This month, our food series will be all about industry experts. We’ll reveal a day in their life and tips of the trade. First up, the sisters behind the adored pie shop Four & Twenty Blackbirds share what it’s really like to be a baker (everyone’s go-to flight fantasy!)…
Emily and Melissa Elsen opened their first Brooklyn pie shop in 2009. They worked grueling 17-hour days, making all the pies themselves. “I am not a baker, I’m a pie baker,” Emily told us. “Melissa and I both know there’s something special about pie: they’re approachable, not fussy or pretentious.” Eight years later, Four & Twenty Blackbirds has 50 employees, a beautiful cookbook and four storefronts, including a new one in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.
1. Pie-making takes a village.
Emily: “Our mom and her sisters ran a family restaurant in Hecla, South Dakota [population 240]. It was our playground growing up. Our grandmother baked the pies. She passed away the year before we opened the shop, so it was definitely in her honor.”
Melissa: “Our mom knew how much work a food business takes. We said, ‘We might start a pie shop, what do you think?’ She was like, ‘Ehhhhh.’ She wanted me to be a lawyer. When she first visited the shop, we were both still putting in 17-hour days. She insisted that we each step out of the pie shop and take a walk around the block and then promptly suggested that we hire more help.”
2. Pies can make you cry.
Emily: “The first time one of our regulars came in, he had tears in his eyes. His mother, who had recently passed away, used to bring him Shoofly pie from Pennsylvania, and he came by to see if we’d make him one. Lo and behold, the night before we had decided to make Shoofly pie, for no reason, other than maybe his mother willed it so.”
3. You set your alarm clock for 3 a.m.
Emily: “At first, we worked all day, starting at 3 or 4 a.m. Thanksgiving really threw us for a loop. People were lining up at 6 a.m. — one woman told us she had gotten up at 4 a.m. to drive from New Jersey! We quickly sold out of pies, and some people were downright mad at us. It was hard because we just wanted to make everyone happy. This Thanksgiving, we ran 24 hours a day, from Sunday night to Thursday morning, and made 4,500 pies.”
4. You make mistakes.
Emily: “Any crazy scenario you can imagine has happened — from our manager slipping with a full tray of pies, to people getting locked out in the middle of the night with pies in the oven. It can be dangerous.”
Melissa: “One night, we had to make a pear pie for an order for the next day. We were all done, just waiting for it to finish, because pears can take a long time — if they’re not ripe enough you have to let them sit in the oven. Waiting, waiting, waiting, we just wanted to go home, it was so late. Finally, it’s done and we pull it out of the oven and it flips and drops on the floor face down. We had to start all over. We were there until 6 a.m.”
5. You can play Cupid.
Emily: “In the early days, when we were baking late into the night, people would come to the back door and holler into the kitchen asking for pies, usually without success. One summer evening, a young guy knocked, begging us for a pie so that he could ‘get out of the doghouse’ with his girlfriend. For him, we obliged.”
6. Weird flavors can work.
Emily: “In the beginning, we’d try anything. I made a fresh fig and cheese pie that I thought would be amazing, but was really gross. We did a lot of florals like lavender and rose, but people would be like, ‘Why does your pie taste like soap?’ Apricot and lavender didn’t work, but lavender blueberry was fantastic (we still do it). Apple and rosewater is really nice, and we did a peach and tomato pie, but these aren’t the ones that blow people away like salted caramel apple. I’d recommend experimenting with flavors at home, but overall you want to keep it simple.”
7. Go ahead and buy your crust.
Melissa: “Most store-bought crusts have palm oil, and I am not a fan of the taste. You could buy ours, and the Whole Foods crust is also good, because it’s all butter.”
Thank you, Emily and Melissa!
(Photos by Christine Han for Cup of Jo.)