Homespun meets hipster at Four Blackbirds, a bakery on an industrial corner in Brooklyn, N.Y. There, by hand and with just one oven, Emily and Melissa Elsen bake sublime seasonal specialty pies that have cupcake-fatigued New Yorkers lining up.
They weren’t born with rolling pins in their hands, but they might as well have been. Growing up in a family restaurant in the tiny town of Hecla, S.D., the girls picked up pastry skills and sensibilities from their pie-baking grandmother.
The Elsens’ focus is fruit pies in spring, summer and early fall, and custards and chocolates in winter, many with an unexpected element that makes perfect sense after the very first bite.
“We love adding surprising flavors to fruit pies, like our Paprika Peach Pie, and introducing herbal pairings like Blueberry Lavender and Cranberry Sage,” Emily says. And the sisters’ knack for blending sweet and savory as they do in a luscious Strawberry Balsamic has become one of their signatures. Another is their Salted Caramel Apple Pie—the bakery’s runaway bestseller and a delectable slice of pie- making genius. Yet for all their quirky and untraditional flavors, it’s not novelty they thrill to, but what Emily describes as, “classic pies that taste delicious.” In fact, Emily and Melissa share a deep respect for
the history of pie, a love of old cookbooks, and a passion, very simply, for “what tastes good.”
And “what tastes good” starts with in-season, locally sourced fruit. They learned the concept back in Hecla, where economy and practicality were the driving forces, and “artisanal” wasn’t a word. Their mother and two aunts opened The Calico Kitchen not in a burst of culinary entrepreneurship, but as three women raising small children, recognizing that putting square meals on the table was something they could do to help their families. Grandma’s knockout rhubarb pie was part of that.
“What tastes good” is also butter. Emily and Melissa traded in their grandmother’s lard for pure butter but are otherwise guided by her pie-baking principles. Secrets behind their marvelous, tender crusts include a “marbling” of the butter and flour, not overworking the dough, and the inclusion of a nip of cider vinegar. “The vinegar introduces the same principle as vodka inacrust—itencourages flakinessandaddsalittle tang,” Emily says.
A Four and Twenty Blackbirds cookbook is in the works and will be published in the spring. For now, the pies themselves can only be sampled by visiting the cozy bakery on the corner of 8th Street and 3rd Avenue in Brooklyn or Danny Meyer’s restaurant, Untitled, at Manhattan’s Whitney Museum. Emily and Melissa don’t have a mail order operation; they don’t even have a delivery truck. In a sweetly small town touch in a great big urban city, The Whitney restaurant’s executive chef (and fellow Brooklynite) stops by the bakery a couple of mornings a week to pick up his pies himself.
The Elsens’ grandmother passed away shortly before Four and Twenty Blackbirds opened in 2010. It sounds trite to say that her spirit lives on in her granddaughters’ pie making, but it’s also completely true. The apple (pie) doesn’t fall far from the (family) tree.
Story by Laraine Perri, a food writer in New York City. Recipe courtesy of Emily Elsen and Melissa Elsen, Four & Twenty Blackbirds Bakery, Brooklyn, N.Y.
For more holiday pie ideas, see One Pumpkin, Five Pies.