By Suzie Racho
Pie has inspired songs, books and works of art. But did you know that the saying "easy as pie" doesn't refer to the making of pie but the eating of it? Anyone who has ever made pie knows this from experience, like San Francisco baker Esa Yonn-Brown.
Butter Love Bakeshop, Yonn-Brown's very small business, doesn't have a storefront. She rents the kitchen at Pig & Pie, a restaurant on 24th Street in San Francisco's Mission District. I meet her there early one morning so she can show me how she makes her pie crust. There's no mixer or food processor involved, just her hands, a recipe from mom and lots of butter.
"I'm a fan of using all butter, which makes it even more challenging to get it to be consistent," Yonn-Brown explains. "I don't like the idea of using shortening. I don't like the idea of using foods that are not very natural. Butter is oh so tasty all on its own!"
The restaurant is closed so it's relatively quiet, except for the hum of the kitchen's refrigerators and fans. She works six days a week, selling wholesale to cafes, restaurants and food trucks, and she takes retail orders online.
"I decided on pie because it was one of my favorite things to eat," Yonn-Brown says. "It was what my mom always made and and I couldn't find a good piece of pie in the city, so if I was in the mood for a slice of pie, I would have to make it or I'd have to have my mom make it for me."
A finished sweet potato pie with handmade honey spice marshmallows.
Just a few years ago, Yonn-Brown had an office job after working in restaurants since her teens. But she says she was missing being creative and began moonlighting, taking special orders making cakes and pies. Word got around and reviews started appearing on Yelp.
"I would get off of work and run home and go pick my daughter up from pre-school, feed her dinner, get her to bed and at nine 'o clock I would start baking and I'd bake until one A.M., " she explains. "Then I would go to sleep and get up at seven and go to work and my husband was like, 'You are seven seven months pregnant, you need to stop. This is an obsession, you don't need to have this second job!' But I was like, 'But this is the one I like!'"
Soon after, Yonn-Brown was laid off from her data processing job. She spent a few months contemplating starting her own business and then she got a call from the New York Times for an article about piemakers, shortly before Thanksgiving 2010. She quickly went legit, getting a business license and renting space in a commercial kitchen.
"All of sudden I was inundated with hundreds of emails with orders for Thanksgiving and I'm like, 'Oh My God! I'm not set up for this,' but that was the start of it being a real business."
On this morning, she's prepping an order of bacon pecan pies. But her assistant has come down with strep throat, so her parents have stepped in to help with deliveries. Food is big in her family. She's married to a chef she met in culinary school, and her parents have collected cookbooks her entire life.
"My mom always made the best pie and it's basically her exact recipe," Yonn-Brown says. "I mean, she taught me. I joke with her: 'Another 30 years and I'll have it be exactly like yours.'"
The crust that local critics rave about isn't made with any secret ingredients like vodka, it's all in the technique.
"Work your flour into your butter," Yonn-Brown explains. "Everyone always uses the pea-size pieces as a reference, but I prefer my pieces to be larger but flatter. So I like a leaf of butter. And touch the butter once. Coat it with the flour and then squish it. Then once you add your water, work quickly and don't mess with it too much."
As the baking winds down for the morning and prep for the next day begins, Butter Love's accounts start picking up their orders. Jason Angeles from the Frozen Kuhsterd food truck stops by to pick up an order of muffin-sized pies that Yonn-Brown calls "cuppies."
"We do pie partfaits. We split her pies in half and put a scoop of custard and then top it off with burnt caramel. It's like an evil, wonderful thing you can have," Angeles laughs.
Even though she'll be making pies for many folks this season, at her own Thanksgiving dinner, Esa Yonn-Brown will be leaving the baking to mom.