Cafe Reviews

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.

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Carol Blonder