A Juicy New Trend: Pie Subscriptions

While some people love receiving weekly farm boxes overflowing with kohlrabi, turnips, and leeks, others might be more excited about a different kind of weekly box: full of pie. A handful of ambitious new bakers around the country are adapting the Community Supported Agriculture model, or CSA, to jump-start high-end pie businesses. Call it the rise of the CSP.

At the newly opened Three Babes Bakeshop in San Francisco, California, you'll find adventurous flavors like salty honey walnut, lemon buttermilk with blueberries, and apricot coconut custard. But only customers who sign up for a monthly or weekly pie subscription (available for pickup from the company's converted railroad car retail space, or for local delivery) get to eat the special off-menu surprise pie. Last weekend, subscribers got a peach tayberry streusel pie with crème fraîche. (A tayberry is like a cross between a loganberry and a black raspberry.)

"People in San Francisco love getting CSAs," says Lenore Estrada, a founding member of the Bakeshop. "I was a member of a CSA, and getting a box of produce every week—it was like Christmas every Wednesday, because I'd get all these amazing fruits and vegetables and I'd have to figure out what to do with them each week."

With that in mind, Three Babes adapted the model as a way to bootstrap their way into a challenging business.

"It's nice to have regular subscribers, because you already know those people are buying pies," says Estrada.

Scratch Bakery in Durham, North Carolina, looks now like the business Three Babes may be two or three years down the road. It has moved from a home-based pie bakery to a thriving farmers' market business to an established shop. And it has ditched its once-vital pie subscription service in the process.

"I never officially said we are no longer doing CSP [Community Supported Pie]," says owner Phoebe Lawless. But "because the shop is open six days a week, you can get pie anytime."

For Lawless, known for her chocolate sea salt crostatas and Shaker lemon pies, the CSP program was a vital way to move from a tenuous sideline to a full-time business.

"It's a great, great method of starting out," says Lawless. "You build your quantities gradually, and you find out whether you actually want to do this, rather than taking the big financial and time suck that opening your own business does."

For Lawless, the CSP was a safety net, and a license to explore the limits of her craft: "The CSP got me known, and got my name out there, and I was able to test new products in a safe way because I had a guaranteed subscriber count."

Michele Stuart of Michele's Pies in Norwalk, Connecticut, credits her store's Pie of the Month Club (available only for local pickup) for broadening the appeal of her product and reaching out to new pie buyers. "People buy it as gifts, and quite often it's for people who have never been in the store before," she says.

Of course pies aren't the only artisan food to adopt the CSA model. You can also now find coffee CSAs, meat CSAs, cheese CSAs, and raw milk CSAs, just to name a handful. But there's something about the seasonal, infinitely varietal nature of pie that seems like less of a departure from the CSA model's roots in agriculture. The bakers behind Three Babes, for instance, are planning on making a five-varietal blueberry pie later this summer. But here's their recipe for cherry-rhubarb pie:

Cherry Rhubarb Lattice Pie from Three Babes Bakeshop of San Francisco, California

Crust:
2 sticks plus 2 T butter
2/3 cup ice water
1 T vinegar
1 T sugar
1 t salt
3 cups flour

Cut butter into 1/2-inch cubes and place in the freezer.

Measure out water and stir in the vinegar, sugar, and salt until dissolved, and place in the freezer to chill.

Measure the flour into a chilled bowl.

Remove butter from freezer and, using a pastry cutter, cut into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Use your hands to break up any large pieces of butter.

Sprinkle the flour and butter with the water and vinegar, a little at a time, tossing the mixture at first and then pressing together with a spatula, until the dough just comes together.

Divide into two disks, one slightly larger than the other, and chill for at least 1 hour in the fridge.

Use a rolling pin to roll out the larger round of dough, and then fit it into a buttered pie plate. Chill for at least 30 minutes.

Roll out the smaller disk and use a pizza cutter to slice into six strips for the lattice top. Slide onto a cookie sheet and chill while preparing the filling.

Filling:
3 cups ripe cherries (Bings, Stellas, or even Rainiers will work!), washed and pitted
3 cups rhubarb, washed and sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 t nutmeg
1 t cinnamon
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 t lemon zest
2 T butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes

Mix all of the ingredients except the butter together in a large bowl, and stir until the fruit is evenly coated and the dry ingredients are well-distributed.

Pour the filling into the rolled-out pie shell and dot the top with butter.

Arrange three strips of dough across the top of the pie. Then, working with one strip at a time, weave three more strips in the opposite direction to form the lattice.

Roll the edge of the bottom crust in tightly (toward the center of the pie) so that it rests comfortably on the rim of the pie plate. Press the outer crust between two knuckles of one hand and the thumb of the other to flute.

Optional: Brush the entire pie with cream, and sprinkle lightly with coarse salt and generously with coarse sugar.

Bake in a preheated 425-degree oven for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 and bake for an additional 50 minutes, or until the pie filling bubbles and the lattice is golden brown. Cool completely on a rack before serving.

Photo courtesy of Three Babes Bakeshop