A day in a life with pie, in my estimation, is a good one.
By KIMBERLY WINTER STERN
That’s because I like pie. I like to say the word p-i-e slowly, drawing it out. Like when I eat a forkful of pecan pie, chewing the pecans ever so slowly while the filling’s seductive, velvety texture coats my tongue, the buttery crust melting in my mouth.
I like the smell of a baking pie. The spicy aromatherapy blooms like a tropical flower, filling a kitchen with an irresistibly delicious, scented calm.
I love comparing notes with other pie-lovers on where to find a memorable pie — and also debating the merits of good versus sublime with those same pie aficionados.
I love writing about pie. And great pie, the kind where you lick the plate when no one is looking, has been known to break through my worst rock-solid writer’s blocks.
I even dream about pie: cream, fruit, custard, chocolate, you name it.
Pie a la mode, of course.
You might even say I’m a bit pie-crazy. I will push away a slice of thick, three-layer chocolate cake, slathered in chocolate frosting, in favor of a wedge of fragrant pumpkin pie topped with a towering spoonful of fresh whipped cream.
Even when I count calories or try to cut back on sweets, pie remains a diet staple.
So when I called the folks at the bakery where Tippin’s Premium Handcrafted Pies are made in Kansas City, Kan., and asked, “Pretty please, may I take a tour because I want to write about your scrumptious pies?” my heart skipped a beat or two.
Would they see right through my request as one from just another pie worshiper and deny it?
Would they hear my breathless voice and write me off as a pie groupie?
Would they say sorry, maybe after the holidays?
But Mark Boyer, Tippin’s very gracious president, returned my message.
“We don’t conduct public tours,” he said. “But come on over for a peek.”
Last Wednesday, at the appointed time of 11:30 a.m., I arrived on the doorstep of the non-descript Tippin’s bakery. Previous email instructions dictated: flat, closed toe footwear; jewelry limited to a wedding band.
I was in compliance.
Boyer and I chat for a few minutes in his office about Tippin’s and its tasty Kansas City history. How the first Pippin’s Restaurant and Pie Pantry opened in Lenexa in 1980. That in 1995, the name changed to Tippin’s.
That when the last Tippin’s closed in the summer of 2004, Balls Food Stores rescued a piece of Kansas City, bought the brand and created Tippin’s Gourmet Pies.
That today, many of the bakery’s 60 teammates are former employees of the original restaurants.
That four huge ovens — three of which were relocated from Tippin’s restaurants for bakery duty — can simultaneously bake 1,600 pies.
That pumpkin pie, once a seasonal Tippin’s favorite, is now made year-round and that truckloads of pallets with number 10 cans of pumpkin are currently aging in a warehouse for the next two years’ crops of pies.
“How many pumpkin pies are produced annually?” My pen hovers above a notepad.
Boyer makes me wait for the number, pushing back in his chair, folding his hands.
Behind him, a computer screen is filled with a bigger-than-life image of a piping-hot pumpkin pie being pulled from a Tippin’s oven. I can see tiny bubbles on the filling’s surface. I swear I smell the darned thing, too.
My mouth instinctively begins to water.
“More than half a million,” Boyer finally said, grinning. “This year we’ll make over 550,000 just for the holidays.”
I do what any good reporter does when interviewing a source for a story.
“Are you kidding me?” I nearly squealed. “Really?”
Boyer is good-natured about my wide-eyed incredulousness that borders on unprofessional journalistic behavior.
“Yes, Kimberly, that’s some 550,000 pumpkin pies alone, not including our other flavors,” said Boyer.
“Now, let’s go see the magic.”
Before Boyer and I enter the facility — the pie sanctuary, in my mind — where thousands of Tippin’s pies are cranked out from 4 a.m. until early afternoon, Monday through Friday, we gown and scrub in, pull white nets down over our hair, foreheads and ears and coax rubber booties over our shoes.
Finally, I am ready for some pie sightseeing.
Just inside the door I inhale a sugary, intoxicating perfume and come face-to-face with what may be Tippin’s biggest asset: bakers, lots of them, more than a baker’s dozen.
They scurry about, measuring, mixing, stirring, pouring, filling and smiling, smiling, smiling.
Had I walked into a pie fantasy, this one cast with white-smocked Tippin’s elves?
Pretty much. Boyer tells me Tippin’s makes pies old school — meaning low technology, high human interaction with the product. So the bakers greeting us are clones of my great-grandma, whom I remember very distinctly making what we dub today as handcrafted pies.
Baltazar Fernandez, Tippin’s director of manufacturing, joins Boyer and me on our slow stroll. One of the original Pippin’s employees, Fernandez started working in the Lenexa location two weeks before the restaurant opened in 1980.
A walking encyclopedia of Tippin’s pie trivia and an eagle eye for the quality of each pie that leaves the bakery, destined for a Hen House or another store and ultimately someone’s holiday, dinner or special occasion table, Fernandez is proud of the work he and his family of bakers produce.
“We have a common goal,” said Fernandez, “and that’s to make the best pie around.”
Fernandez points out the bakery’s different sections. I spy ingredients found in anyone’s pantry, such as real vanilla and cinnamon.
Racks are stacked with glistening pie shells, waiting to be married with a fruit filling cooking in a vat here, or pumpkin pie filling being mixed by three bakers there.
I watch a baker make pie dough in a machine that simulates hand mixing.
“This dough will be formed into bricks that will then be fed through a machine,” said Boyer. “Bakers lay them by hand into pie tins.”
We pause in front of a large bowl overflowing with scraps of cooked pie dough. With a gloved hand, Boyer picks up a golden piece and shows me the famous flaky Tippin’s pie crust.
“This is one of the reasons people love our pies,” said Boyer.
A portion of the bakery is reserved for what I call the Mother of All Tippin’s Pies — French Silk. Eight commercial-size Hobart mixers are silent — “They’re not on the schedule today,” said Fernandez — but it’s easy to imagine the constant hum and heavenly smell on French silk-designated days.
“The French Silk pies must be made in a temperature-controlled environment,” explained Boyer.
Along the way I see bakers drizzling a glaze over Tippin’s cinnamon streusel coffee cakes; the croissant room where buttery pastries are made over a three-day period; pies with graham cracker crusts cradling pastel-colored Key lime filling.
We stop to watch a baker pull pumpkin pies from one of the massive ovens. A large pitchfork-like tool that holds six regular-size pies is used to transfer the hot pies onto cooling racks.
Fernandez, Boyer and I end up in a large area where cakes and pies are hand-decorated. Empty pastry bags hang from racks, with piles of assorted tips scattered on baking sheets.
A cluster of bakers scrubs already-gleaming counters from the day’s work.
“Here, look at this,” Boyer pulls back the cover from a tall rack filled with curly cues of chocolate that are ready to adorn French Silk pies.
“All of these racks have hand-curled chocolate.” He motions to a row two-deep with racks.
By my count there are 10 racks. Of chocolate. Mounds and mounds of chocolate. Stuff fantasies are made of.
Fernandez and Boyer escort me to a room off the production floor where pies are eaten for the sake of quality and competitors’ pies come to be scrutinized and compared with Tippin’s pies.
A Tippin’s cherry pie missing a piece or two sits on the counter, the ruby-red filling gently flowing into the tin.
Boyer cuts into a mini pumpkin pie he grabbed off a cooling rack during our tour. Fernandez hands me a plastic fork and paper plate with a tiny piece of pie.
There is a moment of silence as the three of us taste the pie.
“After working for Tippin’s for 34 years, it’s still an emotional experience,” says Fernandez, whose eyes have the slightest mist.
“An extraordinary dessert experience,” offered Boyer. “Is this one tasting good, Baltazar?”
Fernandez nods his hair-netted head.
“Our taste is our heritage,” he said.
We file out of the room, back into the bakery where Tippin’s teammates are winding down the shift, cleaning, organizing, reviewing the day’s production.
Each baker flashes a smile as we pass.
These people, I think, are Tippin’s secret weapon.
An invisible ingredient that makes each and every Tippin’s pie memorable.
Pies just like my great-grandma used to make—with love.
For obvious reasons, Tippin’s can’t share one of their pie recipes.
So I went to my next-best sweet source for a pie that rates a thumbs-up sublime on my pie parade.
Yes, Chef Jasper Mirabile, Kansas City’s Cannoli King, I will even occasionally eschew one of your famous cannoli in favor of pie — cannoli pie, that is.
Jasper Mirabile's Cannoli Pie
For the filling:
1 pound ricotta cheese
1 cup powdered sugar
2 drops cinnamon oil
1/4 cup candied oranges and cherries, diced
1/4 cup chopped dark chocolate
For the pie crust:
1 1/3 cup all purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup chilled Crisco
6 tablespoons ice cold water
In a large mixing bowl, whisk eggs. Add ricotta and mix. Add powdered sugar and cinnamon oil. Mix again for 2-3 minutes. Fold in candied fruit and chocolate. Place in refrigerator and chill for 30 minutes.
On a work surface, add flour and salt. Cut in chilled Crisco. Mix by hand and let crumble. Add water as needed. Mix until smooth and shape into a ball then wrap dough in cellophane and chill 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Remove dough from refrigerator and dust board with flour. Unwrap dough and roll into a circle. Roll dough onto rolling pin and place over a pie pan. Unroll and fit into pie pan. Trim edges or thumb fold. Prick crust with a fork several times. Bake crust on middle rack in oven for 10 minutes. Remove and cool.
Add cannoli filling to prebaked pie shell. Return to a 350 oven and bake 45 to 50 minutes. Remove from oven and cool. Chill two hours before serving.
Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.