Room for Pie
The Tastes of the Holidays Often End with Crusty Joy
Maybe it’s a natural inclination to load on the calories, like our cave-dwelling ancestors, to sustain us through the long winter, but fall celebrations are definitely about the food. While spring fare is typically light, cool and green, cold weather feasts rev up comfort receptors with rich, warming favorites in seasonal colors: red cranberries and apples, orange pumpkins, golden corn dripping with butter. It’s the color of crispy cracklin’s and unctuous pan drippin’s, fluffy biscuits, bubbling casserole toppings and mosit treats on the dessert table.
For goodness sake, how often do meals include a dessert table? Usually it’s deemed indulgent to grab one cookie or share a dessert with a group of friends. Not now. Pack your scale away for two months. Now is time to celebrate the bountiful harvest, cozy up with family and friends, and remind ourselves of why we can be thankful. Leave the dieting for January.
One of my fondest fall memories is watching my mother turn Halloween pumpkins into Thanksgiving pies. If pumpkins were spare, she could work magic with sweet potatoes. Even squashes like butternut and acorn were fair game. She didn’t use a recipe. She started cooking as a teenager, so her extensive repertoire was hard-wired by then. I “helped” occasionally. Mostly, I peeked through the oven window every five minutes to see if the food was ready. When she had extra dough, she’d press the bits of crust into pretty shapes and bake them alongside the pie. When they were done, she’d dust them with powdered sugar and serve them to my sister and me as our reward for being so patient.
We joke in my family, saying, “I food you!” instead of “I love you!” because offering special treats is integral to how we express fondness for each other. You can taste when food is made with love.
Tootie Lenhart, Russ Delauter and Siegi (pronounced “Ziggy”) Leonhardt know this, too. The trio serves in Trinity United Church of Christ’s kitchen in Thurmont. For more than three decades, volunteers churned out a mountain of pies, cakes, dumplings and all other sorts of home-style, small-batch edibles in an ever-lasting bake sale. They made enough, in fact, to help sustain their church through the lingering era of waning membership and contributions.
About 35 years ago Delauter joined the church council and realized there was a shoebox full of bills to pay. The council considered selling the kitchen equipment for cash, but decided to use it instead. Fellow member Sue Clabaugh worked with DeLauter to get the first projects rolling. Lenhart, crust-making specialist, started a little later. And Leonhardt, the newbie, joined them more than 10 years ago, after emigrating from Germany. Clabaugh’s husband, Larry, still comes in to peel eight to ten bushels of apples each week.
They have a core group of friends who pitch in as needed, but most days it’s just the trio. Their collective age is 250 years, but they fire up the oven seven days a week, starting as early at 3:30 a.m. Their creations are served at The Great Frederick Fair, Catoctin Colorfest, The Red Horse restaurant and Airways Inn of Frederick. Other companies order dozens of pies as unique client gifts. Their efforts also benefit other local churches and a food bank, plus provide meals for church functions.
The Catoctin Mountain Orchard supplies Trinity’s fruit, and then sells the resulting goodies at the farm’s store. “We make a couple thousand apple dumplings for them every year,” says Lenhart, in addition to pies. The bunch recently gave up making apple pies for the store because they couldn’t keep up with demand. Her ledger lists more than 4,500 apple and apple-crumb pies baked overall in 2014, and every crust is rolled by hand, usually Lenhart’s. Trinity’s typical shopping list includes 50 dozens of eggs and 50 gallons of milk. They could buy flour by the ton. Lenhart says she loads up whenever flour goes on sale at the local grocery store. Area farms supply veggies and meat for soup and pot pies.
Pumpkin pie is one Thanksgiving “must-have,” but Trinity’s bakers have a hard time narrowing down their “top three” list. “Coconut cream is very popular. So is chocolate,” says Lenhart, but cherry, apple and their signature blackberry-peach aren’t far behind. Old-school mincemeat pies, with beef and red wine, are available, too. Most items are less than $10. Walk-in customers can pick from packed freezers, 5 a.m. to 11 a.m., but cream and custard pies are made to order. Delauter chips in, “They don’t freeze well. They get watery.”
The bakers’ long hours may leave them yawning by noon, but they appreciate being part of their customers’ holiday traditions. Lenhart is proud of her 30-year devotion. “We have such a good thing built up here,” she says, “We’ll do it as long as we can.”
John Burner is another pie aficionado. He is a former chef who took over the Barbara Fritchie Restaurant in 2007 with his business partner, Patty Rimel. He says pumpkin pie is his favorite. “When I was growing up, my mother made one for my birthday. That’s in March, so I must have loved it.” He takes pride in carrying on the restaurant’s 106-year tradition as an icon of sweets and treats.
He likes to try new recipes, but the classics never go out of style. “We make chocolate cream and lemon curd fillings from scratch every day, along with the crusts.” In September, his sales record logged 1,150 pieces of pie and 230 slices of cake. On any given day, a stainless steel case is filled with a variety of desserts. There may be French apple, flecked with plump raisins and glossed with thick glaze, or graham, a vanilla/meringue creation topped with sugary cookie crumbs. Fastnachts are available on the weekends. The restaurant’s signature coconut cake is a recipe from Burner’s wife’s family. He joyfully recounts compliments from a cousin. “He leaned in close after dinner here and said, ‘You have come close to Aunt Cindy on the lemon meringue pie.’”