Some credit Melissa and Emily Elsen—third generation pie bakers from South Dakota—with jumpstarting the ongoing renaissance of Brooklyn's Gowanus neighborhood when they opened the bakery Four & Twenty Blackbirds in 2010. And no surprise; with a reclaimed wood interior, direct-trade organic coffee, and complimentary locks for bike riders, it wholeheartedly embraces the area's hip ethos. But the real draw is, of course, the pie.
Everything from crust to filling is made by hand in their small, single-oven kitchen. And right now, in peak summertime, it's all fruit, all the time. There's the cult-favorite salted-caramel-apple, plus strawberry-balsamic, lavender-blueberry, and rhubarb crumble. Sourcing locally and organic is always a priority for the Elsens, who turn to Wilklow Orchards in New York's Hudson Valley and their local Greenmarket. Seasonality is so important to the sisters that the chapters in their upcoming cookbook—the aptly titled Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book (out on Oct. 29)—are called Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. We got them to share some of their secrets to creating the perfect summer pie.
What are the best fruits for summer pies?
Melissa: Peaches and blueberries are my favorite things. When both are in season, I can't get enough of them. Blueberries are naturally good for pies with their skin and tannins, so it thickens up. And I'm not as crazy about cherry as everyone else. Plums aren't as common, but they're extremely delicious and have a lot of things going on. I like that they're tart and rich, and a really beautiful color
Emily: Apricots are in the same stone fruit family as peaches and nectarines. When they're good and in season, it's like gold. I also love figs, which we get from a friend's tree in Brooklyn. And rhubarb. It's the first thing we start working with when we start making fruit pies for the summer.
What are some of your favorite fruit combinations?
Emily: Nectarines and peaches both pair well with blueberries. Nectarines are fun because they're easier to deal with since you don't have to peel them. They're unexpected, and more dynamic and brighter, flavor-wise. But stone fruits pair well with berries in general. Stone fruits tend to be sweeter, and berries are often tart. Blueberry and gooseberry also combine well. It's almost obvious—they're the same season, the look is similar, they're both juicy and flavorful. Gooseberries are tart and blueberry peak sweet, so there's a good balance. But my all-time favorite right now is fig and plum. In the summer, it's amazing with a crumble on top of it.
Melissa: The classic summertime combination is strawberry-rhubarb, but we don't do that one because we don't think the complement is as great as, say, blueberry or raspberry and rhubarb. Both really tart, but somehow the combos work, but only if it's sweetened and flavored correctly. Blueberry is a nice counterpart: it's richer, and the color is beautiful. We didn't grow up eating rhubarb combined with anything; we ate it straight, so when we are looking for a combination, it happens because they're in season at the same time.
Do you have any tips for picking out the best blueberries, peaches, plums, and other summer fruits?
Emily: Sticking local. We grew up in South Dakota, and plenty of things don't grow there except corn and wheat. If we can't get local, we'll get it from California. But the biggest rule is only buy stuff that's in season.
Melissa: We work with a fruit farmer, and he talks to us about what's in season. My advice is to ask questions and educate yourself about what to look for, whether it's at a farmer's market or the store. Peaches should be fragrant, relatively soft but not mushy.
Emily: Keep in mind that you don't always need peak fruit to make pie because you're putting it into a filling. It's ok if you have fruits that are a little bruised or a little over ripe. That's a good time to combine with other things. And if you have something unripe, you can still use it and sweeten it.
Which fruits are the hardest to prep? And any quick tips on making the process faster or more efficient?
Emily: The two most labor intensive fruits that come to mind are cherries and peaches. And concord grapes, but we don't even do them in the shop because it's too hard—although there's a recipe in our cookbook for it. For any fruit, you need to set yourself up properly. For peaches, they need to be ripe; if they're still hard, it'll be a disaster and the skin won't come off. We use the hot water/ice water method. Drop it in hot water, and if it's ripe enough, leave it in for 30 seconds to a minute, then drop in cold water, and then let it cool. The skin should slip off with the back of a knife or your finger. Also, make sure to use freestone peaches; if it's a clingstone, you'll need to take pit out.
Melissa: With cherries, we've been though a lot of tools and different methods. The simplest is tear them apart with your hands and pull the pit out, using your finger to knock the pit out of place. But make sure to wear gloves because juice squirts everywhere and your hands will get stained. We've tried a few tools, including a simple hand held punch, and those are fine for a home cook.
Emily: My favorite is a punch attached to a mason jar lid, so the pit falls into the jar and you're just left with cherry. It contains all the mess, so you don't have cherry pits shooting out on the floor and table. These take the cake. Strawberries are also kind of a pain. There's a hulling tool that looks like a tweezer, and you can pinch the top right off. If the berries are ripe enough, you can use your fingers. And always eat some while you're prepping to make it more enjoyable, especially the cherries.
How to you keep your crusts from getting soggy, especially on the bottom?
Emily: The best way is to bake it in a clear Pyrex so you can see what's going on. The biggest mistake is to pull a pie out before it's actually done. If it's golden on top you might think it's done, but if you can't see the bottom then you won't know if it's soggy. You can also start the pies at the bottom rack on high heat so it sets fast. After 20 minutes, move it to the middle. And make sure you bake it long enough. It's hard to over-bake a fruit pie.
Melissa: There is a fruit pie technique Melissa Clark talked about with the White House pastry chef, which is pre-baking the bottom crust. That just means you have to treat your top crust different; it's a good opportunity to do crumble top. But keep in mind it's a fruit pie, so the curt is going to soak up those juices and will be tender on the bottom. I don't mind if it has a little softness. The other thing we do for fruit pies—and the jury's out on it—is we sprinkle a mixture of flower and sugar on bottom crust before putting the fruit filling in. This creates an absorbent layer between the filling and uncooked crust.
Do you pre-cook any summer fruit before baking?
Emily: We don't pre-cook on a stovetop, but with juicy fruits, the technique is to sweat them with sugar and lemon juice for 20 to 30 minutes to release some of the excess water. You may lose some fruit juice, but in the end I don't think you're losing flavor. And you can use the excess juice to make syrup. Or if you really want to make sure you're not losing anything, you can take the liquid that has come off and reduce that to syrup and put it back in the pie.
Melissa: With rhubarb, you can freeze it first overnight, then let it thaw and drain. Don't squeeze it, so it can naturally drain off. If you squeeze, you lose juice and end up with the fiber. Sweating is really the best thing. You don't break down the structure by sweating.
Do you use thickeners in your fruit pies?
Emily: We do thicken everything. We don't use cornstarch at all because it's too gummy. We like to use arrowroot. It's versatile, and holds up well with acidic stuff like rhubarb, cherries, strawberries, blueberries. For peaches, we use potato starch. Flour is good for things that don't need a lot of thickening, like apples and pears.
Melissa: Apples also make good thickeners. We peel and shred one single apple and mix it with strawberries or blueberries. It breaks down in the oven, and the flavor doesn't come through. If anything it just enhances it by adding a little sweetness.
Anything else you'd like to add about summer pies?
Melissa: July and August are the slowest months in the pie shop—but it's the best time for fruit. Nobody really wants to turn on the oven right now, but it's worth it.