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Sharpen your sweet tooth

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Waiting for my car last week at the mechanic's, I was compelled to endure Martha Stewart teaching Rachael Ray how to make a piecrust. "You can make a piecrust in 16 seconds!" Martha exclaims and pulses her food processor with 2 1/2 cups of flour; 2 sticks of cold, unsalted butter in half-inch chunks; 1 teaspoon of kosher salt; and 1 teaspoon of sugar. After pulsing, she pours in a half cup ice-cold water and warns not to make a ball. Pour it on the counter in loose chunks, she says, and then pull it together.

You can pulse a piecrust in 16 seconds, it is true, but the real work—prepping the butter, icing the water, dusting with flour, resting the dough, rolling it out, draping it in your pan off-center, then pulling it out for another go, only to watch the whole thing break apart like the Earth's crust in 2012—well, that takes infinitely longer.

There's a reason we bake at home and a reason we eat out. Both enrich our souls.

So make a piecrust and revel in the compliments. Or go out on the town and let a pastry chef do it for you. Some of my best dates with my husband have been huddled at a bar, sipping coffee, talking over the day's events, each leaning over the other for one more bite of pie.

Click for larger image • Sweet Loralee's pumpkin and sweet potato pies - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

RALEIGH

Tired of ending your meal with pumpkins and pecans? Feel as though you're sweating nutmeg? For a burst of cleansing citrus and vibrant color, visit Midtown & Bar 115 in the Lassiter at North Hills for Pastry Chef Tim Barron's Lemon Tart ($7/ slice).

Barron achieves the clean, fresh taste with "a mix of regular lemons, of course the zest, and Japanese lemon juice (you buy it at the Asian market). It has more of a floral flavor than most citruses."

For his variation on a shortbread crust, he uses a little more butter than shortbread—"so it's a little softer and rich. It doesn't get crispy."

Garnished with a pure flavor jolt of raspberry sauce and a dab of fresh cream with vanilla bean, this tart is just the shock therapy you need to get through the holiday season.

Click for larger image • Bailey's Chocolate Pie at Glenwood Grill has macadamia nuts and an Oreo crust. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Server Aaron at Raleigh's Glenwood Grill has a Southern accent like blackstrap molasses and the hospitality to match. He doesn't flinch when asked to see the dessert menu before dinner is ordered. Now that's character.

You'll be thrilled you saved room for Chef John Wright's Bailey's Chocolate Pie ($6/ slice). With crushed macadamia nuts, chocolate drizzle, Oreo crust and true whipped cream, this thing is dense, more like a flourless chocolate cake—so dense, the knife leaves "legs" on the sides.

When a slice of pie comes with a price tag of $9 and an important name like the Second Empire Key Lime Pie, it begs careful observation.

The pie arrives on an absurdly large platter, like a Pekingese on a pillow. The stately wedge is made even more imposing by the 3-inch curlicue tuille cookie arcing up and over the pie, supported at its base by a quenelle of whipped cream that mimics the telltale shape of gelato—but aha!—it is not.

With waves of mango and blueberry sauces artfully painted on the platter, the pie looks like a tall ship sailing north from Key West, its paper-thin tuille a curvaceous figurehead on the prow.

Second Empire's signature dessert has been on the menu for the life of the restaurant. Fortunately the pie is not just fun to look at (and deconstruct). Pastry Chef Amber Atkins' key lime custard is smooth and tangy, with a surprise topping: a thin layer of sweet sour cream, much like a New York-style cheesecake. It's delicious.

Atkins, whose background is in cake decorating and dessert plating, is as much a purist with product as she is with presentation.

On cream: "The bean is crucial. That's one thing I've been taught since Day 1. There is no substitution for vanilla bean, unfortunately!"

On crust: "The crust is very sensitive; graham cracker crust has a lot of butter and sugar in it. If you make the pies [too far in advance], the syrup and the butter will start to break down."

On custard: "I've tweaked it slightly: for example, adding a couple more egg yolks to the batter to make it a little creamier rather than gelatinous. A lot of times, restaurants do add gelatin to the custard to set it up, but I would rather not do that. I think that gelatin can leave a film on your palate, and I really want to make it as homemade as possible."

Both the restaurant and tavern at Second Empire serve Atkins' entire dessert menu (all $9), which includes an individually sized Lemon Blueberry Tart and a Buttermilk Coconut Chess Pie.

Trust the French to push the limits on pie. Galettes, tartes, clafoutis, milles-feuilles: Not one of them looks like a pie is supposed to look. But they share many of the same ingredients.

Upside-down Tarte Tatin ($9.95) surely exists in no purer form than at St. Jacques in North Raleigh, where an unsliced half apple draped with the thinnest imaginable round of crust is cooked for two hours, then flipped, the caramelization perfect with strong French coffee.

The St. Jacques Strawberry Mille-Feuille ("thousand layers") with Chantilly Cream is something out of modern architecture. Our French server, Quentin, shares "the true story of the mille-feuille": Though traditionally made with puff pastry, he says, St. Jacques uses paper-thin phyllo, rather than their labor-intensive puff pastry, "because one dessert would be, what, 25 dollars? Just for some strawberries and cream. No one would buy it!"

For a disciplined kitchen like the one at St. Jacques, the easy solution (using processed puff pastry) would be absurd. Not that phyllo is much of a shortcut: The simplicity of taste belies the fillings brushed in between. First butter, then butter-sugar, then butter-sugar-almond. Repeat 333 times, give or take.

Any day of the week, a pie craving can be quenched at the North Carolina Farmers' Market in Raleigh. For subtle European tortes, visit Swiss Chalet's booth in the covered "baked goods" tent adjacent to the permanent breezeway, open seven days a week year-round.

Fifth-generation bakers Tom and Lisa Buehler moved to North Carolina from Switzerland 15 years ago. They run two shops in Greenville and Havelock, and their tortes are, in centuries-old fashion, literally "brought to market."

Megan Shaver, who works the Raleigh booth, cites the hazelnut-raspberry Linzer Torte as the bakery's masterpiece ($4 small; $11.50 large). The Linzer is sold out this day, but the Hollander Pecan Torte (apricot-almond-pecan) makes a superb substitute. The eggy, cake-like base has a sassy touch of almond flavor below a thin layer of apricot jam. It's a mature, sophisticated taste, barely sweetened.

Click for larger image • The Plain Jane Baking Company sells desserts such as this chocolate pecan ganache at the State Farmers' Market. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

The Plain Jane Baking Company (named so for its pure, plain ingredients) sets up its booth next to Swiss Chalet's, creating a vortex of superb baking.

"We focus on the crust, obviously, the most important part of a pie," says owner Alison Vessie.

"We do it in the traditional way. We only make two crusts at a time. We do them by hand; we do not machine them, so they're made more like a laminated dough. You get the layers that you should; you get the flavor that you should.

"And we only use butter, we don't use shortening or oil, no water. We use a teeny bit of heavy cream to bring the dough together. Not sweet at all; it's a neutral crust."

Today she has a cranberry walnut crumb pie and double-crusted apple. "It's a traditional New England apple pie—no fillers, no spices, no flavorings, no sugar. It is just purely the apples, which is really what a pie should be," Vessie says. "We use Mutsu apples and hand-peel all our fruit."

"And then we also do our chocolate pecan [she says pee-can]—this is not a traditional pecan pie with a very thick layer of custard and a very small layer of nuts. This is whole, fresh North Carolina pecans all the way through, and then we use Guittard dark chocolate, and then we put a layer of chocolate ganache in the center as well. It's a sweet, nutty crunchy pie, but not gooey."

Vessie sold her Clayton store in 2005 after running it for 17 years. At one point, she employed 22 people, at the lowest point, eight. "And now it's just me baking, strictly through the farmers' market," Vessie says.

Pecan, pecan/ chocolate ganache and double-crust pies are $18; single-crust fruit pies and crumb pies are $16; pumpkin and lemon chess are $14; or, as a teaser, try Plain Jane's exquisite "pecan bar" for $3.75.

If it's too frigid for the outdoor tent but you simply must have a pie, try the family enterprise, Sweet David's Bakery, in the indoor market building, where they sell three varieties of chess and two of pecan. They do not, however, make their own piecrust: "It's just so much labor," says owner William Townsend, whose son, David, 27, runs the Garner-based bakery.

Pies are $1 for a tiny three-bite size and $9-$10 for a full-size.

APEX AND CARY

Savory's Bakery in Apex is a small-town corner bakery at the crossroads of two main streets, but you wouldn't know it by the Continental fare.

Andrea Paul, Savory's baker/ owner (trained in Charleston "by a Frenchman") is enthusiastic but plainspoken.

"Some don't think my pastry is sweet enough because it is very low-sugar/ more-flavor, on the European side. If it's a very traditional Southern recipe they're looking for, I tell them they may not want what I have. I'm not going to change my style to fit the Southern [taste]."

Paul's apple/ almond "conversation tart" is a perfect example of Francophile pastry. And her signature item is a French custard pie: "You've got Granny Smith apples sliced in there, and light custard sauce baked in a sweet shell. It just goes so perfect with whipping cream."

Paul prepares three crusts for her pies. For her single-serving conversation tarts, she uses "the sweet dough, which is like a sugar cookie crust"; for regular whole pies, she makes "the nice flaky, traditional pie dough" with chilled whole milk and a shortening/ margarine mix; and for certain tarts, she uses house-made puff pastry so it "will fluff up airy with layers; it kind of gives it a different flair."

The seasons inspire Paul. Come summer, she'll have peach pies with tapioca, her grandmother's recipe.

Savory's fruit and pecan pies start at $15, and cream pies start at $19. Conversation tarts are $3-$4 each.

The Chocolate Mousse Pie ($5.25/ slice) at Chatham Street Café—located on the short old-timey strip of downtown Cary—is a destination dessert, worth a trip all its own. The airy but decadent pie features a crumbled chocolate wafer crust, a generous layer of freshly whipped cream and mousse with the rich depth of bittersweet cocoa ("It's a classic mousse, just egg whites and chocolate," says chef/ owner Gayla Bonke, who swears by Trader Joe's dark chocolate bars).

Like white wine, the pie gets better as it comes to room temperature. Consider ordering a slice to go and cherish it slowly with a brandy or port. Or eat it as I did—in the car, without utensils, hooking one mousse-covered finger to my mouth at each stoplight.

If you haven't heard of La Farm Bakery in suburban Cary, keep an eye on your television set; it's featured on a Blue Cross Blue Shield commercial currently in heavy rotation. Even onscreen, their pastry smells like heaven.

The bakery has two or three tarts available every day by the slice ($3.99), and typically eight whole tarts to take home ($21.99). For $12, I tasted all three of one day's selections, a palate cleanser of cold milk at the ready.

The Golden Delicious Apple Almond Tart is a decisively grown-up treat: slightly chewy, brilliant French country pastry base with glazed apples on a thin layer of marzipan. A perfect snack at teatime.

The Pumpkin Harvest, obviously seasonal, is a highly spiced, smooth custard on pate sucree base. With a sheer glaze and a few roasted pumpkin seeds, this simple tart radiates autumn.

The berry tart features sweet fluffy cream cheese balanced by tart blueberries and raspberries. Beneath a dusting of powdered sugar, the browned top yields a lovely hint of salt. The berry tart's the clear winner, though all three are spectacular: refined yet bold—like the French.

Click for larger image • Sweet Potato Fried Pie with spiced pecans and ice cream is a favorite at Lucky 32 in Cary. - PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON

Imagine an empanada being sat on by an elephant— that was my first impression of the fantastic Sweet Potato Fried Pie at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen, near Regency Park in Cary. This is the cleverest dessert I've had all month, and that's saying a lot.

Maybe it's that serving a proletarian fried pie—the kind usually found in wax bags with oil spots—in an upscale establishment is slightly revolutionary. Or maybe it's that the flat, half-moon pocket is spiked with Myers's rum and five-spice, then garnished with Homeland Creamery butter pecan ice cream and aggressively spiced pecans.

"[For the pecans, take] a simple syrup, seasoned with cayenne pepper, cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, allspice. Simmer the untoasted pecans in there for 30 to 45 minutes, drain the liquid off, and deep-fry the pecans. It kind of vaporizes their interior," says Executive Chef Jay Pierce, a Louisiana native who, after culinary school, came by his cayenne stripes honestly, at Emeril Lagasse's NOLA in New Orleans.

"We also make our pie dough here. Basically we freeze the butter and put it through a cheese grater. It's just water, White Lily flour and butter. I did do it with lard for a while, but in Greensboro [at Lucky 32's flagship] there are a lot more people who are sensitive to pork products in their food. I just thought it would not be a selling point if we wrote "made with lard," because for every person that appreciated it, there'd be five that said, 'Oh, gross.'"

Pierce does his research when perfecting a recipe. "I went to a food festival outside of Nashville about 18 months ago in conjunction with Southern Foodways Alliance . . . I met this woman who was making pies, and John T. Edge was leading a talk with her, and I asked her, 'How do you get the consistency inside of your sweet potato pie like that?' and she said she cooks all of her filling in advance.

"So the trick to [our fried pies] turning out so well is we make up sweet potato pies with no crust and bake them in baking pans, then cool them off. Then we roll out raw dough and we scoop up that cooked filling and place it in the center, brush the edges with egg, crimp it, deep-fry it and that's about it."

Pierce's Lemon and Chocolate Chess Pies scoff at revolution, even at evolution; they're über-sweet, following Southern tradition. Chess pie enthusiasts will sit back with a smile, cinching their belts a couple of holes looser. (Chef throws down a little cash: "Our chess pies, I'd stack those up against anybody's at this point.")

All that need be said about Lucky 32's towering Chocolate Peanut Butter Cream Pie is that it's a trophy for the sweet-eating sportsman, a true American pie for our culture of giddy excess. All desserts are $6; the menu changes every six weeks.

WAKE FOREST

It's an unconfirmed report, but Wake Forest may have more per capita bakeries than any other tri-county town.

The small Pies & More on Wait Avenue, advertising "fried chicken | seafood | pies + more," sells $2 slices to go for a quick fix. Although the pecan pie doesn't have a house-made crust, it's a family recipe and it's good.

Two blocks uphill, look for A La Mode in an old downtown railroad building. Though best known for its gelato and a spectacular ice-cream bar (with "cowboy" stools made out of real saddles!), A La Mode will gussy up a slice of premade double-crust apple pie with walnuts, caramel, cinnamon, and Maple View Farm vanilla bean ice cream ($6.50).

Kick up your feet and stay awhile at Soho Bakery & Café. The shop, in a nondescript strip, is a stylish little secret: bright and airy with a neutral palette, soft leather sofas, a soothing water feature and the aroma of freshly baked bagels. Though the piecrusts aren't house-made, the shortbread tart crust is. Kids of all ages will have fun with the Twix bar Tart, which approximates and improves upon the namesake candy.

If Soho is all style, Sweet Loralee Pastries in the Factory Shops warehouse is all substance. Five years ago, owner/baker Ilya Koltusky moved his bakery from Canada to North Carolina. He is an uncompromising cook. Asked if he ever uses premade crust, he grimaces.

"I just can't do it! We actually roll them out. You know, I have a system, and I have a huge mixer. It's taller than me—80 quart. And when you're rolling out the shell, the bottom, we'll just roll the dough into a long piece and just cut them by hand. We don't have a press."

Pies at Sweet Loralee are buy-one, get-one-free through Christmas, two for $25.

Click for larger image • Ilya Koltusky of Sweet Loralee Pastries prepares Thanksgiving pies. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

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