If there were ever a time for diplomacy, it’s when you’re sitting around the Thanksgiving table.
Well, this year, if you put your foot in it, put a fork in it. Just about any sticky scenario you face on Turkey Day can be smoothed over with a good slice of pie.
Trying to repair that silly rift that’s estranged you from your nephew for two years? Hand him a slice of bourbon pecan pie and ask him who he thinks will win the game.
If you must talk religion or politics at the table, go with chocolate pie – any kind, as long as it has lots of endorphin-inducing chocolate gooeyness to give your ignorant, unreasonable cousin a better personality.
Feel you need to tell the truth when your mother-in-law asks you how you liked her lumpy gravy? Lovingly hand her a slice of pimped-out apple pie before delivering the bad news.
When it comes to pairing diplomacy with good pie, no one does it better than Briana Warner, owner of the new pie bakery in East Bayside called Maine Pie Line.
Warner, 30, grew up in Pennsylvania and studied international relations and economics at Yale and George Washington University. She first started baking pies when she was dating her husband, Matt, and found out how much he loves them. But she didn’t get really serious about them until the State Department posted her to Guinea, a tiny west African country south of Senegal and north of Sierra Leone, as an economic and political officer. There was a lot of political turmoil at the time – the embassy had to be evacuated while Warner was there – and she used pie as a cultural bridge.
The daily fare in Guinea consisted mostly of rice, stewed meats and smoked fish, and no sweets.
“I had to be really creative,” Warner recalled. “I had an avocado tree outside, so I learned how to make a sweet avocado pie. I made a lot of mango pies, a lot of papaya.”
Warner would bake a mess of pies for youth groups invited to her home in Ceonakry, and she’d explain that pie is an American tradition, baked by mothers and grandmothers on holidays such as Thanksgiving.
“They loved it,” she said. “I’d talk to political leaders, and I’d bring pie. It was good public relations. Everyone wanted to hear more about it, and everyone loves a dessert.”
From there, she and her husband moved to Brussels, where Warner worked as a political officer and special assistant to the ambassador at the United States Mission to the European Union. In Belgium, Warner found lots of European tarts, but still no American-style pie. So she made them herself.
“I would make a different pie and send it out to 20 people and say ‘Come up and give me constructive criticism. Tell me what I need to change,’ ” she said.
Warner also spent a lot of time in the United Kingdom, where she learned about pasties, the traditional hand pies filled with meat and vegetables. She also traveled to Germany, Spain, Hungary and Slovenia.
“Everywhere we went, I’d have a dessert and I’d say, ‘I wonder how I could turn this into a pie?’ ” she said.
In Germany, the dessert was cherries that had been soaked in anise liqueur for a few days, a combination Warner thought would make “the best cherry pie ever.” For her version, she soaks the cherries for three days and includes cardamom as well.
At a Japanese restaurant once, Warner tasted a dessert made of chocolate meringue that had green tea ice cream on it. She worked on a pie version for years, and the result was her green tea pie – a chocolate meringue crust filled with a sweet green tea pastry cream and topped with toasted sesame seeds.
At the heart of Warner’s experimentation and perfectionist tendencies is a desire to discover combinations of flavors that no one has ever had in a pie. She is proud of the fact that her pies are “not normal.” If your idea of a good pie is a $10 apple pie, don’t bother darkening her doorstep. She only makes a salted caramel apple pie, using local cream and her own homemade salted caramel.
Her blueberry pie is actually a blueberry mint pie with a cardamom-black pepper-oat crumb topping. And the peaches for her peach pie are poached in sage and white wine before they go into an almond-flavored pastry cream.
“I’ve just found that pie can be a really great way to carry these unique and complex and gourmet flavors, and then you can get a slice of it,” Warner said. “It’s a great way to serve really gourmet desserts.”
Other pies have their own interesting back stories. The Halverson’s Humble Pie was created after Warner lost a bet with a friend (named Halverson, natch) and the price was making him a humble pie. The friend said the pie should contain “whatever you think humility for losing a bet is.”
“I wanted to layer it with layers of spite, covered with a big thing of whipped cream to hide my spite,” Warner said, laughing.
The Mexican chocolate layer in the Halverson’s Humble Pie contains a hint of cayenne, and the pastry cream is spiked with rum. A big layer of fluffy whipped cream with chocolate shavings tops the whole thing off.
How did Warner end up in Portland? After a while, she and her husband tired of moving around so much. (In addition to her State Department work, Warner went to school in Jordan and did research in southern Sudan.) Matt Warner’s family lives in Bangor, and whenever the couple would come to Maine to visit, they’d spend two or three days in Portland. They fell in love with it, and talked about retiring here. Then they decided not to wait.
Warner loved being a diplomat, but her heart lies in pies. So she rented some space from Bomb Diggity Bakery at 200 Anderson St. and opened up shop, with the slogan “Pies Like Your Mother Never Made.” It’s not a retail space; you call, email or order online, and then either pick up the pie yourself at the bakery or, if you live in Portland or South Portland, ask for delivery.
Warner has about 40 pies on rotation right now, including both sweet pies and savory hand pies, and 30 more tried-and-true recipes waiting in the wings. She features just four pies per week – three sweet and one savory – on her website, mainepieline.com. All her sweet pies are $25 each; the savory hand pies are $5 each, or 5 for $25.
During a recent visit to the bakery, Warner’s brown shirt was spotted with flour and pie crumbs. She pulled up her sleeves to reveal several purplish splotches on her forearms, casualties of working with a new oven.
“These are all burns. This is from a month ago,” she said nonchalantly, pointing to a particularly nasty one that still isn’t quite healed. “It’s gotten better. I haven’t burnt myself in two weeks. I’m being more careful.”
Warner has some advice for Thanksgiving bakers. First, be creative. Don’t make the same pie you’ve been putting on the table for the past 30 years. Throw some bourbon in a pecan pie, or try a different crust.
“Pie is very forgiving,” she said. “It’s not like puff pastry. It’s not ice cream. It’s not something that’s going to erupt if you do it wrong. It’s very forgiving, and it’s all held together by a crust. People are happy to eat pie with a spoon if they have to, if it tastes good.”
Make your crust at least a day ahead of time and let it sit. It’s always going to be easier to work with, Warner said.
For her own Thanksgiving, Warner tries to keep things traditional, because that’s what people like. So she’ll roast her own pumpkin (no canned pumpkin shall ever fill her crusts) and add some local maple syrup for a traditional pumpkin pie.
Her family’s favorite holiday pie is Warner’s pumpkin-ginger cheesecake, a cheesecake pie filled with swirls of pumpkin and fresh ginger in a gingersnap crust.
Despite her large collection of finely tuned original pie recipes, Warner has more ideas buzzing around in her head. And there are still some concepts that give her trouble, like the secret to a good Cornish pasty made the way the Brits like it, “and that bothers me.”
“I have a Belgian one that’s a beef and beer stew – they call it stoofvlees in Belgium – and it’s beef stewed in beer overnight with rosemary and chives, and then I put potatoes and cheddar on it,” Warner said. “And that’s the closest thing to a good traditional British pie that I make, even though it’s Belgian.”
What seems to be missing from that frustrating British pie?
“If I knew,” she said, laughing, “I would have a perfect Cornish pasty.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]