First Prize Pies and Four and Twenty Blackbirds: Will NYC Get the Pie It Deserves?

[Photo: Robyn Lee]

New York's never been a great pie town. We have lots of great baked goods and lots of talented pastry chefs, but somehow our pies have never made it onto my nationwide pie honor roll.

I love Yura's double-crusted fruit pies (the wild Maine blueberry pie and the apple pie are both standouts) and the Little Pie Company's sour cream apple walnut is a damn fine streusel-topped pie.

And God knows, there are so many other delicious things to eat here. It's hardly surprising that people don't come to visit here and go, I gotta have a slice of pizza, a pastrami sandwich, bagel with schmear, and a slice of apple pie. Great pie is associated with country cafes and barbecue joints, two things we are in short supply of around these parts.

But with artisanally inspired handmade food in Brooklyn appearing at every corner and market, and the borough's do-it-yourself food culture growing ever-larger, we knew that a pie culture couldn't be far behind. Pies 'N Thighs started it, and now to pie lover's rescue come two pie companies—Four and Twenty Blackbirds and First Prize Pies.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

Buttermilk chess pie: Four and Twenty

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

439 3rd Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11215 (b/n 7th and 8th Streets; map); 718-499-2917;
Grade: Anything double-crusted involving rhubarb or apple, A-; the rest, B+
Cost: Pies, around $30, advance orders only; slices, $4.50, limit of 4

Sisters Emily and Melissa Elsen may currently be making pies in Brooklyn, but they learned their pie-making skills in a proper pie baking establishment, their family restaurant in Hecla, South Dakota, where their grandmother Elizabeth must have put them through pie-making bootcamp. The Elsens have traded in their grandmother's lard for butter crusts, and their fillings are more hipster than Great Plains Grandma in style and substance.

Salted caramel apple: Four and Twenty

The Elsens are fine double-crusted pie bakers, a talent I am particularly in awe of because I know how hard it is to come up with a flaky, firm pie crust for a double-crusted pie. I think pie bakers in Brooklyn and elsewhere opt to make custard, cream, and crumb pies because they don't want to risk being subjected to double pie-crusted ridicule—but these pies could stand up to any Midwestern cafe yardstick.

The best of the bunch? Right now, it's their apple rhubarb pie. I loved the slices of tender apple as well as the smaller chunks of the slightly astringent rhubarb. There is a strong possibility I will serve this pie at my Thanksgiving table this year, and that, serious eaters, is the highest praise I can bestow on a pie.

The honey rhubarb pie is just sweet enough, and the rhubarb is tender and cooked through without being limp or goopy. Delicious. A buttermilk chess pie is creamy, light, and lemony—and though I can't imagine Grandma Elizabeth made a grapefruit custard pie, she would be proud of this sweet and tart and creamy concoction.

View more pies in the slideshow above »

First Prize Pies

Chocolate Peanut Butter Pretzel Pie: First Prize Pies

First Prize Pies

Grade: Peanut butter-chocolate-pretzel, bourbon pecan, and hot chocolate, A-; the rest, B
Cost: 9" pies, $25; 4", $6
Available online »
Hester Street Fair, weekends »
Roni-Sue's, Sundays »
"God Buns" Market, Sundays »
Fatty 'Cue Dessert Menu »

Allison Kave comes by her penchant for sweets and baking quite naturally; her mom is Lower East Side buttercrunch and bacon chocolate queen Rhonda Kave. The younger Kave recently started First Prize Pies, a shop-less operation whose pies can be found at many outlets in New York: the Hester Street Fair on weekends, at Roni-Sue's on Saturdays, and on the dessert menu of Fatty 'Cue and the "God Buns" market outside Fatty 'Cue on Sundays. (They're available for delivery in New York and shipment beyond, too.)

She stepped out on her own after winning the first prize in the 1st annual Brooklyn Pie Bake-Off for her Bourbon Ginger Pecan Pie. And it was one of the best we tried. The pecans are nice and toasty, three kinds of ginger (fresh, ground, and crystallized) add a little zing, maple syrup lends an intriguing sweetness, and there's precious little pecan pie jellied goop. (You know what I'm talking about. It's many a pecan pie's downfall.) Be warned: Allison doesn't skimp on the bourbon.

View more pies in the slideshow above »

Other winners? The shoo-fly pie, surprisingly interesting with plenty of that nutty brown butter flavor I love in pastries of all kinds; the S'mores Pie, a creamy milk chocolate ganache topped with housemade toasted marshmallow fluff and a graham cracker crust; and the spicy hot chocolate, a perfectly balanced, decidedly adult chocolate cream pie I would happily eat a slice of every day if it wouldn't blow up my serious diet.

But the very best? The Chocolate Peanut Butter Pretzel Pie, Allison Kave's finest creation. It's an insanely good icebox pie with a crunchy, salty pretzel crust filled with shockingly light and fluffy peanut butter cream, that's then topped with a thin glaze of dark chocolate. It's salty, creamy, chocolaty, smooth, and seriously delicious.

The Verdict?

With pie bakers like First Prize Pies and Four and Twenty Blackbirds, as well as The Blue Stove, Pies 'n Thighs, and more, Brooklyn is becoming a center for urban pie baking.

For custard and cream pies, order from First Prize Pies; for a double-crusted fruit pie head to Four and Twenty. Both of them are marrying age-old pie making skills with newfangled pie ideas. I'm sure all three women are still learning to master their pie-making craft, and I can't wait to monitor their progress. The result for serious eaters? More pie deliciousness in our midst.

Get to Know a Piemaker: Allison Kave, First Prize Pies