Since the Gowanus bakery opened in 2009, Four & Twenty Blackbirds has earned a cultish following for its perfectly turned-out pies, including the chocolate chess and — in particular — salted-caramel-apple (Grub Street named it one of the best in New York). Today, the empire’s extended to a café at the Brooklyn Public Library and a new pie counter in Prospect Heights (you can buy The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book too). We asked sister co-owners Emily and Melissa Elsen which tools a budding pie baker should have in their arsenal. Here, a baker’s dozen of their essentials.
There are a lot of styles and makes of handheld pastry blenders out there, but most of them are subpar and fall apart. OXO got it right. Comfortable, easy to clean, and lasts forever, so you can make a lifetime of pie crust by hand.
These scoops are essential for dry ingredients when making large batches of fruit pies. It makes scooping all that flour for crust or prepped fruit for filling (and draining off the extra juices) incredibly easy — just try to imagine doing it with a ladle or measuring cup. Available in a variety of sizes, and they don’t break the bank.
If you are only going to have one rolling pin in the house (and you have decided it’s time to move on from using wine bottles to roll your dough) make it a tapered pin. Choose one made from good solid wood. You will never need to repair it (there is no metal rod through the middle that will break eventually) and it provides versatility in that the thicker center creates heavier pressure while the outer edges create lighter pressure. Work with it a little so you understand it’s power.
Pyrex is the leader in baking glass. Forget about metal pans — clear pie pans allow you see what’s happening on the bottom (i.e. if your crust is still pale). Here’s a tip, actually: If the crust is pale but the top is browning, cover it in foil, drop the temperature 20 or 25 degrees, and bake until the bottom crust is done. No one likes a soggy-bottomed pie.
From the beautiful lands of Trinidad and Tobago, our secret ingredient. A classic component of many a delicious cocktail, Angostura Bitters have a flavor profile akin to allspice, and it’s potent enough that you only need a few dashes. Add it to fruit pies that require spice — particularly apple — or custards pies such as pumpkin, sweet potato, or even pecan. It’s that secret extra something.
A must for any baker — it’s simple, cheap, and easy to clean. The tool is excellent for cubing your cold butter (essential for fluffy pie crusts, scones, and biscuits), portioning your finished crust, and cleaning off your surfaces after any type of dough making.
When we need a smooth base for something like a chess or custard pie, nothing’s better than this immersion blender for pulsing it all (particularly the more fibrous ingredients such as pumpkin and sweet potato). Of course, it’s also great for soups and smoothies. You can find lots of different immersion blenders on the market, but this one will last you the rest of your life.
Have you ever seen a cherry pitter that does it hole-punch style? It’s beyond easy and likely also the one that your grandma used (well, if she liked to bake pies like ours did). Cherry season is important for pie makers, and so is efficiency in pitting. Don’t bother with anything else.
Admittedly, we were skeptical of this contraption at first (it looked to be much more trouble than it was worth), but we were so wrong. For making salted caramel apple pies we churn out, this peeler is the easiest way to peel, core and slice all at once. The stable vacuum base attaches to surfaces without rocking, plus it works on pears and potatoes, too.
When you bake a pie, sometimes you need to weigh down the crust to keep it from puffing up. People will tell you to just use beans or rice, but then you end up with smelly beans or wasted rice. If you plan to make custard pies that require a pre-bake, get a couple sets of these. They last forever.
We were on the lookout for an apron that didn’t tug on the neck that was also lightweight and aesthetically pleasing. We ended up with this — though we did alter it slightly by sewing the pockets shut (too bulky) and shortening it a smidge — as a useful apron at a low price.
We prefer a silicone brush over a natural fiber brush because if a silicone bristle begins to disintegrate, you’ll spot it very easily and pick it out. With a natural fiber brush, you’ll have a hard time getting the fibers truly clean, and then when they come off, they end up all over the surface of the crust when you brush it with egg wash. Gross.
This bowl is flat bottomed, which makes it easier for making a pie crust in (when you’re using that pastry blender, it won’t rock on the surface). It can also be flipped over onto your rolled-out dough to be used as a cutting guide for a 9-inch pie pan, which is a nifty added bonus.
Our Favorite Ingredient
When we first made our Matcha Custard with standard food grade “green tea powder,” a.k.a. matcha, it looked a bit like the Gowanus Canal — a little sludgy. Then we were lucky enough to be introduced to the tea masters of Ippodo from Kyoto, Japan, who’ve been honing their craft for 300 years. If you think investing in quality ingredients doesn’t make a difference, this will shed some light on why they’re so important.
All that pie making, cooking, and cleaning up can be very drying to your hands and even your face. Organic coconut oil is edible, nontoxic and a great moisturizer to keep in your kitchen and sneak a dab whenever your skin is feeling tight.
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