Blackberry Summers

Summer is on my mind. I enjoy spending long summer days with my daughters. But when I think of the season on Fish Pot Road, I think of blackberries—my favorite part of summer. Not only were the little purple berries tasty and offered juicy treats, but hunting for them was cause to explore the winding fields and dense woods around our neighborhood.  Most of our berry picking was done in groups and would last all day long. Our parents had no idea where we were and would not worry unless we didn’t show up for supper. (Can you imagine?) (photo by Steve)

I rarely went into the woods ALL by myself, but on occasion I squirreled off to one of my two favorite places. In one of my favorite spots—about half a mile from my home, blackberries dotted the hilly landscape. Part of its magic was that it wasn’t that easily found. It was the clearing at the end of a path, which looked like a dirt road, littered with old cars and farming equipment.Blackberry bushes grew lavishly around there.  At the end of the path was a huge clearing, in either direction, a clear, steep path of pipeline-hills. I could sit and watch out over those hills for hours, after picking mounds of blackberries that I knew I would be eating later on, still  helping myself  to a few as a I sat there.  It was nice when I had my best friend, Brenda, with me, but it was even better when I was there alone.

The first treat I made myself after berry picking was a bowl of sun-warmed berries with cream or milk poured over it and sugar sprinkled on it. I liked to squeeze the berries into the milk and watch as the purple juice made purple milk. I didn’t wait for my mother to make a cobbler or pie to taste the goodness of earth in those berries. I can still smell those baking, juicy berries, and see my mother
opening the oven door, pulling out a perfectly-shaped pie, with a little purple ooze cascading off the sides. The reward for all my hard foraging was the first bite of that sweet summer treat, still fresh and warm in my mind. Do you have favorite summer food memories?

Blackberry Pie

Nothing is quite so satisfying as picking your own berries. Perhaps it’s the knowing where the food came from and taking part in this ancient practice of foraging. If you don’t have access to fresh
blackberries and must use frozen berries, it’s best to measure them while still frozen because they shrivel as they thaw. Thaw and drain the frozen berries before placing them in the pie shell. Otherwise, the pie will be watery. Use cornstarch or potato starch, which gives a clear, jewel-like color and has less flavor than cornstarch. This recipe is from my second cookbook, Mrs.
Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pie
s (Ten Speed Press 2009).  While it’s not my mom’s recipe, it
certainly has become a part of our family pie pantheon. And yes, I know it’s not quite blackberry season, but that’s no reason not to dream about it.

Makes one 9-inch pie
1 prebaked
pie crust

4 1/2 cups blackberries
3 tablespoons cornstarch or potato starch
1 cup sugar

In a small saucepan, mash one cup of berries
with a fork. Cook over medium heat until the berries begin to
break down and give off juice.
Mix 3 tablespoons of potato starch or cornstarch
with 1 cup sugar. Add to the berry mixture and cook until thick
and bubbling. Sugar will be dissolved, mixture will coat a
spoon and a finger run along the spoon will leave clean edges. Cool to lukewarm. Place the remaining berries into the baked pie
shell.  Pour the mixture over the berries and stir
around gently to distribute evenly.
Chill for 3 to 4 hours or overnight. 

Serve with whipped cream.

Happy National Blueberry Pie Day

Today is National Blueberry Pie Day! In honor of such an "esteemed" day, I'm posting the blueberry pie recipe in my book "Mrs. Rowe's Little Book of Southern Pie."  The
blueberry pie is the most expensive whole pie at Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant and Bakery, selling
$12.95 each. Most of the whole pies sell for under $10. The cost of
has gotten so high that the restaurant was forced to raise its prices.
You can
still get a slice of the deep-blue pie, though, for the regular price of 
$2.75 per slice.

Mrs. Rowe's Blueberry Pie

one 9-inch pie

Your favorite piecrust

3 pints of blueberries,
cleaned and stems removed (thawed
and drained if frozen)

tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

cup all-purpose flour (for thickening)

cup sugar

teaspoon ground cinnamon

tablespoons butter, unsalted, cut into small pieces

wash ingredients:

1 egg

tablespoon milk

the crust.

you have made the dough, on a lightly floured work surface, roll out
half of
the dough to 1/8-inch-thick circle, about 13 inches in diameter.
the dough over a 9-inch pie pan and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

you have purchased frozen prerolled circles, allow them to defrost and
one of the circles on and in the pie pan.

the egg and milk together to make an egg wash and set aside.

the blueberries, flour, cinnamon, lemon juice, and sugar and place in
chilled bottom crust of the pie pan.
the top with butter pieces.
out the remaining dough to the same size and thickness.
the rim of the crust with the egg wash, place the other piece of dough
on top,
trim to 1/2 inch over the edge of the pan, and crimp the edges with a
fork or
your fingers.

the pie to the refrigerator to chill until firm, about 30 minutes.
oven to 425°F.

the pie from the refrigerator.
the top with egg wash.
the pie on the top with two perpendicular cuts (so steam can escape
cooking). Bake for 20 minutes at 425°F.

the heat to 350°F and bake for 30 to 40 minutes more or until juices are
bubbling. Let cool before serving.

National Pie Day Give Away

One of my favorite things about being a writer is learning about the subject I happen to be covering. Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies was such a fun project. It wasn’t just learning about how to make pie, it also was learning about the culture of pie. One of the organizations I’ve come to know is the American Pie Council ( Who would have thought there was a council just for pie? Well, according to the American Pie Council, January 23 is National Pie Day.

So, in honor of National Pie Day, I’m giving away a signed copy of my little pie book, along with two pie toppers. If you’ve never heard of a pie topper, count yourself in good company. Neither did I. Yesterday, I visited the Cheese Shop in Stuarts Draft, Va., owned by Mennonites, who are some of the best pie bakers in my world, and I spotted the “pie toppers.”

DSCF4023 They are made for pies with a top crust and act as a pie-crust shape-cutter, like a big cookie cutter. I’ve not used them, but it seems like it’s a handy way of making pretty crust with lovely shapes cut into it. I love the idea of this Christmas tree shaped cutter. Imagine a berry pie on the Holiday table with the deep red color poking out of the crust in tree shapes.  And check out the topper with the squares—lattice without the painstaking work? Maybe. I hope that the winner will report back on how well they work.

Here’s how to win: simply leave a comment on my blog. It can be about pie, my book, Mrs.Rowe’s, or just a how-do. But it has to be on my blog. The winner will be randomly generated. Good luck and please let all your friends know about it. If one of your friends wins, maybe they will share their pie with you. The winner will be announced on Monday.

Red-Velvet Lovey-Dovey Pie

Recently, I made my first red velvet cake from scratch. I made it for my husband of nearly 19 years. Red velvet cake is his favorite. We’ve bought so many of them over the years for him that I really had no idea what a homemade red velvet cake would taste like. He asked for a homemade cake and that is what he got. Quite happily.

Of course, the cake was so much more delicious than what I’ve tasted in the past. And I fell in love with the process and idea of making cake. But pie is more a part of my family tradition—and it is the subject of my cookbook, even though it’s Mrs. Rowe’s pies, not my own.

So as I found myself loving making the cake, I also felt a little like a traitor to pie. But I learned a lot about the cake that I would not have known without actually making it. It’s not a simple chocolate cake—as some have suggested to me. It’s really a buttermilk-cocoa cake. I’m no fan of sipping buttermilk—but it adds a depth of flavor and tang to cooking and
baking that’s hard beat.  As I was creating the cake, I thought of Mrs. Rowe’s Buttermilk Pie. How easy would it be to make it into a “Red Velvet” pie? Quite easy, as it turns out. I just added cocoa and food coloring to an otherwise perfect buttermilk pie recipe.

The pie gets a thin cakelike skin on it as it cools, which is lovely for topping purposes. It would work with a number of toppings. But for me, it’s not Red Velvet without
the cream cheese icing, which I won’t be making until tomorrow when I get to
Pennsylvania. I’m not sure about transporting the pie with the topping on it–six hours in the car. I’ll take pictures of it at some point.

This recipe is a perfect example of how versatile pie is—once
you have a good, solid recipe that works, it’s fun and easy to experiment with it. I
call this pie my “Lovey-Dovey Red Velvet Pie” because I’m honoring my husband’s
Southern traditions and tastes while also acknowledging my own pie-loving Yankee
family and traditions.

Makes 1 9-inch pie

1 pie crust

1 cup unsalted butter, melted, slightly cooled

1 cup sugar

½ cup all purpose flour

3 eggs

1 cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 heaping teaspoon of cocoa

1 ounce of red food coloring

Preheat oven to 325. Line a 9-inch pie plate with dough and
crimp the edges.

In a bowl, combine the butter, sugar, and flour, and stir
well. One at a time, add the eggs. Mixing well after each addition. Add the
buttermilk and vanilla and stir well. Next, add the cocoa and stir into
filling. Last, stir in the food coloring. Red, isn’t it?

Pour the batter into the pie crust.

The original buttermilk pie recipe called for baking for 25
to 35 minutes, until a thin knife inserted into the center comes out clean. But it took 45 minutes in my oven for in
to get thick. When you insert the knife, there will be a little filling on
it—but it continues to firm up as it cools.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes, until the
filling firms up. Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled.

I’ll be serving mine in Pennsylvania with whipped cream
cheese topping.

Granny Smith Apple Pie and more…

This story was cut from the original manuscript of the book MRS. ROWE'S LITTLE BOOK OF SOUTHERN PIE. I'm happy to share it here, along with the fabulous pie recipe—which did make it into the cookbook.

Wearing Your Work

It’s 9:30 in the morning at Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant and Cynthia Craig
looks tired. Her eyes have circles under them and her hands are red and rough
from scrubbing them. She is coming off her shift of stirring, kneading,
patting, twisting, and sliding huge pans in and out of the huge ovens at Mrs.
Rowe’s Restaurant and Bakery. She dons an apron over her red t-shirt and jeans.
She smiles. “You definitely wear your work home when you’re a baker. The
meringue gets everywhere. So does the chocolate pie filling.”

 Cynthia starts her
shift at 2 a.m. She loves her job—she tried working at another local restaurant
and didn’t like it. She admits that some days are better than others, though.
Around the holidays, for example, she sometimes puts in 14-hour shifts. And,
even after 20 years of baking, she still makes mistakes. “I’ve burned cookies
and pie shells. I’ve messed up the spoon bread. Just the other day, for some
reason the lemon filling for the pie just wouldn’t get thick. I added more
cornstarch and then it was like rubber.” She laughs.

Cynthia loves the creative challenge of her work. “I like the
sense of pride here. We are all told that we shouldn’t serve something we
wouldn’t want to eat. I think that comes straight from Mrs. Rowe.”

It’s an attitude that permeates the kitchen, and Mrs. Rowe’s
owner-son, Mike DiGrassie carries on with the same work ethic.

Cynthia’s most vivid memories of the matriarch of the restaurant
center on Mrs. Rowe and Karl Craig, another baker, making mincemeat pie. “She
oversaw it all and would keep a close watch on the apples. If there were any apples
left over from her batch, I used them for my Granny Smith apple pie.”

Mrs. Rowe encouraged frugality with the food and the restaurant
still does not waste produce in the kitchen. Cynthia took the opportunity the
leftover apples offered to make her mark with her own recipe. Customers look
forward to it every year during the apple harvest season.


Granny Smith Apple Pie


If you like your apples sour, cut the sugar to
1/3 cup. 


Makes one 9-inch pie

1 piecrust

6 cups peeled and sliced Granny Smith or other
tart apples (about 2 pounds)

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

3 tablespoons flour

1 tablespoon lemon juice

3/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1 tablespoon butter, cut into bits


tablespoon milk, warmed

teaspoon sugar

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Put the bottom crust in a pie pan.

Peel and quarter the apples.

Toss with lemon juice. 

Mix sugar, flour, and spices in a small bowl.

Add to apples and toss to coat apples

Spoon the mixture into crust.

Dot with butter.

Place the top crust over apples.

Flute the edges of the piecrust. 

Mix the warm milk with the teaspoon of sugar and
brush over top crust.  Pierce a
couple of holes to vent steam.

Bake at 425°F for 15 minutes, then reduce heat
to 350°F and bake another 30-40 minutes until crust is golden brown and the
fruit is tender. 

Check the pie about halfway through for over
browning on edges of crust.  Cover
edges with pie shields or foil if needed. 

Cool before slicing.


Mrs. Rowe’s Top Ten Restaurant Business Rules

Mrs. Rowe had no formal business or culinary education.
Yet, when her first husband left her in 1946 with three small children, she
started her own restaurant in Goshen, Va., which was so successful that she
paid off her loan within six years. In 1952, she joined forces with her new husband,
Willard Rowe, whose restaurant in Staunton was failing. It was saved
by Mildred’s innate business sense and culinary acumen. Today, Mrs. Rowe’s
Restaurant, Staunton, Va., is a multimillion dollar operation serving more than
half-million customers a year.

 Here are Mrs. Rowe’s top ten restaurant business rules:

  1. Treat
    customers like family.
  2. Don’t
    serve alcohol without food.
  3. Close
    at a decent hour.
  4. If
    there are lines of people waiting to get in, you need to raise your
  5. Clean
    and clean again.
  6. You
    need to be there to keep an eye on the business.
  7. Don’t
    be afraid of competition, it can only make you better.
  8. Every
    penny counts, so count every penny.
  9. Keep
    it simple.
  10. Keep it fresh and real.

More of Mrs. Rowe's story is in Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant Cookbook: A Lifetime of Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley (Ten Speed Press, 2006).

Five things you should know about Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies:

I’ve noticed some peculiar questions during several of my media interviews and I hope to clear some things up with this post.

1.    The recipes in the book are not mine. They belong to Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant and Bakery. That’s why the book’s name is MRS. ROWE’S LITTLE BOOK OF SOUTHERN PIES.
2.    The book is not meant to be a huge "tome" on pie. It’s a sweet, little, fun book that gives recipes of a restaurant that’s 67 years old. That’s right 67.
3.    I am not the pie queen—Mrs. Rowe was. I am a writer who has learned a lot about making pie by writing and researching for this book. This is important: I have no culinary training. Anybody can bake a pie. Even me. Even you. It’s not brain surgery.
4.    It’s not odd for a writer to write a cookbook full of recipes that are not her own. Usually, these types of books are ghostwritten. The writer writes the book, hands it in, then goes away.  Sometimes the only public recognition they get is an acknowledgment in the book—sometimes not.  What is unusual is that you see my name on the cover.
5.    I am not affiliated with the restaurant or the family. I know them professionally—I was inspired by the life story of Mrs. Rowe, leading me to my first cookbook MRS. ROWE’S RESTAURANT COOKBOOK: A LIFETIME OF RECIPES FROM THE SHENANDOAH VALLEY.  I approached the first book as a journalist.  I don’t hang out with the family, nor am I paid by them. I am paid by the publisher.