One of my favorite things to bake is my salted bourbon caramel apple pie. It's familiar, yet surprising, and a lot of people like it. In this way, I like to think it is much like Chattanooga: humble, satisfying, traditional, yet slyly exceeds expectations.
I can speak about this on two fronts: 1) I am the owner/operator and chief pie maker extraordinaire of Mama Crunk's Pies and 2) I am a very recent transplant to our fair city who decided to relocate here from the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C. after one visit that sharply changed my expectations of what a southern town could be.
For some background, I am a classically trained chef who graduated from the Art Institute of Washington in 2011. I've worked for almost a decade in the food industry, in its myriad niches and facets. I've worked as a line cook and pastry cook in some of the most upscale restaurants in D.C., I've done high-volume professional catering and I've worked as a short-order cook in some real dives. In short, I have a good amount of experience to draw passion from.
So what is it about pies?
I came to love pies while on maternity leave after my daughter was born in 2015. While on leave, I developed a habit of making a pie a week. Something about the zen ritual of making and rolling out the dough was so appealing to me. It's practice steeped in tradition and comfort. At the same time, the imagination and artistic spirit I maintained from my restaurant days was happily satisfied by the decorations I began to weave with the dough and the inventive fillings I concocted.
Also while on maternity leave, my family decided to visit Chattanooga on a whim since friends had moved here the year prior. Coming from a city like D.C., we falsely imagined Chattanooga to be a sleepy Southern idyll, reminiscent of Mayberry. Imagine our surprise when we arrived and toured downtown with its bustling Innovation District, Southside with its restaurants that rivaled anything I'd eaten back home and the all the beautiful galleries, museums and activities down by the Tennessee river. The vibrant spirit of a city combined with the friendliness and charm of a small town completely surprised and won us over.
We spent four days in Chattanooga and that was enough to convince me to move here.
Five bustling months later, we did. And completely inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit of the town, I started Mama Crunk's Pies in May 2016 and there was no better place to introduce it than the Chattanooga Market.
And in the same way that Chattanooga surprised me, I think my pie surprised some Chattanoogans.
For one thing, I've observed that pie evokes very certain responses and thoughts from people. In fact, I've learned pie is one of the most evocative desserts there is. I challenge you to think of a dessert “more American” than blueberry pie on the 4th of July, pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving and Mama's apple pie all-year round. The idea that one could get creative with fillings or even decoration seemed to catch customers off guard.
My tastes lean towards the adventurous and imaginative, so I like to include that in my pie flavors. I brought both savory and non-traditional sweet flavors to the market. Rather than offer just a peach pie, I'd offer one of my favorite flavor parings, peach and basil. Rather than just a plain blueberry, I'd offer blueberry lavender and vanilla.
These sweet flavors were met with initial wariness and then happy surprise by my customers. The idea of savory pies were met with more confusion, but also delight.
One of the main goals of Mama Crunk's Pies is to change the way most people look at pie. Pie doesn't have to be just for the 4th of July BBQ or Thanksgiving or Labor Day. Pie can be a January dinner, in the form of a hearty and filling shepherd's pie, stuffed with spiced lamb and veggies, encased in a butter crust and topped with creamy mashed potatoes. It can be a twist on a classic in the form of a familiar sweet-and-sour cherry pie, but this time topped with a delicately complimentary crumble made of amaretti Italian almond cookies. It can even be a showstopping dessert in the form of tangy strawberries, swirled with balsamic syrup, marscapone and black pepper, topped with delicate butter flowers.
In short, pie can exceed and surprise your expectations, just as Chattanooga with its thriving and spirited food scene, local businesses and innovations did for me. Will it become one of the next food trends of 2017? I'm not sure. But it is definitely worth treating yourself to more often.
For a cozy winter meal to convince that pie isn't just for summer and savory pie is the bee's knees, try one of my favorite recipes for a vegetarian (!) shepherd's pie, which I affectionately called “Shepherd's Pie Squared”
Lentil Shepherd's Pie Squared
Yield: 1 – 10 inch pie
For the Crust:
-10 Tablespoons of butter, diced into cubes and then chilled or frozen
-1 ¼ C of all-purpose flour (plus more for rolling)
-1/4 Teaspoon of salt
-3-4 Tablespoons of ice water
For the Filling:
-2 Tablespoon of butter
-1 Tablespoon of olive oil
-8 oz mushrooms, sliced
-2 carrots, diced small
-1 medium onion diced
-2 cloves of garlic, minced
-1 Tablespoon of tomato paste
-2 Tablespoon of flour
-1/4 cup of red wine
-2 cups of vegetable broth
-1 Tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
-1 cup dried green lentils, picked through and rinsed
-1 bay leaf
-3/4 cup of frozen peas
-1/2 teaspoon of salt
-1/4 teaspoon of black pepper
For the Mashed Potato Topping:
-2 large russet potatoes, peeled and diced
-1/2 cup of heavy cream
-1/4 cup (½ stick) of butter
-2 cloves of garlic, smashed
-A handful of herbs (I like rosemary and thyme)
-1/3 cup of grated sharp white cheddar
-Salt and pepper to taste
-A pinch of smoked paprika
1) Place chilled butter, flour and salt into a food processor or bowl. If using a food processor, pulse to combine roughly (there will still be big chunks). If using a bowl, cut butter into dry ingredients with forks or a pastry cutter until you have pea-sized chunks. Gradually add ice water by tablespoons (while pulsing in a processor, adding by hand if in a bowl) until the dough has just achieved the texture of wet sand. Form into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill in fridge for at least 30 minutes.
2) In a medium saucepan, heat butter and olive oil over med-high heat. Add mushrooms and saute til cooked thru, about 5 minutes. Add carrots and onion and saute until softened, about 3 minutes. Once slightly translucent, add garlic, tomato paste and flour and cook until flour smell is cooked off, about 2 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the red wine, cook for 1 minute. Whisk in vegetable broth and add soy sauce. Add lentils and bay leaf and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer on low. If the mixture gets dry throughout cooking, add a little liquid a tablespoon at a time and stir. Allow lentils to simmer uncovered for about 30-40 minutes until tender and most liquid is absorbed. During the last 5 minutes, add frozen peas and stir. Season to taste.
3) In a medium stockpot, cover potatoes with salted water and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook for about 10-15 minutes. Once fork-tender, drain. Mash potatoes either with a masher or ricer. Set aside.
4) In small stockpot, heat cream and butter over med-low heat. Add smashed garlic and herbs and bring to a gentle simmer, do not boil. Allow to cook for 1-2 minutes til fragrant. Removing garlic and herbs, add cream mixtures to potatoes and stir to combine. Add grated cheese and season to taste and stir to combine.
5) On a floured surface, roll chilled pie dough in quarter-turns to maintain evenness. Roll until dough round is 1/8” thick. Place in pie plate and cut off excess trim, crimping the edges.
6) To assemble, spread the lentil mixture over the bottom of the pie dough. Over the lentil mixture spread the mashed potato mixture, running a fork over the top to create a nice pattern. Sprinkle with smoked paprika and place in a 400 F oven for about 25 minutes or until the crust is golden and top is browned.