My wife was right, sort of.
When I told her that I was planning to choose the Four Stars of strawberry pie for the September column, she said, “Wrong season. You should have done that in June.”
Nonetheless, here we are in September with a strawberry pie column, and though I had to drive a little farther, work it a little harder and coax a few bakers to adjust their plans, I found four pies that easily would win blue ribbons in any state fair.
One place I was determined to visit was the Homemade Cafe, which lives up to its name in Pepin, Wis. It’s open seasonally, and that season comes to an end next month. Last year, I missed my chance for pie there, so this time, I called ahead and asked owner Julie Elwell to whip up a strawberry version for me.
Boy, did she whip one up: a strawberry chiffon that’s light and airy, yet has bits of strawberry in the chiffon and has an authentic strawberry flavor. The filling is piled luxuriously high, the crust (two parts butter to one part vegetable shortening) is thin and flaky, there’s a layer of lightly sweetened whipped cream on top and she decorates it with strawberry halves.
Julie, who’s 44 and an accountant by trade, has owned the cafe for seven years. While she didn’t have restaurant experience other than working in her folks’ restaurant in Ankeny, Iowa, 30 years ago, she knew how to cook — and bake. She now bakes about 40 pies a week, more over the Labor Day weekend.
This summer has been the best yet since she opened, Julie said. I asked if the opening of the Villa Bellezza winery a few hundred feet down the road has helped, and she said, “They’ve hosted 43 weddings this summer, and the hotels are full every weekend” — the winery has been very good for business.
“It’s fun to be a part of this community,” she said. “It’s a real town. We consider ourselves a local restaurant; we wait on the same people every week. The tourists are the icing on the cake.”
Not far north of the cafe and winery, in Stockholm, is the Stockholm Pie Co., a past winner for Four Stars-caliber pies, and owner Janet Garretson has a classic double-crust strawberry that’s not to be missed. The pastry is rich and cookie-like, baked to a burnished brown that’s a work of art, and the filling is juicy and jammy, packed with flavor and color.
On the Minnesota side of the line, if you drive east from Lanesboro on Minnesota Highway 16, go over the Root River bridge, past the Linger Longer Inn and the post office topped with the dog weather vane, you’ll come to the Aroma Pie Shop. It’s no surprise that they have a Four Stars-quality pie, in this case a strawberry-rhubarb combo. It neatly captures the sweet-and-sour, tangy-and-tart pairing. The big chunks of rhubarb are tender, not tough or mushy, and the lattice-top crust is a masterpiece — crust-lovers like me will be tempted to just peel off all the lattice and start with that.
Maggie Gergen, who owns the shop, said it’s a lard crust, and a lot of discriminating pie eaters can tell the difference. The secret to all her pies? “They’re fresh every morning,” said Maggie, who’s 61 and a retired teacher. She and her staff make anywhere from 50 to 100 pies a day during the season.
The Whalan pie is definitely a strawberry pie with rhubarb, not the other way around. Another pie that’s fruit-forward — pretty much just sweet strawberries on a delicious crust — go no farther than Salad Brothers Cafe & Deli in Rochester’s University Square. Kathleen Schau, the culinary maestra at Salad Brothers, makes a pie that’s strawberry all the way, with big pieces of berry barely held together with a discreet, attractively colored gelatin, baked in a flaky oil crust and topped with whipped cream.
“It’s an old, old recipe that a lady in Zumbrota gave me a long time ago from a church cookbook,” Kathleen said, and as we all know, that’s where most good recipes originate.
They don’t have that pie on the blackboard very often, but I heard about it from businessman (and Salad Brothers’ landlord) Gus Chafoulias a few weeks ago. When Gus gives advice, you can generally take it to the bank, and he was certainly right about Kathleen’s pies.
FOUR STARS OF STRAWBERRY PIE
809 Third St., Pepin, Wis. — on Wisconsin Highway 35
Hours: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday and Thursday-Sunday, closed Tuesday and Wednesday — closes for the season on Oct. 19.
Strawberry chiffon pie: $3.75 per slice, $21 for the whole pie.
N2030 Spring St., Stockholm, Wis. — on Wisconsin Highway 35
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; closed Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday-Sunday.
618 Main St., Whalan — 4 1/2 miles east of Lanesboro
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, May through October
Strawberry-rhubarb pie: $3.99 per slice, $17.95 for the whole thing.
Skyway level, Shops at University Square
111 S. Broadway, Rochester
Hours: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday
Strawberry pie: $3.50 per slice, $19.95 for the pie.