the borough.
Four & Twenty Blackbirds’ salted caramel apple has become their trademark pie and a reason in and of itself to make your way to their shop in Gowanus. The genius to this pie is this: take away the salt and the caramel, and you’re still looking a perfect apple pie. The braided crust is chewy yet flakey and the bottom soaks up the goo from the apples. The filling is pretty well cooked making the apples perfectly soft. Their use of caramel is sparing but adds this whole new galaxy of flavor. Large flakes of salt are flecked across the caramelized upper crust making this apple pie, this absolutely classical, basic food, one of the most complex desserts in Brooklyn.