It's a good day when I get to interview a passionate pie baker. It's an even better day when I get pie crust tips from a professional right before Turkey Day.
I stopped into Humble Sweet & Savory Pies, located right off Regent Street at 10 S. Allen St., and met the new owner Jennifer Mans.
For those who wish to master the art of perfect pie crust at home, Mans, a home baker at heart, offers these five tips.
1. Butter is best. Shortening is gross. Mans is not a lard person. One of the reasons, she says is because it excludes vegetarians. Butter makes the flakiest crust and makes you feel full and satisfied. "It makes you rub your stomach (and say) ‘Ah yes, that was a good one,'" she says.
2. Keep it cold. "We freeze our butter and use cold water." She tells me about the wives tale that grandmothers make the best pies because they have cold hands and says emphatically, "I don't have cold hands."
3. Don't be scared of vodka. Adding this spirit (which is 60 percent water) to your pie crust provides the necessary liquid needed to bind the ingredients but forms less gluten allowing for a more tender crust, and because the alcohol bakes out, no one's going to get tipsy on your pie. (Mans also offers a gluten-free crust.)
4. Weigh your dry ingredients—at least your flour. "It can change your whole recipe."
5. Speaking of flour, it has a shelf life. If it's older than three or four months, get rid of it and treat yourself to a new bag.
These tips come from the home baker turned pie shop owner who was hired in 2013 by then Humble co-owners and sisters, Jill Long and Shelly Cross. Mans, a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate and food blogger said yes to a big opportunity to buy the little Regent Street neighborhood pie shop in August of this year. In the last few months, she more often than not can be found in her shop wrapped in an apron covered in flour.
The upstate New York native has been baking since she "was too young to be working with the oven," she says. Owning her own pie shop is a dream come true. "The only thing more fun than baking for a pie shop is owning a pie shop."
The pastry entrepreneur carries on Humble's mission to source fresh ingredients locally from small farms including Vitruvian of McFarland. The day I visited her shop a quiche made with mushroom, swiss and kalette (the farm's kale and Brussels sprouts hybrid) caught my eye. On Facebook, I drooled over a picture of a lovely autumn galette made with roasted beets from Harmony Valley Farm in Viroqua, Wisconsin, and whipped goat cheese, balsamic vinegar and toasted walnuts.
On the sweet side of things, Mans, who is pleased to say she always smells of butter, is having fun including beer in her pie recipes. The latest innovation to come out of her kitchen is a chocolate stout custard with a pretzel walnut crumble made with Belgian dark chocolate and local stout with the option to add a brown sugar meringue. She's currently teaming up with Madison-based Calliope Ice Cream to serve pie with a scoop of some unconventional flavors like brandy old-fashioned and Mexican hot chocolate.
The shop is a special place filled with local customers, most of whom are neighbors to the shop. They come for the pie and Just Coffee brew, but stay for the conversation and friendly atmosphere. "Nobody wants to eat pie alone. Pie has a family connotation," Mans says.
Because of this, Humble is quite the neighborhood hub, and Mans wants the shop to be a place people come for workshops and events. She enjoys her customers—they keep her company. Mans counts on their honesty as well. Flavors change weekly and "[Customers] tell you right then and there with pie in their mouths whether it's good or not."
Thanksgiving is upon us—the holiday that celebrates pie like no other. Mans and her team (she currently has a staff of two) is ready for it, taking orders for classic pumpkin and heirloom apple, sweet potato cardamom and the two original recipes that the sisters made famous: sour cherry and Alabama pecan.
What will Mans be bringing to Thanksgiving dinner? Not pie, ironically. "I'll happily eat pie that someone bakes for me." Her host can count on her for a bottle of bourbon or something from the grocery store.