By Khushbu Shah | FoodAndWine.Com
For Lisa Ludwinski and her beloved Detroit bakery Sister Pie, Thanksgiving is the biggest day of the year.
For many, the final days of the month of August are a last chance to enjoy summer’s indulgences—a cold dip in the pool; a piping hot burger flipped on a grill; hunks of chilled, icy watermelon. But for Lisa Ludwinski, the last days of August are focused exclusively on creating a battle plan for Thanksgiving. Yes, Thanksgiving. Ludwinski is the founder and owner of Sister Pie, a beloved bakery that sits on the corner of Kercheval Avenue and Parker Street in Detroit’s West Village and turns out an impressive array of pies year-round. But Thanksgiving is Sister Pie’s Super Bowl, and that means Ludwinski and her team of 12 must start preparing months in advance.
“Thanksgiving is a holiday that has nostalgia, memory, and so many traditions associated with it,” says Ludwinski, which is why, in the dead heat of August, she spends her days debating the final Thanksgiving pie lineup for that year. It’s a delicate balance of offering customers the flavors they expect and demand during the holiday—apple, pecan, pumpkin—with the small, unexpected twists—rye flour, Gouda cheese, flaky sea salt—that separate an average pie from a Sister Pie. (See recipes below.)
Once the lineup is decided, Ludwinski makes what she likes to call a “dough plan” that breaks down exactly how many piecrusts, batches of crumble, and various other tasks—such as browning pounds of nuts until they’re toasty for the brandy pecan pie or cooking down gallons of cranberries into a sticky compote for the cranberry crumble—the team needs to crank out in the marathon before the holiday sprint.
In the 72 hours leading up to Thanksgiving, the Sister Pie team bakes nearly 1,000 pies in just 700 square feet of space, in addition to dozens of cookies and hundreds of savory handpies bursting with roasted Brussels sprouts and shallots. (To put that into context, the bakery usually makes about 200 pies total during a typical week.) There is just one double-stacked oven in the space, capable of baking about 50 pies at time. That number drops to 30 if they are more delicate pies, like the cranberry crumble, which enters the oven topped with a mountain of sandy oat streusel.
It’s a well-choreographed operation that requires extreme and meticulous planning. Not one inch of surface area in the bakery goes unused: Speed racks crowd the kitchen for baking and cooling; Cambro containers loaded with syrups, sugar, and fillings are scattered around the space; cartons of eggs are stacked perilously high next to the coffee station. The front entrance—typically a cozy spot for leisurely consuming a cappuccino and a slice—becomes a command station, where Ludwinski and team stuff just-cooled pies into paper boxes and maneuver a steady stream of pickups by locals (and even a few out-of-towners) over the span of two days.
“There’s so little room for error,” says Ludwinski, cringing at the memory of a dough miscalculation she made during last year’s rush. The fix required showing up at 3 a.m. at the bakery with Anji Barto, Sister Pie’s vice president of operations, to desperately add the bakery’s signature swoopy crimp to hundreds of piecrusts.
It is one of the most exhausting times of the year for the team, she adds—they are pushed physically and mentally to the brink. But it’s also a moment of real camaraderie and team bonding. (“There’s a lot of laughs and playlists and good snacks,” promises Ludwinski.)
Thanksgiving is also a full-circle moment for the bakery. Sister Pie was born 10 years ago, with Ludwinski baking pies for the holiday out of her mother’s kitchen in Milford, Michigan, mostly for family and friends. These days, in between filling pies and finagling lattice crusts, Ludwinski finds herself reflecting in the eye of the storm. “It is this moment of gratitude for me to look back at all the Thanksgivings before and think about how the business has changed and grown.”
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