Monday, June 6, 2011

Could Pie Be the New Cupcake?

We're all waiting for it: the day the cupcake trend dies. Well, maybe not everyone...  but food enthusiasts are. Cupcakes have had a good run - a run so long that most people don't recognize it as a trend anymore and cannot think back to the time long, long ago when their neighborhood was not overrun by bakeshops with this singular offering. Five years ago, the cupcake was just one of the rest of the desserts, no more popular than a brownie or a cookie. Now, I sometimes wonder if people realize other desserts besides cupcakes exist. Cupcakes are replacing wedding cakes. One cannot walk two blocks in a larger city without stumbling across a cupcake counter or a food truck selling the treats. There are at least two reality shows that I know of about cupcake bakeries. And as if the cupcake wasn't versatile enough, attempts have been made at savory cupcakes, such as the Chicago's Meatloaf Bakery (which I do not recommend, but that is an entirely separate story). Don't get me wrong, I like a good cupcake just as much as the next person, but as a dessert enthusiast, I'm quite tired of the limelight they are stealing from other, often better, desserts.
Meatloaf Bakery "cupcakes."

However, by definition, a trend must at some point be replaced by a new trend, and many predictions of the cupcake's successor have been made. I will most likely write about each as a series, so for now I will focus on the first I read about: pie. I'll admit, that one was a slight shocker to me. Although I am from southern Indiana, I did not grow up in a pie-loving household - in fact, it was quite the contrary, as my mother does not like pie and also did not make dessert. Therefore, the number of really good pies I can recall eating in my lifetime is very low, and skewed more towards the cream/pudding varieties than the baked types.

This prediction intrigued me, however. There definitely is not a shortage of literature on the subject: the NY Times, LA TimesSeattle WeeklyNPR, and numerous food blogs have written on the topic. According to the LA Times, Americans ordered 12 million more slices of pie in restaurants last year than in 2009, while sales of cake servings have gone down at bakeries and eateries, and cupcake consumption was down 18%. Some of the reasons for this prediction include the following:

"The Pie"

  1. Recent innovation in pie-making: mini pies, pie milkshakes, pie in canning jars, pies at weddings, and pies with interesting, elevated flavor combinations (such as The Green Chile Kitchen's "The Pie": apples layered with roasted green chiles over a cheddar cheese crust and sprinkled with a walnut-brown sugar streusel topping). 
  2. Pie-centric shops and restaurants are popping up all over the country. Some places even have pie happy hours.
  3. Pies cover sweet and savory more majestically than cupcakes; additionally, they also have the versatility of being full scale or individual portions.

As I have not yet noticed a pie surge in Chicago, I have not had the chance to weigh in on this hot new prediction. I had also made two pies recently (Derby Pie and Peanut Butter Pie) and had thoroughly enjoyed both, so I thought maybe this prediction could be pulling some weight. Therefore, I was thrilled when I stumbled upon some mini pies at a festival while visiting Columbus a couple weeks ago. The little guys came in pecan, cherry, and apple; I was swayed by the lattice-topped cherry for myself, and also got a pecan for my southern gentlemanly friend Conor. We then went back to my friend Paige's apartment for the tasting.

The first question that came to my mind was, how does one eat a mini pie? Part of the cupcake's appeal is its utensil-free mobility, but I wasn't getting the same vibe from the pie. Conor, however, immediately proved that theory wrong: as soon as I handed him the pie, he made an epic exclamation (as anyone who is familiar Conor knows he is prone to doing; probably went something like, "AH! WHOA! (laugh) Pecan pie! Thanks, Nicole! This is AWESOME!"), then pulled the pecan pie out of the tin and started to take bites directly. As this was not the eating method I was expecting, I was quite surprised when it actually worked. Maybe pies are more versatile than I thought...

Unfortunately, the cherry's fragile lattice top did not lend itself to rough handling, and pulling the pie out of the tin à la Conor was not possible without breaking the crust. So, my gorgeous pie model Paige tried some different methods:

Method #1

  1. Eat out of the tin: extremely difficult unless you eat the top off first.
  2. Eat mini slices of the mini pie: somewhat silly feeling, like I needed a mini plate and a mini fork to complete this mini setting. It worked, but the necessary mobility was lost.
  3. Picking off pieces: the pie is now mobile, but it's also a sticky mess.

Method #2

Method #3
Method #2

 But, more important than method is the taste: did this pie taste good? Would I ever find myself stopping for a mini-pie treat again? Based on this one experience, I would say no. Again, perhaps it is because I am not a huge pie fan to begin with, but I found the floury, slightly undercooked crust a little dry on the tongue, almost leaving a chalky, pasty feeling. The cherry filling was just okay, somewhat boring and not exactly fresh. Apparently I am not the only person who was not thrilled with their first pie experience: this review in Seattle Weekly for a new local pie shop, High 5, contains some of the better food writing I've read in awhile. If only I were so clever. Quote highlights include:

  • "And the savory(ish) apple, cheddar, and rosemary hand pie that I walked out the door with was borderline offensive....a clotted-up gob of shredded cheddar, barely melted and settled in a ball in the middle of the thing like a prize buried at the bottom of a s**t sundae."
  • "I ordered a s'mores hand pie, thinking that there was no way a professional baker could f**k up something that children make with nothing more than a pointed stick and an open flame. But when I bit into it, it was Candid Camera bad - so terrible that I found myself waiting for Allen Funt to jump out from behind the bakery and say, "Hey, we got you! Smile, dumbass."
This is not to say all pies are bad. I would still like to try some of the newer innovations, as well as anyone that has gotten rave reviews. However, independent of flavor, I think the sheer logistics of a pie prevent it from being the new cupcake:

  1. As shown, pies are not easy to eat, especially on-the-go.
  2. Pies are not easy to make. I think I would tear my hair out if I had to make thousands of mini lattices each day. Even pressing crust into a pan can be tiring, let alone if you are making a bakery's daily batch. And while I'm all for making things from scratch, many people do not have time for that, so the shortcuts typically bought in mix form at the grocery would be a challenge: would one have to buy 24 pre-assembled mini crusts and a jar of filling?
  3. Do kids even like pie? I think it's safe to say that not as many as that like cupcakes. So the pie probably won't fill the cupcake's original starring role as birthday treat. Although, to be fair, what can you serve at a birthday party these days? Every kid nowadays has a food allergy or is on a no-sugar diet. Funny how that was extremely rare twenty years ago...

In summary, my opinion is that pie will NOT be the next cupcake. So, what will be? Only time will tell. However, speculation is fun, so I will share more theories with you in the future. Leave comments on your thoughts about pie, or on any other cupcake replacement theories you've heard so that I can investigate.


Cristina said...

I'm telling you...its gotta be donuts.

p.s. love the beautiful pie model

susan said...

I know those model teeth...and dimple! Great job Nicole...made me really hungry for some pie! Its ALL in the pie crust...would take it over cupcakes anyday!!