The Life of Pie at Rock Springs Cafe
The pastry kitchen is a sanctuary from the bustle of the prep station and the noise of the hot food line. The place even looks calm. Only the bright red pro-series Kitchen Aid breaks the monotony of chrome and stainless steel.
I am here to make apple pie.
Carefully, I weigh, then sift, the dry ingredients — flour, sugar, and salt — to a fine powder. Cut and cube cold butter and shortening, and add them to the mixing bowl.
There are no written instructions, just a voice in my head: Mix until the flour looks crumbled and sandy. When you see pea-size pieces of butter, stop mixing.
Slowly, I drizzle ice-cold water splashed with red wine vinegar over the mixture while the paddle runs on low. My fingers grab a pinch of dough. Neither sandy nor sticky, it has just the right feel, just enough moisture. It's time to divide and shape the dough into discs.
The dough rests.
Great pie has a perfect crust: tender, flaky, buttery taste. Great pie can make you swoon — and learning how to make it reduced me to tears more times than I'd like to say.
I sprinkle the counter with flour and grab the dough from the refrigerator. To keep the shape round, always work from the center to the edge. Keep turning the dough as you work.
The dough feels smooth under my hands. I pick up the pin and roll out a thin, wide circle. Pieces of butter flattened under the gentle arc of the pin leave swirling striations that will melt in the oven and create the steam needed to flake the crust. I roll the dough until it is an eighth of an inch thick, twirl it onto the pin and into the pan. Fill, bake.
I'd done it for weeks now, in pursuit of the perfect pie. Dozens of batches of dough: mix, chill, roll, bake — and, more times than I'd like to admit, dump in the garbage.
Not this time.
When this pie was pulled from the oven, bubbles of filling percolated through the slivered vents in the domed and golden crust. The crust held together until it was time to yield to the fork, breaking and flaking just so. The tart apples softened and kept their form. The sugar and spices brought out the apples' sweet notes without trying to lead the parade.
Now, this was pie.
It was a transformational moment. It was the moment I felt comfortable with the title "chef." Culinary school gave me the foundation for commercial kitchen work. My first professional kitchen gig taught me how much more there was to learn. Mastering this pie taught me what I could do.
Growing up in Ohio, my standard for measuring pie began with Amish bake sales and county fairs. Those were pies with high standards. Today, you hear a lot about pie — mostly that it's the next cupcake. But pie is different. Pie is no novelty. It's never fallen out of favor. It continues to maintain a place on restaurant dessert and specialty bakery menus. It is not trendy; it has always been and always will be part of our cultural foodscape.
But it will never be as ubiquitous as the cupcake — not only because it's not as much fun to decorate, but because it takes practice and patience to make. It takes time to master. And these days, who has time?
I venture out for pie from time to time — for the fig-and-pecan at Beckett's Table or a slice of Vincent Guerithault's apple tarte tatin. But although I've lived in metro Phoenix for 10 years, I'd never been to Rock Springs Café until a couple of weeks ago.
The place is legendary for pie. If you've lived here for any amount of time, you know the stories about treks made north on Interstate 17 — just past the Maricopa County line — to fetch rhubarb or pecan pies and bring them back to town.
Who doesn't love Rock Springs' pie? Better than homemade — that's what people say.
I decided to find out for myself.
On a weekday, the view of the dusty parking lot west of I-17 is a mix of pickup trucks, four-door sedans, and motorcycles. The outside of the main building is crisp and white with a sky-high cherry pie — the size of two second-story windows side by side — painted above the entrance.
Rock Springs Cafe's origins date to 1918, when Ben Warner opened a canvas-covered general store. The area has history — as a Native American encampment, military bivouac, watering hole, and stagecoach stop. In 1924, Warner completed construction of a permanent store and hotel building, now home to the cafe.
Inside the main entrance, the first eye-catching cooler is loaded with cream pie: chocolate, banana, coconut cream, and lemon meringue. Dead center and a few steps past the register, the pecan pies — classic and Jack Daniel's — share display space with sticky buns.
Tiers of fruit-filled and crumb-topped pies line the back wall. On my first visit, the selection included pumpkin, peach, apple, Tennessee lemon, mixed berry, blueberry, and rhubarb. Racks of fresh-from-the-oven pies cool behind a counter marked "soda fountain."
The potential charm of the place is diminished by an obvious lack of upkeep. Thick coats of paint mask the detailed pressed-tin ceiling. A collection of vintage coffeepots, cameras, and food tins are covered in dust. Even the bikers gathered around the tables lose their luster in this setting.
I decide my order will be to go.
I inspect the pies for sale, and I'm not impressed. Crumble-topped pies look as though they wear a layer of sawdust instead of streusel. The fruit pies lack any nod to seasonality, with the exception of rhubarb.
The crusts are markedly dark brown, an indication of over-baking. The edges are uniformly stamped; only the caramelized spikes of the lemon meringue and thumb indentations on the double-crusted apple have any hint of a home-baked look.
I'm surprised. Rock Springs reportedly sells close to 80,000 pies a year. Has volume trumped quality? Am I looking at the Sara Lee version of the famous pies that put this place on the map?
The truth is in the taste, of course. My car loaded with pie, I head straight home and get to it. Of the six pies I plucked out of the cases, the crusts all lack a flaky texture. An edge is cardboard-stiff, no melt-in-your-mouth crumble. The aftertaste is bitter.
The worst offender is the apple pie. The scent promises a perfect hint of cinnamon and cooked apple filling. The crust is stale, soggy from sitting too long, ruining the taste of its contents.
The mixed berry fares better. The fine crumb topping's melt-in-your-mouth sweetness balances the tart filling. Brown sugar in streusel mellows the sweetness factor and creates clumps; this streusel is too fine to add texture and cloyingly sweet.
The rhubarb resembles the mixed berry, a tart filling with sweet crumble topping. Unfortunately, a burnt crust negates this pie's potential.
The Tennessee lemon is a mixed bag. The filling — egg- and sugar-based custard flavored with lemon juice — is creamy and tart. The bottom crust is unevenly baked, with spots of under-done dough blond and transparent.
The cream pies are a disappointment. Beautiful to behold with their circular mound of cream topping, their looks don't transfer to their taste. A bite delivers an overpowering mouthful of sugared cream drowning out the custard filling.
Bananas are scant in the slice of banana cream. The decorative banana chips on top don't enhance the taste of the pie. The coconut flavor and texture comes through in the coconut cream.
The spiky lemon meringue has a better ratio of topping to filling then the cream pies. The airy sweet meringue cuts the tart lemon curd. The crust casts a golden hue but is stiff.
Jack Daniel's pecan is the pie that invites a second helping. The crusty topped filling is the right combination of syrup, pecans, and a tipple of Jack Daniel's. Another stiff, dark brown crust, at least it doesn't leave a burnt aftertaste.
In all, Rock Springs pies and I had a bad pie day.
Five days later, I'm back. This time, I decide to taste a slice of pie served in the cafe before grabbing a few more whole pies to go.
On the weekend, the cafe does a brisk business. The waitstaff takes time to banter with the customers while shouting out to each other through tight smiles.
You can get other things at Rock Springs Café — the menu includes pulled pork, meatloaf, fish 'n' chips, and chicken-fried steak. Here for the pie and pie only, I begin by asking my waitress a few questions.
Q. Are all the pies served baked fresh every day?
A. We go through them so fast. We bake them every day.
Interpretation: That doesn't mean the piece delivered to the table was baked today.
Q. What's in the crust?
A. There is no lard in the crust.
Interpretation: Customers don't like lard.
Q. Are the pie recipes from Penny Cooley? I heard she was famous for the pies made here.
A. The recipes are the cafe's; you know, the cafe's recipes.
Interpretation: The pies have changed since Penny retired in 2006.
My generous slice of apple pie is delivered warm to the table. The aroma of apples spiked with cinnamon draws me in. The double crust is evenly baked top to bottom.
The crimped rim of the crust has slightly irregular indentations the size of a thumb, a sign of handwork. The crust stiffly breaks apart under the tines of the fork. The sliced apples are soft but lack flavor on their own.
The pie is balanced — tart-sweet, with enough edge on the crust for a crust geek like me. It is satisfying, but not as good as homemade. It's on par with other commercial pies.
On my way out of the café, I choose a few whole pies to go. On this visit, the pies on display are golden brown, as was my slice in the café.
At the register, I repeat my questions about the crust. The answer this time is straightforward. The crust is made with shortening. The fillings are made with frozen fruit and some prepared ingredients.
These pies may not meet my criteria for homemade taste, but I recognize their popularity rests on long history and a great story.
Hankering for pie? Rock Springs is worth a stop — but only if you're passing by.
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