Eyes On The Pies


August 21, 1994|By ROB KASPER

When I am stuck in the maddening traffic that surrounds our nation's capital, I try to ease the tension by eating something wonderful.

One afternoon, for instance, as I inched around the Capital Beltway, I went hunting for pies in Hyattsville. Turning off the Beltway, I headed down East University Boulevard, took a right at Riggs Road and another right at East-West Highway. There at 1812 East-West Highway was Takoma Kitchens, bakers of fresh fruit pies.

Inside the bakery, my eyes went straight to the pies. There was a conventional-size pecan pie on one shelf, but right next to it were several smaller pies, pies small enough to hold in my hand. I bought three little ones, a peach, a cherry and a pecan. I also bought a couple of cookies, a double fudge and an oatmeal. The cookies traveled in the front seat, and kept me company as I wound my way back to the Beltway. The pies were in the back seat. With cookies crumbs on my lap and three small pies in the back seat, the drive back to Baltimore seemed less grueling than usual.

I had read about Takoma Kitchens in "Food Finds" (HarperPerennial, 1991, $16), an invaluable book by Allison and Margaret Engel that lists sources of homemade food. The Engel sisters, who live in Bethesda and Des Moines, Iowa, visited all 50 states seeking out folks who make and ship quality local foods.

Maryland products that the authors wrote about were Old Bay Seasoning made near Baltimore, Fisher's Popcorn in Ocean City, the smoked bacon sold by Roy L. Hoffman's and Sons in Hagerstown, and the pies and condiments of Takoma Kitchens.

The founder of Takoma Kitchens, Louise Swartzwalder, said that many of her recipes come from the Midwest, one of the nation's prime pie-eating areas. Ms. Swartzwalder grew up in Ashland County, Ohio, about 70 miles southwest of Cleveland. There her mother, Beatrice, taught her how to cook, bake and can.

The pies also have an Iowa influence. At one time Ms. Swartzwalder and Margaret Engel were both on the staff of the Des Moines Register newspaper. Years later they ended up in Washington, D.C. -- Ms. Swartzwalder as a press secretary for a congressman, Ms. Engel as a reporter for the Washington Post. The two were among a group of displaced Iowans who would occasionally get together and talk about how much they missed the baked goods back home.

Encouraged by such talk, Ms. Swartzwalder began baking full time in 1984, selling her pies and other baked goods at the Farmer's Market in Takoma Park on Sundays, and at the Montgomery County Farm Women's Cooperative Market in Bethesda on Wednesdays and Saturdays. She set up a bakery in Wheaton in 1989, and this summer moved the baking operation, which also makes breads, to larger quarters in Hyattsville.

From the beginning, she baked two sizes of pie, the conventional 2-pound pie and the 4-ounce pie. The size of these "take-away" pies has been popular with people who want a small portion, Ms. Swartzwalder said, and with eaters in a hurry. That is, with folks who are such pie enthusiasts that they usually finish eating one within a few steps of where they bought it.

The small pies have also been a hit with families who can't agree on a favorite pie, she said. Lacking a consensus, the prime pie purchaser of the family buys several smaller pies and thereby keeps the home front happy, she said.

I thought the hand-held pies would be ideal commuter food -- a good way to reward myself for making the nasty drive home from Washington. But, due to a remarkable display of self-restraint and to the remarkable difficulty of reaching the back seat while I was wearing my seat belt, I did not execute my plan for eating one pie as I crossed each county line -- the peach pie at Prince George's, the pecan at Howard, the cherry at Baltimore.

The three small pies survived the trip to Baltimore, where my family cut them up and had them for dessert. The peach pie was the best, its filling tasted fruity, not sugary. The pecan filling was appropriately nutty and the cherry filling was also good.

When baking seasonal pies, like the peach, Takoma's uses only fresh fruit, Ms. Swartzwalder told me later during a telephone conversation. This summer, because the peach crop is smaller than in previous years, getting fresh peaches has been tricky.

As for getting a taste of the company's pear-cranberry pie, which Ms. Engel touts as her idea of a "perfect pie," I'll have to wait until October, when the pears are ready. In May, there is rhubarb pie -- made, Ms. Swartzwalder said, in accordance with "the handwritten recipe of my mother."

Loyal as she is to her pie-baking lineage, Ms. Swartzwalder admitted that she has toyed with the pie-crust recipe. Instead of using lard, shortening or butter, which are high in fat, she substitutes soybean-oil-based margarine.

The low-fat pie crusts may make the diet police happy, but for us fans of shortening and butter crusts, the new-age crusts aren't as flaky as we like. Still, next time I get stuck on Washington's Beltway I'll probably be tempted to turn off in Hyattsville and grab a pie. Especially if it's rhubarb season.

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