“Can I make you a coffee?” Holly Ricciardi asked as she leaned one elbow on the long, white marble-topped bar that ran along one side of the front room of her shop. Across the counter, weathered antique pie tins arranged into a clever, almost organic design hung on the wall next to a row of four wooden pegs draped with mismatched, lace-fringed aprons. “I’m not much of a barista. I make pies. But it’s great coffee.”
It was early on a Saturday morning on South Street in Philadelphia, PA. Magpie Artisan Pies wasn’t supposed to open for another two hours. Nevertheless, Cook’s Country executive food editor Bryan Roof and I made the short walk from our hotel, braving the brisk late January air for a firsthand look behind the scenes of Ricciardi’s often non-traditional pie-making methodology.
We’d been on the ground in the City of Brotherly Love for two days, and after braving the dozens-deep lines at the dessert counters of the great indoor food bazaar of Reading Terminal Market, we were left wanting more. Philadelphians love their pie—specifically Dutch Apple and Shoofly—but we wondered if there was more to this love than snagging a slice on a styrofoam plate to eat on the walk down Filbert Street. Our search for a different perspective led us to Ricciardi, who opened Magpie in 2012 after a search for inspiration led her to take a break from the branding agency she had started with her husband.
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“I got to the point where I was just sort of running the business, not designing, not being creative anymore,” explained Ricciardi. “That was really important to me, and I was sort of missing that element.”
Ricciardi enrolled in a baking and pastry program at the Art Institute in Philadelphia, and after a year getting to know the ins and outs of everything from classic French desserts to nutritional science, she found herself hesitant to return to marketing full-time.
“My husband said, ‘Oh, do you want to come back? What are you going to do?’” said Ricciardi. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t think I’m going to come back. I think I might want to, you know, lose my mind and maybe open something up.’”
Ricciardi may have taken a leap from rebranding small businesses to selling pie, but once things got underway, it turned out that coming up with new and different ideas for things to put in a pie shell was a bit like coming up with successful design work, but with an edible result.
“You know, you put all these ingredients in, it’s all raw or it’s based on temperature or whatever,” explained Ricciardi. “You put it in the oven, like when you give it to a printer, and when it comes out, you hope that it does what it’s supposed to do.”
Ricciardi’s pie philosophy is a bit unorthodox. Going over her menu, it seemed like her method was to come up with loose combinations of flavorful ingredients that would go well together, then stick them in a pie shell. It may sound like a simple concept, but it goes deeper than just “make pies that taste good.” As we talked, Ricciardi would spin off into strings of ideas, seemingly free-associating unfamiliar flavor combinations—lavender-mixed berry! Peppermint mocha bark mousse! Oatmeal cookie pie!—with such deft certainty that one almost wanted to pluck her words out of thin air and transcribe them into recipes, lest they float off and dissipate into thin air.
Many of these creations have made their way onto the menu at Magpie. Some, like pumpkin chiffon with a gingersnap crust, rotate in and out as seasonal specials. Others, like butterscotch-bourbon pie, have made their way into the permanent collection, and even into a cookbook published two years after the shop opened. Despite Magpie’s popularity, it was tough early on for Ricciardi to convince customers to sample some of her more esoteric offerings. But in time, her creativity won diners over and helped spread the word.
“I was really kind of putting out a lot of twists off pies, and everyone was like, ‘Do you have apple? Do you have apple? Do you have apple?’” Ricciardi said, turning her head from side to side as if to examine an imaginary menu board. “People were coming in and then trying things every once in awhile, and they were like, ‘Wait, maybe this girl knows what she’s doing. I’ll try something else.’ Or ‘I’ll try one of the weekend pies. Just because, you know, I’ve never had a bad piece of pie here.’”
While we would have been happy to sit and drink coffee and brainstorm new pies all morning, the mention of apple pie put us back on track: we were here to learn about Dutch apple pie, after all. Ricciardi has her own version on the menu, and she offered to give us a demonstration of how to make this Pennsylvania favorite.
We made our way back to Magpie’s narrow kitchen, which was filled with speed racks of blind-baked crusts cooling on sheet trays. At the end of a shiny metal table, Ricciardi had set up her station: a red plastic cutting board faded in the center from thousands of repeated cuts, a sheet tray containing small bowls of flour, sugars, and oats, and a large metal bowl of apples.
First things first: the fruit. Ricciardi began to break down the apples, giving consideration to every part of the process, no matter how minute.
“We teach people how to peel and cut more efficiently,” said Ricciardi, plucking an apple from the bowl and a green y-peeler from the tabletop. After removing the skin from the very top and very bottom of each apple, she ran the blade of the peeler from the north pole to the south pole, rotating the apple in her hand after each vertical pass. The result: a perfectly-skinned apple, no spiral-peeling theatrics necessary.
“People have a problem with rotating it,” shrugged Ricciardi, still holding her apple. “But you just have to keep on doing it, and then you pick it up.”
Ricciardi in action, preparing a Dutch apple pie.
With her apples processed, Ricciardi turned her attention to the rest of the filling. She had all the usual apple pie ingredients—cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar—and they were joined by an entire can of sweetened condensed milk. The sweetened condensed milk lends this Dutch apple pie its characteristic creamy richness without adding too much moisture, keeping the crust from getting soggy. Using a rubber spatula, Ricciardi tossed her filling together in a large bowl, filling the back corner of the kitchen with the enticing smells of warm spice and sweet dairy.
Dutch Apple PieCan't make it to Philly? Make your own version of this rustic pie with creamy filling at home.
Our next lesson: how to create a crumb topping, a signature feature of any Dutch apple pie. In the early days of the shop, Ricciardi developed a simple version of a crumb topping: equal parts flour, sugar, and ground oats (which, in addition to their ability to take on excess moisture from wet fruit pie fillings, also contribute a distinct nutty flavor), plus a solid helping of melted butter. When she’s working on an industrial scale, Ricciardi spreads this mixture out onto cookie sheets, chilling it until it’s set before breaking it up into a coarse, granola-like texture. In classes, though, she works with a scaled-down version that her students can apply straight to the top of a pie right from the mixing bowl. Crumb toppings are a recurring concept on many of Magpie’s custom creations: once Ricciardi established her base recipe, making tweaks to complement a filling became a simple matter of addition.
“You can stick in a quarter cup of whole oats, or a quarter cup of nuts, or you can stick cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom . . . you can do anything you want,” explained Ricciardi, pausing as she stirred together ingredients for her basic crumb formula. “Thyme, lemon zest, almonds. You can do anything based on this foundation.”
Ricciardi then draped a perfect round of dough, flecked with tiny spots of butter and Crisco, into a pie tin, lifting and easing until the pastry sat flush against the metal. Tucking the excess dough under itself along the outer lip of the tin, she began to crimp the dough in large, exaggerated triangles, creating a final product that looked like a child’s drawing of the sun. I was entranced: coming from a background in pies with finely-fluted edges, such a big, bold technique seemed alluring and almost dangerous.
I didn’t have long to admire this pristine pastry, though—Ricciardi soon dumped the apple filling into her crust, pressing down on the round stack of slices in order to cram every last one in before pouring in the pool of spice-speckled sweetened condensed milk left at the bottom of the bowl. She followed with handful after handful of crumb topping, packing more and more atop her apples until she had created a small oat-studded mountain, assuring us that it’d gradually sink—and become beautiful—as it baked.
“I’m not a big rustic pie, slop on a plate girl—I want it to look nice, you know?” mused Ricciardi. “It might be pie, and it might be simple—it’s not a cupcake that’s all glamorous—but she still can look pretty, right?”
Our Dutch apple pie was ready to bake, but Ricciardi only sets the kitchen at Magpie up for baking on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Besides, even if the oven had been hot, Ricciardi has a hard and fast rule that one should never eat a pie on the same day it’s baked. Otherwise, you risk going in for a slice and ending up with a pile of runny filling.
“It’s kind of like the theory of cutting into a steak before you let it rest,” she explained.
But Bryan and I weren’t about to leave Magpie on an empty stomach. As we walked back through the swinging doors into the front room, Ricciardi shouted back into the kitchen, rattling off a list of names of different pies on the menu. Moments later, assistant baker Becca Smith appeared, an apron tied around her waist and a blue bandana tied around her hair, her arms filled with slices of a whole spectrum of pies.
Our sample of Ricciardi’s Dutch apple pie boasted all of the creamy, slightly-tart sweetness we had hoped for, complemented by that tall layer of nutty, oaty crumb topping that had soaked up a fair amount of moisture from the filling. It was incredible, but it wasn’t the only pie we sampled.
Shoofly Pie, another Pennsylvania favorite, featured a gradient of cake-like crumb on top descending into a molasses-rich moist bottom, each bite yielding a totally different mix of textures. Pumpkin-blueberry, an almost alien-looking offering that by all rights shouldn’t work, somehow totally does, its disparate centerpiece ingredients bound by a mixture of warm spices that complement both equally. Butterscotch-bourbon’s classic custard filling was brown sugar sweetness with a noticeable whiskey edge, topped with an impossibly thin layer of sponge cake.
The award for most memorable slice, however, went to caramel apple. A double-crust apple pie drizzled with zigzags of caramel, I thought I had this pie all figured out until my first bite, which was expectedly dark and sweet before bursting with a complex floral zing I couldn’t quite place. The answer? Pink peppercorns. I haven’t been able to think about pie without thinking of this slice ever since.
Our tasting was interrupted by the sound of a chime from the front door, followed by a friendly “hello” from the threshold. Eleven o’clock had come, and Magpie was open for business. As the first two customers of the day entered the shop, Bryan and I looked around and noticed we had spread out our sampling setup over almost the entire counter. Ricciardi had business to tend to, and it was time for us to hit the bricks and move on to the next pie—which, in our case, happened to be tomato pie at Sarcone’s Bakery, located just a fifteen-minute stroll away.
Considering we’d each just eaten about four slices of pie, Bryan and I were eager for the opportunity to walk it all off. First, though, we had to decide what slice to go to for our last bite: lemon curd? Mexican hot chocolate? Butter almond? Or Dutch apple, the pie that had brought us here in the first place?
Ricciardi laughed as she watched us weigh our most difficult choice of the morning. “That’s the thing about pie that’s great—who doesn’t like it?” she said, smiling across the counter. “Whether you’re a chocolate-head, a fruit-head, a sour-head, a nut-head: there will always be a pie out there for somebody.”