Baked in a Pie

Chatting with the Elsen sisters of Four & Twenty Blackbirds

On a calm Tuesday evening, I stroll into Four & Twenty Blackbirds. It’s 6:30 p.m. and the Brooklyn pie shop closes in half an hour; only two customers are left clicking on their computers and scraping up their last crumbs. A slight breeze comes through the window, gently rustling the sheer white curtains. Some members of the staff tidy up the shop while others knead new batches of pie dough.  Four & Twenty Blackbirds is off the beaten path, and although it’s located on Gowanus’ bustling 3rd Avenue, I feel like I’m in the countryside. The painted tin walls and circulating ceiling fans lend the space a touch of charm, but the decor is simple enough that it doesn’t seem over thought.

Emily Elsen, who owns the shop with her younger sister Melissa, arrives to meet me–eager to talk about pie and its complexities. To make a really good, fresh pie, one has to consider the seasonal ingredients available, the flavor pairings in the filling, and what type of crust best suits the pie filling–both in ingredients and in form.

At Four & Twenty Blackbirds, pie flavors range from the famous Salted Caramel Apple to Chamomile Buttermilk Custard, tending towards a more sophisticated flavor palette and straying away from what Emily calls “retro pies.”  She explains, “We shy away from really overly sweet, candied pies…like Peanut Butter Pretzel or using marshmallows.” Instead, they use a lot of herbal and aromatic ingredients like lavender and bitters, finding inspiration in what’s in season and available locally–often as close as the rooftop farm around the corner.

While the pie fillings at Four & Twenty Blackbirds are delightful and unique, our conversation centers around what many pie-makers would agree is the most difficult and particular part of a pie: the crust. In Hecla, South Dakota, where Emily and Melissa grew up, their grandmother made pies for the family restaurant.  She had “a traditional midwestern style of making pies which was cream pies in the winter time, fruit pies in the summer, lard crust; really using local ingredients and stuff that was available, but mostly for economic reasons–whatever was cheapest at the time.”

Their grandmother swore by a lard-based crust. But because Emily and Melissa don’t like the mouth feel of too much lard and aim to make more vegetarian-friendly pies, they tend to make butter-based crusts. When they do use lard, it is sourced from The Meat Hook’s artisanal supply in Williamsburg.

“Crust is very personalized,” Emily explains “…[and] by virtue of what it is, is very experimental and sculptural.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Emily originally moved to New York to study sculpture at Pratt and was instrumental in founding non-profit a artists’ studio called Gowanus Studio. Although she formerly spent her days woodworking, metalworking, and bookmaking, Emily’s present day craft is in the kitchen. “These days, the only sculpting I do is pie crust.”

“There are so many things you can do,” Emily says of crust styles. “You can braid crust, you can do tiny, fine woven lattice, angular lattice, you can do cut-out tops; I mean, its endless.”  For pies with tops (like fruit pies) the Elsens use a design that is both practical and beautiful. “We cut it down to 6 lattice, with the straight egg wash, which is just egg with a little salt and then we use demerara sugar- raw sugar. We feel like it gives it a little bit of sweet crunch on the crust, it makes it look nice, it gives it a little bit of a textural feeling on the top.”  The lattice top also allows for excess moisture to evaporate, and since their crust is fairly thick, the spacing makes for a better ratio of filling to crust.

For the most part, Emily and Melissa have taken the knowledge they learned from their grandmother and added a bit of a modern twist and an eye for creativity, but some of their recipes have remained almost identical to their original form, like the Sour Cream Raisin and Rhubarb pies. “If we made cream pies, I would use her recipe exactly because I loved her cream pies. She did a Coconut Cream and a Sour Cream Lemon.” When Emily and Melissa expand the business, as they plan to do, they are hoping to have more refrigerator space so they can keep up the tradition and start making more cream pies.

Along with their plans of expansion, Emily and Melissa will be releasing a cookbook in Fall 2013. So if you want to makes pies that are as fresh and delicious as they are beautiful, keep an eye on the bookshelves for instructions from the experts.

Visit Four & Twenty Blackbirds at 439 3rd Avenue in Brooklyn or check out their website to order a pie. 

By on May 17th, 2012

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