August 8, 2013

Portable pies becoming trend in southern Maine

Tiny crusts with a variety of fillings catch on as a fresh option for eating on the go.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — James Murray Plunkett is describing what's in his Texas chili hand pie, the one with the big Lone Star carved out of the dough on top.

click image to enlarge

Jessica Barry displays a wild Maine blueberry hand pie, a new and popular menu item currently available only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at Standard Baking Co. in Portland.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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James Murray Plunkett and Pamela Fitzpatrick are opening Little Bigs in South Portland, which will feature specialty hand pies. They also plan to sell other kinds of finger-friendly foods, including raised and cake doughnuts in unusual flavors.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

Inside the pate brisee crust, which has a crunch that comes from pulverized Fritos, there's tender cubed steak, chili powder, cumin, salt, Plunkett's homemade chile puree and – why not? – a splash of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

"And then you thicken it all with tortilla, fresh masa," he said. "You just throw tortillas in there, and they dissolve and give this great thickening power and mouth feel."

It's Texas chili on the go, eaten right from your hand, no spoon necessary. And it's just one of many specialty hand pies that Plunkett and Pamela Fitzpatrick will sell at their new shop in South Portland.

Their bakery, Little Bigs, is expected to open at 340 Main St. by Aug. 15 and join a growing trend in the Portland area – hand foods, specifically, hand pies.

Hand pies are gaining popularity locally and have been featured this summer in national magazines such as Bon Appetit and Martha Stewart Living.

Standard Baking Co. in Portland just added a wild Maine blueberry hand pie to its menu, available only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

"They have been extremely popular this summer," said head baker Tara Smith, "and we sell out by early afternoon every day they are available."

Hand pies themselves are nothing new. Every culture seems to have its own version, from the Argentinian empanada and English pastie to the Jamaican meat pie and the French chausson.

The type of dough, the filling and the shape may be different, but all are made to be portable so they can be eaten by everyone from a farmer in the field to a tourist window-shopping in Portland's Old Port.

Smith thinks there's more demand for hand-held pastries in the summer because they're perfect for picnics or the beach.

The owners of the Small Axe food truck, inspired by Australian meat pies, have been serving savory hand pies since June -- three for $5, with a dipping sauce. They use ingredients from local farms, making a healthier alternative to a trip through the drive-through for chicken nuggets.

Their most popular versions have been potato and onion pie dipped in sour cream and chives, and chicken and mushroom pie served with whole grain mustard. All of them are made with a pirogi dough, said Karl Deuben, a chef and co-owner of the truck.

"Hand pies do well, depending on the filling," Deuben said. "I think people are still trying to figure out what they are. Sometimes when we run the cheeseburger hand pie, people think they're getting small cheeseburgers, so we have to explain it. But when people get them, they will come back for them."

Deuben said anything with vegetables is a best-seller on his truck. That fits well with Smith's theory of why hand pies are becoming so popular: People are looking for good food made with fresh ingredients that they can eat on the go.

"The success of gourmet food trucks and street carts seems to emphasize that although people are looking for fast food, they are not looking for a traditional fast-food experience," Smith said. "It seems as though we have a slow-food philosophy that's merging into the fast lane."

Fitzpatrick and Plunkett say they plan to use local ingredients, from sweet corn to Maine lobster, in their hand pies at Little Bigs.

Fitzpatrick got her start with Nancy Silverton at the famous La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, and has more than 20 years of baking experience. She was most recently corporate chef for Richard Melman and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, a Chicago-based company that owns more than 90 restaurants nationwide.

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