I smelled it before I saw it. And OhMyGod, did it smell good.
If my recent visit to a pie shop in Virginia eroded my faith in finding good pie-making, Hoosier Mama restored it. So let me dispense with the quick facts and get on with it, cuz I’m dying to tell you about this gem of a place.
This two-year-old pie shop is a sweet, humble little place. Hunkered down in the scrappy Ukrainian Village section of the city, Hoosier Mama is turning out some of the best pie I’ve ever tasted. There are only a few tables here, so the line snakes out onto the sidewalk sometimes.
I was lucky enough to drop by during a short lull, so I grabbed a bright table by the front picture-window, the only one available. Since I had come directly from O’Hare on the Blue Line (on my way to a downtown conference for my day job), I dumped my suitcase under the table and approached the pastry case.
What a sight it was: sweet and savory pies keeping harmonious company, each one plumper and more appealing than the next. I asked what the shop’s trademark pie was, and was pointed to the Sugar Cream Pie, a smooth concoction of brown sugar, white sugar and cream. As simple as it sounds, however, this pie is one of the toughest to make well, one of the bakers told me. Getting the consistency just right takes know-how.
I had to say yes to the Sugar Cream Pie, especially since it’s the state pie of Indiana, Hoosier Mama Pie c0-owner Paula Haney’s home state. I also said yes to the banana cream, the chocolate chess and the sour cream apple.
Before I get to the fillings, though, I have to stop right here and tell you that what blew me away–totally blew me away–about Hoosier Mama Pie was the crust. The first thing I did when I sat down with my plates of pie is to break off a piece of the fluted edge and nibble it. And Oh. My. God. Perfection.
It was about this time that Haney wandered over. She told me that all-butter is her standard crust. And boy, does that decision pay off. The crusts taste deeply of good fresh butter, and their texture is my ideal: firm enough to offer structure for the filling, and a nice little resistance to the tooth, but still flaky enough to surrender just when it should. Haney’s crusts also hold their lovely fluted shape, a particular challenge when you’re throwing over shortening for butter.
I thought I had been rather heroic not to stand up and scream with joy after tasting the crust. But I was positively Herculean for not shouting with happiness after tasting the fillings. The chocolate chess–whose touch of cornmeal earns it the Southern “chess” distinction–is as deeply fudgy as the best part of a super-fudgy brownie. The banana cream’s subtle nutmeggy flavor sets it apart from the more typical vanilla custard-and-bananas pie. I am not a particular fan of apple pie, but this one made me swoon: the light-handed sour cream custard and brown-sugar-crumble topping showed off the apples beautifully.
But I have to reserve a paragraph especially for the Sugar Cream Pie. Amber, creamy and redolent of caramel, it’s a pie you should take the day off for. Hell, it’s a pie you should fly to Chicago (or Indiana) for. Unbelievable.
I had validation, too. A friendly young man named Dan Bettes was marooned in the center of the shop with no place to sit, so I invited him to share my big window table. I was relieved to see he wasn’t put off by the weirdo sitting there with four slices of pie in front of her. And he was game enough to dig in when I offered him bites of everything, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over most everything. In exchange, I got try his passion fruit pie.
I really didn’t think I’d like it; I’m not a fan of key lime pie, and I kinda figured a creamy passion fruit wouldn’t be my thing. But I loved it. It tasted like summer. And the meringue wasn’t the typical frothy/bubbly crap that makes you want to kill someone. It was glossy, creamy, a little chewy, and swirled into gorgeous brown peaks by someone who clearly knew what they were doing.
And Haney certainly knows what she is doing. She has been baking pies since she was a kid, but it became an obsession more recently, when she was working as pastry chef to wunderkind Grant Achatz at Trio in nearby Evanston. (He drew just a teensy bit of notice after that for a little place called Alinea. And it turns out pie runs in Achatz’s family, too; his second cousin runs Achatz Handmade Pies in Michigan, listed last year by Bon Appetit as one of the 10 best pie places in the country.)
Hoosier Mama Pie, as it turns out, is on that list, too; something I didn’t know until after I got back to my hotel to write about it (nor did I know about Haney’s bona fides beforehand). I happened upon Hoosier Mama Pie online, searching for places that seemed maniacally devoted to pie. Who knew then that I’d found a place that deserves to be in the Pie Hall of Fame?