Plate of the Union: The life of pie sisters

November 29, 2012

Every grandchild may proclaim her grandmother the best baker around, but unlike the rest of yours, my grandma has a trophy to prove it. Sitting on top of our dining room cabinet, its shiny plaque declares her the winner of the Beverly Hills Pie Contest. She makes her pies less often today, but when my brother Ross and I were in middle school, we would often come home to a dining room table piled high with Granny Smiths.

Grandma’s apple pie is serious business in the Amos family. Her recipe may only have six ingredients—flour, butter, eggs, apples, cinnamon, and sugar—but its preparation verges on ritual. After grandma used to put out the apples, we would quickly reduce them to thin, white slices, a splay of newspapers protecting the wood table from the heaps of juicy green peelings that always accumulated around us. Then we let the apples sit for hours, stewing with sugar and cinnamon in their own juices.

How well the simple filling turns out is all a matter of timing. Leave it too long and the Granny Smiths lose their bite; don’t give the mixture enough time to rest and the apples won’t soften or form their own glaze. How to get the pie right is hardly something you can put down on an index card, so my brother and I knew we had finally mastered the recipe when we won the Beverly Hills Pie Contest decades after my grandmother had.

Still only in middle school, we were the youngest contestants in the bake-off. So when we smiled from the stage with a giant check that neither of us could hold up on our own, we incited the anger of quite a few 50-something bakers whose pies hadn’t placed.

Unfortunately, it’s incredibly tedious to replicate grandma’s pie in Georgetown housing—the crust may only call for butter and flour, but it takes quite a bit of counter space to roll out the dough properly. D.C., however, offers a few good places to buy a slice of pie.

Between Dixie Liquor and Revolution Cycles, Pie Sisters is both the closest bakery as well as the best. Fighting Georgetown Cupcake and Sprinkles for M St. foot traffic, Pie Sisters boasts a gimmicky pastry called the “cuppie,” which looks like a cupcake but uses all the traditional ingredients of a slice of pie.

Though delicious, the cuppies are difficult to eat, and because Pie Sisters bakes them in cupcake pans, the crust-to-filling ratio is higher than a normal slice. This works well for cream pies, which benefit from the extra crunch, but pies like the bourbon chocolate pecan are better as traditional slices, which pack in more filling.

Unfortunately, the tiny store doesn’t offer a welcoming place for sit-down diners. It’s less homey than photogenic, which is fitting given Pie Sisters’ recent perusal of a Cupcake Wars-esque reality TV show. The occasional camera crew kills the local-bakery feel of the place, and although a sign posted on their door recently welcomed customers in during filming, the boom poles and light setups crowding the small space said otherwise.

Cupcakes and macarons and food trucks all had their five minutes of fame, but pies seem more difficult to craft into some chic foodie phenomenon. Pie is a classic American dessert—it’s something grandma makes for family holidays or local bake-offs—not a trendy sweet that reality TV chefs should fight over. But perhaps no dessert, not even apple pie, is safe from our bizarre fetishization of confections.

Pie Sisters doesn’t completely ignore the stodgy delightfulness of pie. They’ve attempted to merge their gimmicky cuppies with a more classic message: “Tradition starts here.” Chalkboards propped along the walls tell stories about how the three sisters grew up canning peaches and baking with their mother. So maybe the bakery will succeed at repackaging this hominess and find a way to cash in on the Georgetown-bakery-turned-TLC-program trend. But I certainly hope they don’t.

The last thing we need is another Georgetown Cupcake swarming with starstruck tourists. And unlike GC, the desserts at Pie Sisters aren’t vapid and sickly sweet—the slices of pie have real richness and texture, and they’re some of the best I’ve ever tasted. So I’m crossing my fingers that Pie Sisters’ pilot doesn’t get picked up. Georgetown needs a real, decent bakery far more than America needs another reality TV show about frosting or buttermilk cream fights.

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