When Michele Albano first got into pie-making, she burned out three ovens in her ski condo in Vermont supplying local farmers’ markets with pies made with “love and fresh fruit. ”Those days are long gone. She now operates Michele’s Pies out of a commercial kitchen and bake shop on Route 7 in Norwalk, delighting customers with award-winning crusted concoctions such as Chocolate Pecan Bourbon, Candyland and Ultimate Banana Split as well as old-fashioned favorites inspired by the pies she remembers her grandmother baking.
The store, which retains a hint of woodsy Vermont in its decor, also serves up muffins, strudels, cookies, tea breads and an assortment of quiches and savory pies. Stopping by for a sample and a cuppa Joe, one can see – nay, taste - why her signature pie, a Chocolate Pecan Bourbon, is such a hit. It’s a delightful combination; a party of bourbon-swigging, pick-nicking pecans caught in shower of cocoa and nary a hint of that disgusting gelatinous goo so pervasive in store varieties.
“There aren’t many ingredients in our pies,” explains Michele. “People enjoy that simplicity.” Indeed, everything coming out of Michele’s kitchen is fresh and wholesome. No sign of high fructose corn syrup in this pie. “My baking is the old-fashioned kind,” she says. “People tell me they haven’t tasted pie like this since their grandmas baked.” But nut pies are one thing. The real proof of the pudding, or rather, the pie, would have to be in the tasting of Michele’s Country Apple Crumb, which took a blue ribbon at the National Pie Championships in Florida.
But first, a confession: I don’t get excited about apple pie. I’m a South African girl, who likes her pies hot and savory, filled with meat or vegetables: steak and pepper pies, Cornish pasties, spinach and cheese pastries with a flaky buttery crusts are more my thing. For something as American as apple pie, I’m going to need a homegrown panel. Enter skinny girl from New Jersey. I cut her a slice, “Mmm, tart, but not too tart. Good texture! There are chunks of whole apple in here. Where did you say this pie shop was? Gimme another slice!”Next is the California girl from next door. “I love pie!” she says. “And this one is slightly salty. The apples are firm and I like the brown sugar crust on the crumb topping. It’s a good pie. Where is this pie store?”And finally a pie-lover from the Midwest: “This pie is delicious. It isn’t too sweet. The crumb topping is divine. I like that there is none of that syrupy-jelly stuff around the fruit. This is a very good pie. ”It’s a hit."
Savory pies are more my area of expertise. Where I grew up, pies are like sandwiches, you pick one up at the corner store for lunch and you eat it in one hand out of wax paper. At Michele’s Pies I am a bit disappointed that the selection isn’t larger than chicken pot pie and Australian beef. I confess my yearning for savory pies to Michele. I open my heart about the spinach and feta, the chicken and mushroom, the curried vegetable pies of my girlhood in Africa. Michele looks nervous and eyes the nearest exit. I back off and settle for the next best thing: a chicken pot pie. It comes out of the oven brown and round and poufy and smells like my grandmother’s kitchen. The filling is delicious and comforting like a pair of flannel pajamas. It’s the perfect blend of chicken, celery and carrots and tastes homemade. I’m slightly disappointed by the crust. I’d prefer it a little lighter and flakier, less doughy. Still, it’s delicious and I feel like driving back up Route 7 to get another one – perhaps the Australian Beef.
Back at Michele’s Pies, Michele and her team of eight bakers have just finished processing a truckload of pumpkins into 6,000 lbs of pumpkin puree which will go into her Maple Pumpkin with Pecan Streusel pies, her Pumpkin Chiffon pies and her award-winning Thanksgiving Pumpkin pie. These pies, along with the many apple and nut pies she makes, make up the bulk of the 3,000 pies she estimates she will make for Thanksgiving this year.
“The pies are all seasonal because we use fresh ingredients, “she tells me. “We’re not making blueberry pies right now. That’s one of our summer pies. We’re doing a lot of pumpkins, apples and sweet potato and the nut pies of course”.“We’re always coming up with new combinations,” says Michele. Her menu is expansive and full of surprises like Macadamia Coconut Crumb and Maple Oatmeal Raisin Pie and peppered with 17 pies that have taken ribbons at the National Pie Championships in Florida, where the team heads down each year to compete in the commercial division.
What’s next for Michele, after she’s baked those 6,000 lbs of pumpkin puree? She has already been featured on Good Morning America in its “Best of Slice of Pie in the Nation” contest, has given Bobby Flay a run for his money on the Food Network’s Throwdown and has recently started a “Pie of the Month” club. She has a recipe book coming out in September featuring, among others, the old-fashioned recipes inspired by her grandma and I’m hoping she’ll start experimenting with chicken and mushrooms, and curry and cheese…
LAST CHANCE TO PLACE A PIE ORDER FOR THANKSGIVING IS NOVEMBER 20th.
Michele's Pies 666 Main Avenue, Norwalk. 203.354.7144