A Holiday Pie Bake with Four & Twenty Blackbirds
Emily and Melissa Elsen, the sisters behind Brooklyn pie shop Four & Twenty… >
A Holiday Pie Bake with Four & Twenty Blackbirds
When we were on the hunt for the perfect pies to make for the holidays, we knew just where to turn: Emily and Melissa Elsen, the sisters behind the Brooklyn pie shop Four & Twenty Blackbirds. After learning the art of pie-making as children from their grandma, they’ve gone on to earn slices of acclaim for their buttery and flaky, sweet and savory treats from critics and their legions of loyal fans. Ahead of Thanksgiving—perhaps the most pie-centric day of the year—we invited them to to share a few of their famous recipes, which you’ll also find in their new Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book, as well their insights into working with family (no pie-throwing to report just yet) and the very best things to serve with pie.
What’s the most outlandish pie flavor you’ve ever created? How about the shop’s bestseller?
Salty Honey is pretty out there—it’s a totally unique recipe that we developed somewhat on a whim. It has definitely become a cult favorite. It’s pretty sweet (lots of honey in there), so it’s one for the sweet-tooths of the world. Salted Caramel Apple is the bestseller, hands down—it’s not too sweet, too gooey or too salty, it’s just really good apple pie.
Has working together changed your relationship as sisters? Have any advice for anyone about to go into business with a family member?
We’ve grown closer and also learned that we need to build in time apart—we spend a lot of time together, more than we did as kids, so we definitely read each others moods quickly. We haven’t thrown pie at each other (yet), but other things have been thrown in the heat of an argument! We are not afraid to disagree to get to an agreement. If you go into business with a family member make sure your personalities complement each other and that you utilize each other’s strengths. Be sure to build a foundation of trust.
Have you brought any recipes from your family’s pie shop into your own?
We honor our grandmother Liz’s seasonal approach to making pie and we have done things like her Sour Cream Raisin in the pie shop. In the book, Lizzie’s Lemon Sour Cream is our homage to one of our her most delicious pies.
Do you miss the rural setting of South Dakota—where you were raised—now that you’re based in Brooklyn?
We grew up in a rural farm town where we knew practically everyone and their grandparents, too. Our family fostered in us a strong work ethic and Midwestern sensibilities of friendlessness and honesty. We’ve lived in New York for nearly fifteen years now and we always say it’s not so different from a small town; you make your small community within the larger community. The noise and grit of city life sometimes overwhelm us, but we think this is the greatest city in the world.
Any fancy ideas for serving pie, other than wedge-on-plate?
How about for baking a pie? Don’t be afraid to try different shaped pie pans and tins, we even used a cast-iron skillet and a bowl in the book! Piecrust is flexible and fun to work with when it’s made well. Just adjust baking times according to thickness and type of material you are baking in. As for what to serve with pie, dry dessert wines or sherry go well, and bitter beers are surprisingly good too. But a good fresh cup of black coffee is the winner. Agent Cooper had it right.
Our signature and most popular crust, with a hint of cider vinegar for tang and tenderness.
Makes dough for one single-crust 9- to 10-inch pie or tart
1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/4 pound (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces
1/2 cup cold water
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/2 cup ice
Makes dough for one double-crust 9- to 10-inch pie or tart
2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces
1 cup cold water
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1 cup ice
Stir the flour, salt, and sugar together in a large bowl. Add the butter pieces and coat with the flour mixture using a bench scraper or spatula. With a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour mixture, working quickly until mostly pea-size pieces of butter remain (a few larger pieces are okay; be careful not to overblend).
Combine the water, cider vinegar and ice in a large measuring cup or bowl.
Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the ice water mixture over the flour mixture, and mix and cut it in with a bench scraper or spatula until it is fully incorporated. Add more of the ice water mixture, 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time, using the bench scraper or your hands (or both) to mix until the dough comes together in a ball, with some dry bits remaining. Squeeze and pinch with your fingertips to bring all the dough together, sprinkling dry bits with more small drops of the ice water mixture, if necessary, to combine. Shape the dough into a flat disc, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, but preferably overnight, to give the crust time to mellow. If making the double-crust recipe, divide the dough in half before shaping each portion into flat discs.
Wrapped tightly, the dough can be refrigerated for 3 days or frozen for 1 month.
Farmer Cheese with Thyme Pie
Makes one 10-inch pie
Serves 8 to 10
Farmer cheese is a soft, unripened cheese with a texture similar to ricotta. (If you can’t find farmer cheese, a good, rich ricotta is a fine substitute.) This recipe is mostly savory and features herbal notes of thyme, but it has a little sweetness from the honey.
All-Butter Crust for a 10-inch single-crust pie, partially prebaked
2 cups farmer cheese
1/2 cup whole milk
1/3 cup honey
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the prebaked pie shell on a rimmed baking sheet.
Combine the farmer cheese, milk, honey, thyme, and salt and stir well. Add the eggs one at a time and stir until well blended.
Pour the filling into the shell (it will be shallow) and bake on the middle rack of the oven for 35 to 40 minutes, rotating 180 degrees when the edges start to set, 25 to 30 minutes through baking. The pie is finished when the edges are set and puffed slightly and the center is no longer liquid but still quite wobbly. Be careful not to over bake or the filling will be dry; the filling will continue to cook and set after the pie is removed from the oven. Allow to cool completely on a wire rack, 2 to 3 hours. Serve at room temperature or cool.
The pie will keep refrigerated for 2 days or at room temperature for 1 day.
Concord Grape Pie
Makes one 10-inch tart
Serves 8 to 10
The intense grape flavor of Concords is like that of no other grape, and the appearance of their rich purple skin on the vine truly speaks to the beginning of fall. This pie is baked in a tart pan to make room for the abstract triangle top crust. To achieve this shape, roll out your top crust in a large circle and cut free-form triangles and shapes. Arrange them on top of the filling so as to cover most of the pie. Brush on the egg wash and sprinkle with sugar as you like.
All-Butter Crust for a 10-inch double-crust pie
2 pounds Concord grapes, stemmed
Pinch finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
3 tablespoons ground arrowroot
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 large egg
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Egg wash (1 large egg whisked with 1 teaspoon water and a pinch of salt)
Demerara sugar, for finishing
Have ready and refrigerated one pastry-lined 10-inch tart pan and pastry triangles or a 10-inch pastry round to top.
Squeeze the pulp out of each grape to separate the skin. Finely chop the skins, put them in a large bowl, and position a fine-mesh sieve on the rim. In a heavy- bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat, simmer the pulp until soft, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Pour the pulp into the sieve and press through with a spatula to remove the seeds. Allow to cool slightly, about 10 minutes. Position the oven racks in the bottom and center positions, place a rimmed baking sheet on the bottom rack, and preheat the oven to 400°F.
Stir the lemon zest and juice, granulated and brown sugars, arrowroot, allspice, and salt into the grapes, followed by the egg and bitters. Pour the filling into the prepared tart shell and arrange the pastry triangles or round on top. Brush the pastry with the egg wash to coat, being careful not to drag the filling onto the pastry (it will burn). Sprinkle with the desired amount of demerara sugar.
Place the pie on the rimmed baking sheet on the lowest rack of the oven. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the pastry is set and beginning to brown. Lower the oven temperature to 350°F, move the pie to the center oven rack, and continue to bake until the pastry is a deep golden brown and the juices are bubbling throughout, 40 to 50 minutes longer.
Allow to cool completely on a wire rack, 2 to 3 hours. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. The pie will keep refrigerated for 3 days or at room temperature for 2 days.