The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book, our Cookbook of the Week

The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book, our Cookbook of the Week
All images courtesy Grand Central Publishing

Publishers love to send us cookbooks here at Fork in the Road, and often those books come straight from the chefs at some of New York's best restaurants. So we decided to share the love, and each week, we'll feature a new book, a recipe, and a few thoughts on cooking from the authors. Check back every Tuesday for a new book.

The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book By Emma Elsen and Melissa Elsen, 224 pages, Grand Central Publishing, $30

Happy Thanksgiving week. Why not bake a pie?

Four & Twenty Blackbirds (439 3rd Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-499-2917) founders Emma and Melissa Elsen didn't mean to open a pie shop, or at least not at first. But when the economy tanked in the late-aughts, their careers in fine art and finance weren't really working out, and the sisters, having grown up in their family's restaurant in Hecla, South Dakota, already had a lifetime of food-service experience and a particular fondness for baking.

So they got busy testing recipes: They baked for friends, family, anyone they could.

Desserts that began in their Crown Heights kitchen quickly found their way to loft dinner parties in Bushwick (circa 2008, before the neighborhood totally blew up), and word traveled quickly that these sisters could really bake. They started taking catering orders but never thought of opening their own shop until late 2009 when they stumbled on an empty corner storefront in Gowanus, an area that was having quite a moment at that point.

And no baker in New York City was fully devoting their time to making great pie, and that was a shame -- and these ladies happened to be really, really great at it. So they built out the space with their own four hands and help from friends, and Four & Twenty Blackbirds opened in 2010.

The shop immediately garnered a following for creative, ingredient-driven, seasonal pies and tarts like salted caramel apple, Bluebarb slab, malted chocolate pecan, and many, many others.

Their focus on seasonality translates to the book, where pies are helpfully organized by season: apple, grape, and nut pies for fall, citrus for winter, rhubarb for spring, and blueberries and stone fruits for summer. The book also includes eleven crusts -- traditional ones grounded in butter or lard, as well as gluten-free and vegan choices, and the crumbles and streusels you'll want to put on top, and tips on ingredients, sourcing, and technique.

Pie-lovers, this could just be your bible.

On the next page, the Elsen sisters dish on their grandma's pies, Alice Waters and baking failures.  

Salted Caramel Apple Pie
Salted Caramel Apple Pie

What is the oldest recipe in this book and where did you come from? Probably the Sour Cream Lemon that is based on our Grandma Liz's recipe. It is also one of the first pie recipes we started testing when we began baking pies together. We first made it into a tart with a cornmeal crust and served it at a large dinner party we collaborated on with some friends. Our grandma made it as a traditional pie, topped with mile-high whipped cream and a generous amount of fresh lemon zest on top.

If you could give one piece of cooking advice to the world, what would it be and why? Don't be afraid to try, and if it fails, try again. So many people shy away from baking because of the technicality of it; there are rules to success, but the only way to understand is to try.

What cook(s), living or dead, do you most admire and why? Alice Waters for her commitment to sustainable food and agriculture. And of course our mother and grandmothers who gave us ultimate freedom in the kitchen but also taught us a good foundation.

What's your go-to seasonal ingredient right now, and what do you love about it? Apples are at their peak right now in the Northeast, and the great variety available here makes for many a delicious pie. They are also great for snacking and putting in salads.

Name one unexpected or unique recipe from the book. Salty Honey is one of our more unique pies that also has garnered a big following -- it's a sweet and salty honey custard that we invented in the early days of baking together.

Not sure what to bring to Thanksgiving? How about a Salty Honey Pie? Find the recipe on the next page.  

Salty Honey Pie
Salty Honey Pie

Salty Honey Pie Makes one 9-inch pie (serves 8-10)

Salty honey pie is not for the faint of heart. It is a full-flavored, sweet, and yes, salty pie that for some of our customers has become an addiction. This pie actually resulted from a kitchen experiment. Emily was making a bourbon chess ipe from an old recipe she wanted to test, only to discover she was totally out of bourbon. So in place of bourbon, she added honey-- well, a lot of honey. The pie puffed up like a marshmallow and seemed like it would never set, but she left it in long enough that the top became a toasty brown and and the center was set into a golden rich custard. And boy, was it sweet! After a few tastes with the kitchen crew, Sophie Kamin, one of our pastry cooks at the time, reached for the flake sea salt and sprinkled a little on. It helped balance the sweetness perfectly. Salty honey pie quickly became one of our most popular pies.

Ingredients: All-butter crust for a 9-inch single-crust pie, crimped and frozen*** ¼ lb (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted ¾ c granulated sugar 1 T white cornmeal ½ t kosher salt 1 t vanilla paste (Nielsen-Massey makes a readily available one) ¾ c honey 3 large eggs ½ c heavy cream 2 t white vinegar 1-2 t flake sea salt, for finishing

Preparation: Have ready and frozen one pastry-lined 9-inch pie pan, crimped.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 375 degrees (F).

In a medium bowl, stir together the melted butter, sugar, cornmeal, salt, and vanilla paste. Stir in the honey and the eggs one at a time, followed by the heavy cream and vinegar.

Place the frozen pie shell on a rimmed baking sheet and strain the filling through a fine-mesh sieve directly into the pie shell or strain it into a separate bowl and then pour it into the shell. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 45-50 minutes, rotating 180 degrees when the edges start to set, 30 to 35 minutes through baking. The pie is finished when the edges are set and puffed up high and the center is no longer liquid but looks set like gelatin and is golden brown on top. All too cool completely on a wire rack, 2-3 hours. Sprinkle with flake sea salt. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

The pie will keep refrigerated for four days or at room temperature for two days.

***All-butter crust (single crust pie) 1 ¼ c unbleached all-purpose flour ½ t kosher salt 1 ½ t granulated sugar ¼ lb (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½ inch pieces ½ c cold water 2 T cider vinegar ½ c ice

Stir the flour, salt, and sugar together in a large bowl. Add the butter pieces and coat with the flour mixture using a bench scraper or spatula. With a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour mixture, working quickly until mostly pea-size pieces of butter remain (a few larger pieces are ok, be careful not to overblend)

Combine the water, cider vinegar, and ice in a large measuring cup or small bowl. Sprinkle two tablespoons of the ice water mixture over the flour mixture, and mix and cut it in with a bench scraper until it is fully incorporated. Add more of the ice water mixture, one to two tablespoons at a time, using the bench scraper or your hands (or both) to mix until the dough comes together in a ball, with some dry bits remaining. Squeeze and pinch with your fingertips to bring all the dough together, sprinkling dry bits with more small drops of the ice water mixture, if necessary, to combine. Shape the dough into a flat disc, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least an hour, preferably overnight, to give crust some time to mellow.


Check out our Cookbook of the Week archives for more like this.

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Four & Twenty Blackbirds

439 Third Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11215


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