The sun had barely peeked up over the rooftops when I came pounding on the kitchen door to Spring Hill Pastry Shop, the most beloved of all of Kanawha County’s bakeries and the home of the cream-filled “hot dog.”
A box of those things can work wonders — light up an entire office or get you out of a jam.
The long pie-making journey
With my month of learning about pies coming to a close, I hadn’t come to Spring Hill Pastry Shop for the donuts. Bakery owner Robin Williams was going to teach me about custard cream.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve made a lot of pies. I’ve made pies with fruit, pies with nuts and even an Estonian meat pie.
Kat, the city desk assistant at the newspaper, is from Estonia. One afternoon, she and I talked about hemispheric differences in baking.
There’s a reason why they say, “as American as Mom and apple pie.” They don’t eat much apple pie outside of the United States. Overseas, toward Europe and beyond, they’re bigger fans of cake and eat dinner pies that are similar to how we do casseroles.
So Kat got me a recipe for a meat pie, which I made and halfway screwed up (it looked like I’d run over it with my car), but people ate it anyway and told me was great.
As far as savory pies, I’d also made a couple of veggie quiches using baker Sarah Plumley’s advice about sauteing the vegetables before adding them to the quiche.
“You need to cut back on the moisture,” Sarah told me.
I also made a quiche ignoring Sarah’s advice, dropping the sliced mushrooms, onions and cherry tomatoes straight in. It was perfectly edible, just a little slimy.
But I hadn’t tried a custard cream pie, which represented a couple of old-school favorites, including coconut cream, banana cream and chocolate meringue.
I wasn’t against trying to make these on my own. I had a foot-tall stack of overdue library books just full of recipes for pie. What I didn’t have was confidence. The instructions discussed moving liquids back and forth from a stovetop to a bowl and then from the bowl back to the stove.
Checking in with an institution
While I was perfectly capable of doing that, I wasn’t certain whether the results would turn into something anyone should eat, so I contacted Spring Hill Pastry Shop and Robin invited me to come down and watch him make the cream pies, provided I didn’t give away all of his secrets.
He had to be joking.
Spring Hill Pastry Shop, in South Charleston, is currently celebrating its 60th year in operation. They’re a culinary institution in the Kanawha Valley, and Robin has one of those success stories that sounds exactly like that American dream you hear about on television sometimes.
Robin didn’t start Spring Hill Pastry Shop or inherit it. He came to work for the bakery in 1974.
“I was hired on as a janitor,” he told me as he mixed hot milk with egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch. “I mopped the floors in the back. After about a year, they let me wash dishes.”
Eventually, someone thought to teach Robin how to bake.
He worked for the company. In 1993, the owner decided he wanted to retire, but he didn’t have anyone to leave the bakery to.
Robin said Walmart wiped out a lot of mom-and-pop stores, but so did success.
“You’d have a guy who opened a place up, did well, and he sent his kids to college,” Robin said. “The kids get good jobs out of college and don’t want to come take over the family business.”
Robin bought Spring Hill Pastry Shop and has run it ever since. He hopes to turn it over to his children, someday.
The life of a baker doesn’t sound easy.
“It’s a lot of getting up at 5 in the morning to unlock the door to let everybody in and then coming in back to make the pies,” he said.
At the end of the day, he usually locks up.
Like with any small business, it comes with a lot of responsibility.
“But it’s not a bad life,” he said. “I get up early, but I work until about 10. Then I go home. I can have lunch with my wife, take a nap and do whatever I want.”
Working by himself in the far back corner, making pies alongside equipment older than the original owner, Robin kept a rough eye on the rest of the kitchen.
It was Tuesday morning, and about a dozen or so workers were busily frying donuts, making cookies or icing cakes. Racks of baked goods were pulled from ovens and set on gleaming steel tables, while others swept up.
You hustle if you work at Spring Hill Pastry Shop, though. Robin worried about staffing.
“People don’t want to work,” he said.
It’s not just that the people he hires find out that kitchen work is harder than it looks (it is), or that people are lazy. Robin said drug and alcohol addiction is a real problem with the workforce.
Workers show up drunk, high or so hungover they can’t function. Robin said he let one woman go after she nodded off while in the middle of taking an order over the phone.
Shaking his head, he said, “I don’t care all that much about what you do on your own time, in your own home, but you can’t bring that to work.”
Learning about cream
I watched Robin make the cream filling, which was really a base that could be flavored. A certain number of the dozen pies he was making that morning would be coconut. Another couple of pies would be lemon or chocolate.
On some days, he makes peanut butter or Boston cream. Every once in a while, he’ll make a banana cream pie, which has a very short shelf-life because the bananas tend to break down fast.
The actual process wasn’t difficult, but it required paying attention to the bubbling pot on the stove and then keep up with the strokes of the long, metal whisk passing through the thickening cream. Keeping the cream moving helps prevent scalding, discoloration and lumps in the custard.
When the whisk could just about stand up on its own, then the cream was ready to be flavored and poured into the pie crust.
That was what I needed to know: when to stop and what to avoid.
At home, I made a vanilla cream pie and a maple cream pie, both from scratch except for the whipped cream topping, which came out of the freezer section at Kroger.
I could have made real whipped cream, but it was too much trouble to haul my 50-pound KitchenAid mixer to the newsroom.
Both pies were a solid hit, though not as loved as the peanut pie I brought in earlier with the burned crust.
Wrapping up leftovers
Few of my One Month projects have been as well-received as pie-making month. Usually, I imagine, everybody gets tired of me talking about whatever I’m doing, but no one complained about the pie.
A couple of people at work asked if I might keep up the Thursday pie days for a while, at least through the remainder of the year.
I said I probably would make a few more pies but didn’t know when. There was a lot still left to try. I never made a meringue. I never got around to making a pot pie and I never even tried to recreate that coconut and pineapple pie my Granny made for me when I was a boy.
There just wasn’t enough time.
What did I really learn?
I learned that whoever said as “easy as pie” was being sarcastic. Pie isn’t easy. At least, it’s not easy if you’re just learning. For every success I had, there was another pie that failed, fell apart or burned up.
This did not always prevent them from being eaten, but they weren’t good pies.
The secret, to me, was always in the crust — and through the month, I tried different recipes, different ingredients and different equipment to try and get my crust just right. The lightest, flakiest crusts were always the ones I got my hands into.
There was just something about taking the time to work the dough with my hands that made the crust better.
There’s probably some bigger lesson in that.
I also learned that, despite being surrounded by pastry for an entire month, I could still stay on track with my diet — for the most part.
The one exception was the strawberry rhubarb pie I got from Sarah’s Bakery.
Right after Valentine’s Day, Sarah sent me home with a pie to bake.
She’d had some strawberries left over from the holiday and I’d never had rhubarb, which looked like an ugly thing to make a pie out of.
“Your house will smell amazing,” Sarah promised.
I shrugged, took the pie home and made it on a Friday night.
I cut the first piece at noon on Saturday. By Monday morning, it was gone, and I’d only given away one slice. It was so good.
Right then and there I swore I’d never make that pie again. I couldn’t resist it, but the recipe was burned in my brain and now I had to live with the knowing.
Lucky for me, I guess, that strawberry season is short and rhubarb isn’t cheap.