Today — March 14 — is Pi Day. Ostensibly, it is a day to celebrate the mathematical constant “Pi,” the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

Today — March 14 — is Pi Day. Ostensibly, it is a day to celebrate the mathematical constant "Pi," the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

Of course, given the irrational number that Pi is, it’s not surprising the day is more frequently used as an excuse to bake and eat pies. Even at the very first Pi Day in 1988, organized by San Francisco Exploratorium physicist Larry Shaw, participants ate fruit pies after doing a circular march.

Tabitha Langel, co-owner of Tall Grass Prairie, says their pies are centred on what grows locally. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Tabitha Langel, co-owner of Tall Grass Prairie, says their pies are centred on what grows locally. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Doing math is hard, but eating flaky pastry stuffed with fabulous fillings is easy. Thankfully, if the only addition you want to do is to add a pie into your life, you don’t have to run in circles.

Whether you end up eating just one slice, 3.14, or many more, there are plenty of places around (see what we did there) Winnipeg that offer delicious pies of every variety.

Tall Grass Prairie Bread Co. puts heart into their pies — of the pastry variety.

Every saskatoon pie from the venerable community bakery, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, comes with a heart-shaped pastry cutout adorning the top.

"We really want to make the statement: ‘we love this pie and we think it’s the heart of our Prairie root,’" Tall Grass co-owner and co-founder Tabitha Langel said in a recent phone interview.

Pies have been a Pi Day constant since the first March 14 event in 1988. You don’t need a special celebration to enjoy Tall Grass Prairie Bread Co.’s mixed Prairie fruit, Hutterite sugar and saskatoon-rhubarb pies. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Pies have been a Pi Day constant since the first March 14 event in 1988. You don’t need a special celebration to enjoy Tall Grass Prairie Bread Co.’s mixed Prairie fruit, Hutterite sugar and saskatoon-rhubarb pies. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Saskatoon pie is Tall Grass’ signature selection, but it comes with a twist borne of deep tradition: it contains rhubarb, the addition of which hearkens back to Langel’s Hutterite upbringing.

"The old women said the saskatoon and the rhubarb need each other," Langel said. "The saskatoon by itself, does not have that spark or acidity. It has a fairly — I wouldn’t use the word ‘staid’ — but a ‘plain’ flavour."

"If you add a little rhubarb — it’s not one-to-one — the rhubarb gives it a tang and brightens the colour."

When speaking with Langel, it quickly becomes apparent that she has massive respect for tradition and a great reverence for ingredients from right here in Manitoba. She refers to the saskatoon as a "sacred berry" integral to survival on the Prairies and a "superfood" that is high in vitamin B and boosts the immune system.

Butter up! Pie will never be a home run without it

Goodie’s Bake Shop’s banana cream pie is their best-selling full-sized pie — which has a surprise layer of chocolate ganache underneath the bananas. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Goodie’s Bake Shop’s banana cream pie is their best-selling full-sized pie — which has a surprise layer of chocolate ganache underneath the bananas. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

When it comes to making a pie, just like when building a structure, the foundation is important.

In pie’s case, that’s the crust. There’s been plenty of debate throughout the years of whether butter, shortening, lard — or some combination of the three — produces the most perfect pastry.

When it comes to making a pie, just like when building a structure, the foundation is important.

In pie’s case, that’s the crust. There’s been plenty of debate throughout the years of whether butter, shortening, lard — or some combination of the three — produces the most perfect pastry.

In Tall Grass Prairie’s case, they don’t use lard as they have a lot of Jewish and Muslim customers who do not eat it, Langel said, even though she’s of the opinion that a mixture of butter and lard makes the best pastry.

They used to use a high-end trans-fat free vegetable oil, until about 15 or 20 years ago, when a master French baker came on board.

“We introduced him to pies and he said after a while, ‘I can’t do it. I have to put some butter in,’” Langel said. (For anyone who ever watched Julia Child, they’d know French baking and cooking is based on three ingredients: butter, butter, and a bit more butter.)

Tall Grass uses an oil and butter mix to this day.

Lilac Bakery’s Atkinson still uses his late mother Linda’s recipe, which calls for primarily vegetable shortening and a little bit of butter to stabilize it.

“It’s the only thing we’re ever going to use. She always baked a nice flaky crust,” Atkinson said, stressing it’s important to not overwork the pastry. Doing so makes it tough rather than tender.

For Goodies’ Peters, when it comes to flaky-crust pies (as opposed to pies with graham or Oreo crumb bases) it’s butter or bust.

“We believe in butter,” she said, for flavour and nutrition. “We are focused on real ingredients and butter is a real food.”

Langel — perhaps surprisingly — is of the opinion that crust is not the end-all be-all.

“I think the over-focus on crust has been a bit overdone,” Langel said. “What I don’t like about it, (making crust) intimidates people. They’re forever criticizing their crust.”

“I know there are people who do exquisite crusts and that’s terrific. But I say to people: ‘show me a warm pie. Even if the crust is not perfect, it’ll be delicious.’”

"It’s such a memory when I was a kid, that was the dessert," Langel says of saskatoon pie. People didn’t buy these fancy things from far away."

"Our pies are centred largely on what grows here, locally," she said. "What I love about our pies is we can usually tell people where the fruits are from and the pumpkins are from."

In addition to the saskatoon-rhubarb and the deep-dish pumpkin pie — which she calls "quite legendary" and are made with heritage pumpkins Langel deems superior to sugar pumpkins — they also make a mixed Prairie-fruit pie, where the filling varies depending on what’s fresh and in season.

They also make apple and apple-raspberry pies with — you guessed it — local apples.

For Pi Day this year, Langel suggests trying the one custard pie they make regularly. That’s the Hutterite sugar pie, made with cream, sugar, egg, and "heavily laced with cinnamon." It’s similar to a French-Canadian classic, tarte au sucre.

 


 

Lilac Bakery owner Christopher Atkinson always sees a bump in pie sales for Pi Day. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Lilac Bakery owner Christopher Atkinson always sees a bump in pie sales for Pi Day. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

At Lilac Bakery, serving pies made with his late mother’s pastry recipe is one way Christopher Atkinson keeps her legacy alive.

Twelve years ago, when Atkinson and his mother Linda opened the Grosvenor Avenue bakery, she was the head baker and he was the owner with the marketing and sales savvy. Linda died five years ago, but her influence lives on.

Lilac Bakery specializes in down-home, scratch-made desserts, with offerings "reminiscent of kitchens from the past," Atkinson said — such as Linda’s.

Individual-size pies from Lilac Bakery are perfect for a lunchtime snack. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Individual-size pies from Lilac Bakery are perfect for a lunchtime snack. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

There’s an elegance to Lilac’s offerings, which in addition to pies, include a variety of cupcakes, cakes, and a rotating menu of more than two-dozen squares. But that elegance comes from simplicity: the baked goods aren’t just for Instagram.

Lilac touts a dozen-plus varieties of pie that come in 10-inch and mini varieties. The mini pies catch customers’ eyes in the showcase and have a cheap-and-cheerful price point of just $6.

Lemon meringue and apple are Lilac’s top sellers year-round, Atkinson said during a phone call on a recent sunny weekday morning."(Customers) really like the tart lemon curd with the pastry and the big fluffy meringue on top," Atkinson said. "The higher the better, and it looks stunning on a table, too."

Apple pie was Linda’s favourite, Atkinson said. "She did it without a recipe, she just did by hand, you know? Amazing."

Lilac Bakery’s apple (pictured) and lemon meringue pie are top sellers. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Lilac Bakery’s apple (pictured) and lemon meringue pie are top sellers. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Atkinson’s personal favourite is banana cream — because he’s a big fan of the combination of pastry, custard, bananas, and sweet whipped cream — but also because it’s one his mother made frequently when he was young.

"It reminds me of my childhood," he said.

Lilac always sees an uptick in pie sales around Pi Day. Many workplaces order them for office functions and the mini pies — a perfect portion for one person — "sell like crazy" the week before, Atkinson said.

Pies are an underrated dessert that are actually more difficult and time-intensive to make than cakes and cupcakes, Atkinson said, because of the time it takes to make and roll the pastry. He said you can tell right away if a pie is made from scratch or from a production line.

Lilac Bakery’s pie menu includes key lime and more than a dozen other varieties. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Lilac Bakery’s pie menu includes key lime and more than a dozen other varieties. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Guys especially love pies, Atkinson said. He finds he sells more pies to men than women, especially the lemon meringue and cream varieties.

"We get the question all the time, from guys coming in, they’re like ‘where are your pies, where are the pies?’"

He posits this phenomena might be because pies remind men of their mothers’ baking or because more men prefer desserts that are less sweet.

For Pi Day, Atkinson is planning to tuck into a slice of strawberry-rhubarb, a flavour that evokes feelings of spring and is popular around Easter (another huge day for pie sales.)

 


 

Linda Peters says Goodies Bake Shop’s peanut butter chocolate mousse pie is a decked-out showstopper. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Linda Peters says Goodies Bake Shop’s peanut butter chocolate mousse pie is a decked-out showstopper. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

At Goodies Bake Shop, pie is a big deal. Between baking them for wholesale distribution and for their retail location on Ellice Avenue, they may make as many as 200 per day.

While operations manager Linda Peters isn’t the one elbow-deep in flour and fillings on a daily basis, she estimates that about a quarter of Goodies 40 staff is involved in the pie-making process at some point, whether that’s rolling crust, making fillings, or dolling them up.

Peters says Goodies has always been a fan of Pi Day, and that they do see an increase in orders leading up to "the famous 3-point-14."

"Our pies are one of our most popular products… people just want a reason to eat pie," she said. "I love numbers, I love math, but I love pie even more."

Like Lilac Bakery, Goodies offers individual pies in addition to full-sized ones, so everyone can get exactly what they want. Half of Goodie’s pie-buying customers opt for individuals, Peters estimated.

While Goodies best-selling full-sized pie is banana cream — which has a surprise layer of chocolate ganache underneath the bananas — the best-selling individual pie is coconut cream.

Goodies Bake Shop’s coconut cream pie ‘tastes like a vacation.’ (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Goodies Bake Shop’s coconut cream pie ‘tastes like a vacation.’ (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Goodies didn’t sell individual coconut cream pies until about two years ago, at which point Peters’ mother suggested they do so. Peters gave it a shot, making the mini coconut cream an Easter feature.

Mothers always know best, don’t they?

Coconut cream also happens to be Peters’ and her mother’s favourite.

"I like things that are tropical. It kind of tastes like a vacation," Peters laughed. "As busy as I am, I don’t take vacations, but I have a small vacation by eating coconut cream pie."

Every time Peters’ mother comes over, Peters has a coconut cream pie waiting for her. (Hopefully, for health reasons, her mother doesn’t come over every day.)

Peters said a pie can be just as show-stopping of a centrepiece as a multi-tiered cake. The secret is height, she said, (in addition to using fresh, local ingredients.)

"Our pies are probably six inches high and they’re decked out," she said.

Cindy Sayroodrizzles chocolate on a pie at Goodies Bake Shop. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Cindy Sayroodrizzles chocolate on a pie at Goodies Bake Shop. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

The lemon meringue pie, for example, has an almost-comically-large heaping of torched Italian meringue (much more labour-intensive than a regular French meringue, Peters said) atop a fresh lemon curd made with Manitoba eggs. The banana cream is adorned with hand-piped whipped cream swirls and banana chips.

"People don’t realize how versatile pie really is," Peters said, and that a baker can be even more creative when making pies than when making cakes. She pointed to their peanut butter chocolate mousse pie — made with cream cheese — and their caramel/chocolate/pecan pie as examples of non-traditional offerings.

"You can do so much with a pie," she said. "Pies can be savoury, they can be sweet, they can be breakfast, they can be dessert, they can be any meal. You can make a chicken pot pie. It’s still a pie."

"When it comes to cake, cake is always dessert, but pie — you can have fruit pie for breakfast. I know I’ve let my kids have pie for breakfast. It’s fruit!"

declan.schroeder@freepress.mb.ca