Monday, March 14, 2011

The constant is pie

Apple Cheddar Pie by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

 Today, March 14, is Pi Day, a day to celebrate the mathematical constant, the one snippet of higher math that geeks and non-geeks can talk about together. Pi is 3.14, and today is 3/14, March 14th, get it? Teachers have adopted this day, using pies in the classroom to help students grasp the concept of pi.

Pi R Squared is still bouncing around the recesses of my brain, but there's another mathematical property that I truly understand, that of Pie Lab:

Pie + Conversation = Ideas

Ideas + Design = Positive Change

Pie Lab is a restaurant and bakery located in Greensboro, Alabama, and it’s the embodiment of what happens when youth, idealism and good food come together. Cate Powell, Pie Lab’s Director of Regional and National Sales, spoke with me last week about Pie Lab’s history, its location in Hale County, Alabama, and its place in the world.

When Cate tells the story of Pie Lab, she starts with how she got there. First of all, Cate is an Atlanta girl, with a masters degree in international affairs from Georgia Tech, a well-traveled young woman who decided to use her business skills to improve communities. When she found out about Pie Lab, she and her parents drove the five hours to Greensboro, sat down at the restaurant, and six slices of pie later, in a “pie coma,” decided she needed to be a part of Pie Lab.

This is the short history of Pie Lab: a group of designers called Project M held a conference in 2008 and examined ways to use their skills to benefit American communities. They sat in a restaurant and contemplated the problems of small towns - access to jobs, education, resources. They all ordered pie, Powell said. And they said to themselves “you know, any problem can be solved with pie.”

The first incarnations of Pie Lab were free pie days, in which the designers gave away pie slices and asked folks what their communities needed. Greensboro became Pie Lab's home because a local nonprofit, HERO (Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization), chose to partner with the design group. The original idea for Greensboro was a pop-up shop, which evolved to a full-time bakery and restaurant on Main Street that now counts six employees.

Pie Lab, Greensboro, Alabama/Facebook
 In Powell's words, Hale County is a “pretty rural place.” The 2000 census puts the population at just under 18,000 and a median income hovering around $25,000. PieLab's mission to create jobs and that means shipping Pie Lab merchandise such as mugs and t-shirts all over the country. And don't forget those pies - popular flavors such as lemon chess and ginger apple can be shipped across the country, too. Today, Pie Lab represesents “the best of Southern culture," Powell said. "We use fresh, local ingredients, like pecans and peaches in our pies and jellies.” This summer, they will market pickled okra.

I asked Powell what she thought was at the heart of Pie Lab's appeal – the store has had considerable and favorable national press – the New York Times and Southern Living, for example, and was nominated for a James Beard award in restaurant design. “I think it’s the food factor. People are getting closer to slow food, being in the kitchen, making food at home. Using fresh ingredients is the new gourmet. Using real butter, having few ingredients," she said. But what it really comes down to is the magic of a circle of pastry with a sweet or savory filling – “We’re celebrating real American pie.”

Pie Lab's best-selling pies are Lemon Chess, Ginger Apple and Chocolate Walnut Brownie, all of which sound incredible. Cate graciously shared Pie Lab’s Apple Cheddar Pie recipe, and I’ve got to say, it’s a winner. The crust includes vinegar, yielding a tender, flaky crust. This is a hearty pie, and with a hot cup of coffee, just about the best breakfast I can name. I'm planning a field trip real soon to see Pie Lab for myself.

Apple Cheddar Pie by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Apple Cheddar Pie from Pie Lab

3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup unsalted butter, chilled

1/2 pound shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

1/4 cup ice water

1/4 cup white vinegar

7 large Granny Smith apples - peeled, cored and sliced

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cubed

1 egg, beaten

1 tablespoon white sugar

1. In a large bowl, combine flour and salt. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in cheese. Combine water and vinegar, and gradually stir in until mixture forms a ball. Divide dough in half and shape into balls. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.

2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F (230 degrees C.) Roll one ball out to fit a 9 inch pie plate. Place bottom crust in pie plate. Roll out top crust and set aside.

3. In a large bowl, toss apples in lemon juice to prevent discoloration. Drain and discard any excess juice. Stir in sugar and cinnamon. Arrange rows of overlapping apple slices, working from outer rim in. Dot with butter. Cover with top pie crust. Seal and crimp edges with fork, then trim excess dough. Cut a few slashes in top crust to allow steam to escape.

4. Bake on cookie sheet in preheated oven for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C), and continue baking for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from oven, brush lightly with beaten egg, and sprinkle liberally with sugar. Bake 5 to 10 minutes more until sugar forms a crisp glaze. Remove pie from oven and let cool on a wire rack.

Apple Cheddar Pie by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books


Beth said...

Yum~ wish I could be there right now having a cup of coffee and a piece of that pie with you!

One of my favorite desserts is my mom's apple crunch, which is made with cheddar cheese, so I just KNOW I would love this pie :-)

Barbara Bakes said...

I'm sure I'd love a field trip to the Pie Lab too. Your pie looks fabulous. That Lemon Chess pie sounds like a must try too.

Angela said...

Making a Pi Day pie for Wednesday--our math department is holding a pie contest at 1:59...