How to celebrate National Pie Day
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Not that it's likely anyone is getting the day off work for it, but National Pi Day is Friday.
According to timeanddate.com, people observe Pi Day by playing "games, creating some type of pi ambiance, eating pi foods, converting things into pi, making strange mathematical endeavors like having a contest to see who knows the most digits of pi."
Math is hard. So, we decided to stick with just eating pie and remembering that pi r squared is the area of a circle, which is also the shape pies come in.
A square pie is probably a cobbler.
So, the question becomes, where do you get your pie? After all, they're not quite as common as they used to be back when your grandmother was baking them for every special occasion that came along.
As it turns out, while cupcakes seem to reign supreme in the Kanawha Valley, there are still plenty of places to get pie, sometimes by the slice, but often whole - the better to share with family and friends or to toss, lovingly, at a co-worker.
For the sake of simplicity, our intense investigation into the pi matter focused mostly on bakeries.
Spring Hill Bakery
For many, the gold standard for baked goods in the Kanawha Valley is the Spring Hill Bakery. Opened in 1948 by Jimmie Williams, the establishment has kept the same location for 66 years and has been the go-to source for baked goods for as far back as a lot of their customers can remember.
While the address is still the same, the location has grown. Over the years, they've expanded out the back and to the side, and have gone from employing a handful of behind-the-scenes bakers to about 18 employees today.
Robin Williams (no relation to Jimmie) has been at the bakery since the mid-1970s.
"We don't sell as many pies as some of the other things we make, but we do sell some pies," he said, including what would be considered a traditional selection of time-tested favorites: apple, cherry and coconut.
"We also do some cream pies," Williams said. "We make them using the same cream we use in our éclairs."
They also sell a popular local favorite, the raisin pie, and during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons, pumpkin.
Before Christmas and Thanksgiving, Spring Hill will bake up to 33 pumpkin pies at a time just to keep up with demand.
Spring Hill Bakery pies are traditional. The crust is flakey and golden. The fillings are compact and sweet.
The fillings for the apple and raisin pies are still made by hand, but Williams acknowledged that fillings for some of their other pies come from a bakery supply company.
"We used to do it all," he said. "But they did it better than we could."
It's worked out for them; in fact, they can barely keep up with the demand, are expanding and looking into further expansion in a few years.
Frütcake is one of the new guard places that arrived in Charleston in 2010.
"I remember," said Keely Steele, "because that was the year my daughter was born."
Started as a companion business to Bluegrass Kitchen, the popular East End eatery owned by Keely and her husband John, the coffee house has served pie from the very beginning, though Steele acknowledged, "We make a lot of pies, but we do a lot more in the summer season. There's more fruit."
Among the pies Frütcake regularly offers are a key lime pie and the much-regarded blueberry buttermilk pie. Some people liked it so much, Steele said, she sold the recipe to a hamburger restaurant in Georgia.
"We're a little different," Steele said, talking about her restaurants. "We try to find a way to give what we make some kind of a twist."
One of those twists isn't so much a twist as a belief that some people are more concerned about where their food comes from and how it's made.
"We use organic flour and organic sugar," Steele said. "We can also do gluten-free pies - we just need a request 24 hours in advance."
Established just two years ago, Sugar Pies in Kanawha City is one of the new bakeries in the valley. Co-owned by Gina Watts, Rachel Evans and Nancy Skaff, like Spring Hill Bakery, Sugar Pie sells a lot of other foods besides pie.
"Food fads may come and go, but pie never goes out of style," Evans said. "There's just something about pie. Cupcakes or cakes have become fashionable, but pie is just pie."
Sugar Pies prides itself on two things: freshness and absolutely everything is homemade.
The peaches in their peach crumble pie aren't the soft, heavy-syrup-soaked canned variety, but are firm. The peaches were pitted, peeled and sliced by hand. Some of their pies, such as their Elvis pie, which is layers of peanut butter, chocolate pudding and bananas topped with cream, take a lot of time to prepare.
"Some of our pies are very labor intensive and can take up to two hours," Watts said.
"But pies are part of life. They're worth it," Evans said.
The selection at Sugar Pies varies from week to week, based on seasonal availability of ingredients and even the mood of the pie maker, but they frequently have several varieties, which may include different fruit pies, a chewy chess pie, which they describe as being like a pecan pie without the nuts, a chocolate chip pie and their best-seller, the coconut cream pie.
"We can't keep them around," Evans said.
Like Spring Hill Bakery, Sugar Pies sells whole pies and not pie by the slice. However, they do make mini pies.
"They're the perfect size for two people after dinner," Evans said.
"Or just for one, if you're hungry," Watts added.
Sugar Pies is also one of two bakeries in the area that offer savory pies, such as chicken pot pies.
"These are delectable dinner pies," Evans said. "They're really pretty amazing."
And with a little warning (about 24 hours), they can make a lot of things gluten- or sugar free.
Sarah's Bakery opened in a little storefront on Bridge Road a little over a year and a half ago and it's been an unqualified success almost from the very beginning. Owned by award-winning baker Sarah Plumley, it's another next-generation baked goods shop that features new recipes and fresh takes on old ideas.
Plumley, a largely self-taught baker, got into the world of professionally made pies and cakes about four years ago.
"I used to work in a cubicle in Dupont," she said. "This is much better."
She made pies and cupcakes. Friends encouraged her to go into business.
"I started with selling from my house and kind of built from there," she said.
Plumley did catering, won second place in 2011 with her Peach Bourbon Pecan Crumble pie and even made pies for Sugar Pies before going into business for herself in September 2012.
Like Sugar Pies, Plumley focuses on fresh ingredients and makes everything from scratch. She also experiments with old recipes, frequently tries new ones and is always looking for new wrinkles on one of the world's most beloved foods.
One of her favorites is the salted caramel apple pie. She's also particularly proud of her meringue pies. She toasts the meringue with a small torch.
"It's just got a great smell," Plumley said.
Sarah's Bakery sells pies, small pies, pie cups - little pies made in cupcake tins - savory pies, which include chicken pot pie, pulled pork barbecue pies and shepherd's pies, as well as a variety of quiches.
"They call me the pie lady," she said. And she takes the title seriously.
Plumley also sells some of her pies by the slice.