The secret is in the crust. Michelle Stein’s grandmother, Adeline, taught her to make crust after school in the tiny kitchen that once fed her six children.
“She made pies, but didn’t use a recipe,” Stein said. “She really showed me how to handle the crust.”
That meant balancing water, fat and temperature. Work the crust too much and it will be too hard. Work it too little and it’s mush. Adeline mixed her crust using a large metal fork.
Now Stein employs the same techniques, but adds her own inventive touches: cheddar and chive crusts with savory pies, cookie crusts for sweet ones, even a white wine crust for her Italian layered pie. For years, friends and family would ask her to bake pies for dinner parties, birthdays and holidays. One year ago, Stein started Michelle’s Heavenly Pies, selling sweet and savory pies to area restaurants and farmers’ markets.
You may have tried one of her pies already. She sells her Honey Crème Brulee and Peanut Butter Truffle to Ella’s Americana Folk Art Café in Tampa. At the Whistle Stop Grill in Safety Harbor, they serve her “whistle stop” green tomato pie.
“It’s a sweet pie that is hard to prepare,” Stein said. “I cook the tomatoes with spices like cinnamon and dried cherries.”
The tomatoes have to be completely green or else the pie won’t taste the same. “If they aren’t totally green, you start to get a tomatoey flavor,” Stein said.
Florida fresh ingredients are present in more than one of Stein’s pies. She uses Florida oranges in her orange meringue pie.
“We zest the oranges and use all natural juice,” Stein said. “We never use a mix, ever.”
Her favorite pie? Apple.
“It can’t be too sweet and most aren’t cooked long enough,” Stein said. “The apple slices should be recognizable but tender.” Using a mix of apples is important, but the
Granny Smith variety is a staple.
Stein plans to open Michelle’s Heavenly Pies in a former office building on Main Street in Safety Harbor.
“The back will be an open kitchen and I want to put a step here for kids to look inside and watch,” Stein said. “You can look in and see us making pies all day.”
Last week, she launched a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign to raise money for her pie dream. Construction is going to cost over $80,000, and Stein is hoping to raise half through Kickstarter. But if she doesn’t make her $40,000 goal by August 11, Kickstarter doesn’t give her a penny.
“My pie shop will be different,” Stein said. “We have sweet and savory pies so you can eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner here.”
She sees pies as slice of history. Originally, Stein said, pies were used as vessels for transporting and preserving food.
“Every culture has a pie,” she said.
Stein firmly believes that most recipes can be adapted into a pie. She is not limited by the crust; instead, she sees it as a canvas.
“I read recipes and just put them into a pie,” Stein said.
Her Italian layered pie includes artichokes, spinach, garlic, roasted red peppers and mushrooms. The crust has a hint of white wine. She’s done a salted caramel apple pie and a Jack Daniels chocolate chip and pecan pie. The list goes on and on.
“Pies take a lot of patience,” Stein said. “Kind of like a work of art.”