There’s a lot to be said for humble pie. In a city of culinary fads, multi-fusion cuisine and the constant swinging open and shut of restaurant doors, simplicity can be hard to come by in New York. Which is why Melissa and Emily Elsen have proven with Four and Twenty Blackbirds—the pie-serving sanctuary they opened five years ago—that simple can still come out on top. As their wholesale orders multiply and the queues to the counter increase, this unpretentious pie café has gifted New Yorkers with exactly what they were looking for; a slice of modesty.
The sisters grew up in rural South Dakota, where their Mother and Aunt ran a restaurant in a town of just three hundred people. It was from here, standing beside their grandmother as she baked, that they absorbed the methods of perfect pie making.
“Grandma taught us traditional pie cooking,” Emily says, sitting across from me at one of the cafe’s scrubbed wooden tables, “She was a seasonal cook and would only use fresh ingredients. She wouldn’t even make pumpkin pie out of season. She had rules!”
After migrating to New York from their hometown, Melissa studied finance, whilst Emily commenced a career in art, working as a manager in an etching studio. It wasn’t until their late twenties that the two began fostering an idea to utilize their shared cooking talents. Their plan finally crystallised in 2010, when they opened the doors of Four and Twenty Blackbirds bakery in the still-desolate district of Gowanas.
“I think people recognize that we took a risk by opening in such a far-flung neighborhood,” Emily says, “When we moved in, there was nothing around here. We were the only thing opening up on this whole strip.” The surrounding streets have since undergone a heavy cultural resurgence, with music venues, antiques warehouses and a colossal Whole Foods Market filling up its square footage with bright young things. Yet, despite the calls of trend descending on the area, Four and Twenty Blackbirds have remained much the same in attitude and deliverance as they were on the day it opened. Melissa and Emily’s philosophy is a simple one: to deliver seasonal and delicious pies to the masses.
The café itself is bright, airy, and comfortable, with light pouring onto the floorboards from the barred windows.
“It has that kind of birdcage sensation!”
Emily laughs when I ask her about this feature, which gives the whole place a slight Tudor-England feel. The space is modest and warm, with the general air of entering a loving aunt’s country kitchen, where tea is on tap and the next slice of apple pie is just moments away. The menu hangs proudly above the counter, proclaiming that day’s pie offerings, from inventive bourbon-mint chocolate and grapefruit custard to classics like salted caramel apple and the bestselling salt honey pie.
In the years following its opening, Four and Twenty Blackbirds’ in-house kitchen became too small to accommodate the demand by the growing hordes of fans. The small group of loyal followers that kept the café open in its first days quickly flourished, and visitors started to pour in from further boroughs and beyond. Word spread about the quality of the bake; the deep, seasonal fillings and the crumbly, all butter crusts. This success prompted the opening of the giant kitchen in a warehouse space a mile down the road. From this huge Sackett Street address, a modest assemblage of bakers seasoned in the art of creating pies to Emily and Melissa’s standards work away at a tranquil but industrious pace, wrapped in white aprons and filling the room with the sweet, warm perfumes of baked apples and cinnamon.
“We don’t necessarily hire trained pastry chefs,’ Emily says, ‘we hire people that want to make pies.”
In their recently released Four and Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book, Emily and Melissa underline the ultimate ingredient of pie making: time, that priceless luxury afforded to so few. A pie should take three to four hours from the first rolling of the crust to finally slipping into the oven. Baking is a quiet, absorbing, art that requires its maker to follow the rules ardently. So with such a demand on the kitchen, minutes and hours have become increasingly precious to Emily and Melissa.
“In the beginning there would be days where we’d be in the kitchen for fifteen hours at a time, just us two, making pies from morning to night,” Emily says. Since the opening of the Sackett Street kitchen, though, the sisters have been distanced from the creation process, something they had never planned on.
“I always wanted to stay in the kitchen, but that just isn’t possible at this point.”
This Thanksgiving, over three thousand pies came out of the Blackbirds kitchen. The team chop, fold, dust and mix seven days a week to fill the café with pies that flicker in flavours from season to season. On visiting the Sackett Street workshop, it was clear to see the attention to detail bestowed upon each and every pie. Whether folding brown sugar into fresh plums or pouring thick pools of salted caramel over juicy apples, each movement is seamlessly considered. All this leads to the creation of pies that are beloved not for decoration or innovation, but for fundamental goodness. Each slice is thick, glistening and decadent. Emily explains that remaining true to the roots of pie making has always been essential to the Four and Twenty Blackbirds ethos.
“Pie making has so much history,” she explains, “We want to honor tradition. We aren’t trying to make weird things like pie pops or anything cutesy like that. We rarely deviate from traditional bakes. We constantly experiment with flavour, but the fundamental elements always stay customary.”
And it is through this winning combination of subtle, ingredients-based concoctions, a business-minded sibling dynamic, and the ultimately timeless appeal of pie that have made Four and Twenty Blackbirds the most beloved bakery in New York. They have proven that style and innovation isn’t everything, that sometimes the basics are best. Melissa and Emily have poured their affections, handed to them from their grandmother, into this most humble and satiating art. The modern world can be a complex place, but in the nest of Four and Twenty Blackbirds, it seems obvious that these little vestiges of calm are just what people are craving. You only need to take a seat on one of Four and Twenty’s folded wooden chairs, surrounded by contented visitors, and plunge your fork into one of their luxuriant creations, to understand the value of sticking to tradition.
“Wouldn’t it be great to go back in time?” Emily muses, when talk turns to the catalyst in she and her sister’s success, “Grandma passed away before we opened, but I’d love to see her face if she knew what we were doing. We learned so much from her. She’d think we were crazy!’”
Salted Caramel Apple Pie Recipe
Serves 8-10 people
1 cup + 2 tbsp granulated sugar
¼ cup water
¼ pound unsalted butter
½ cup heavy cream
6-7 baking apples
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
1/3 cup raw sugar
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground allspice
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
one grind fresh black pepper
½ tsp kosher salt
2 tbsp unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ tsp flaked sea salt, plus more for finishing
Egg wash (1 large egg whisked with 1 tsp water and a pinch of salt)
Demerara sugar, for finishing
Have ready and refrigerated one pastry-lined 9-inch pie pan and lattice strips to top.
Whisk together 1 cup of the grated granulated sugar and the water in a medium saucepan, and cook over medium-low heat until the sugar is just dissolved. Add the butter and bring to a slow boil. Continue cooking over medium heat until the mixture turns a deep golden brown, almost copper. Remove from the heat and immediately but slowly add the heavy cream. Whisk the final mixture together and set aside to cool while you prepare the apple filling.
Juice the lemons into a large mixing bowl, removing any seeds. Prepare the apples using an apple-peeling machine, or core, peel, and thinly slice them with a sharp knife. Dredge the apple slices in the lemon juice. Sprinkle lightly with the remaining 2 tbsp of granulated sugar. Set aside to soften for 20-30 minutes.
In a small bowl, sprinkle the Angostura bitters over the raw sugar. Add the cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, black pepper, kosher salt, and flour, and mix well. Add the prepared apples to the sugar-spice mixture, leaving behind any excess liquids. Gently turn the apples.
Tightly layer the apples in the prepared pie shell so that there are minimal gaps, mounding the apples slightly higher in the center. Pour a generous ½ cup to ¾ cup of the caramel sauce evenly over the apples. Sprinkle with ¼ tsp of the flaked sea salt. Assemble the lattice on top of the pie and crimp the edges.
Chill the pie in the refrigerator for 10-15 minutes to set the pastry. Meanwhile, position the oven racks in the bottom and center positions, place a rimmed baking sheet on the bottom rack, and preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Brush the pastry with the egg wash to coat, being careful not to drag the caramel onto the pastry (it will burn), and sprinkle with the desired amount of demerara sugar and flaked sea salt. Place the pie on the rimmed baking sheet on the lowest rack of the oven. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the pastry is set and beginning to brown. Lower the oven temperature to 375 degrees (Fahrenheit), move the pie to the center oven rack, and continue to bake until the pastry is a deep golden brown and the juices are bubbling, 30-35 minutes longer. Test the apples for doneness with a skewer or sharp knife; they should be tender and should offer just the slightest resistance.
Allow to cool completely on a wire rack, 2-3 hours. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.
The pie will keep refrigerated for 3 days or at a room temperature for 2 days.
Recipe taken from ‘The Four and Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book – Uncommon Recipes from the Celebrated Brooklyn Pie Shop.’
Four & Twenty Blackbirds
439 3rd Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11215