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Does Pie Take the Cupcake?

Belt-tightening and nutrition concerns are boosting the fortunes of pie

Written by Mary Luz Mejia   
With one bite of an icing-crowned cupcake, the glamorous gal pals on the TV hit “Sex and the City” launched an enduring cupcake trend (not to be confused with a fad that comes and goes like 1980s stretch-neon clothing).
cupcake1
 
 A selection of offerings from Lori Joyce of Vancouver’s Original Cupcakes
 
With one bite of an icing-crowned cupcake, the glamorous gal pals on the TV hit “Sex and the City” launched an enduring cupcake trend (not to be confused with a fad that comes and goes like 1980s stretch-neon clothing).

Once Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha devoured sweet confections made by New York City’s Magnolia Bakery in 2000, they ignited a cupcake revolution. Bakeries everywhere ramped up to keep pace with growing demand. But that was almost a decade ago, and some are wondering if we are stuck in a cupcake-iced time warp.

Indeed, there are rumblings that a new tasty rival is vying for customers’ loyalty, and its name is pie.

To get to the last crumb on this delicate debate, we put the question to top bakers and chefs across the country, asking for their front-line input and observations. In the world of baking trends, there are definite opinions on the subject.

cupcake2
 
 A lemon meringue pie from Wanda’s Pie in the Sky in Toronto  
 cupcake3  
Miniature cherry pies present a strong challenge to cupcakes
 
But first, a little trend-inducing Psychology 101, brought to you in part by New York Magazine writer Adam Sternbergh in his piece “Sweet and Vicious” (published in 2005). In it, he writes that the cupcake’s rebirth was attributable in some part to “the girly-girl culture that spun up around ‘Sex and the City’; and a regressive nostalgia that spurs adults to seek out the comfort foods of some idealized, vanilla-scented childhood (a notion Jennifer Appel [owner of Magnolia Bakery] understands; she holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology).”

In Canada, few have the retro-nostalgia of cupcakes baked and packaged quite like Lori Joyce of Vancouver’s Original Cupcakes. Her pretty pink shop, which opened seven years ago, was the first North American cupcake-branded concept bakery. In Joyce’s estimation, there’s no sign of the cupcake trend slowing down.

“Generation after generation, we will continue to celebrate birthdays, weddings and countless other celebrations, and what better way than with an individual portion of a colourful and sweet cupcake? No knife, no plates, unlimited decorations and flavours; the ideas and occasions are limitless,” Joyce says.

It’s true that a cupcake’s appeal is multi-faceted – it’s portable, not nearly as messy as most pies, and is small enough (usually) to be relatively guilt-free. But if cupcakes are going to continue playing the nostalgic, back-in-the-good-old-days trump card among customers, the timeless pie has a few aces up its sleeve, too.

After last September’s severe market downturn, our new recessionary reality hit. At this time people did what they usually do in times of crisis: they turned to comfort – especially in food. Restaurants across North America featuring budget-friendly menus laden with comfort foods have sprung up faster than you can say “mac ’n’ cheese!” And desserts? Well, they just scream “apple pie please!”

When economic conditions force families to cut back on spending, for many, this means forgoing foods that have little nutritious value. Toronto’s doyenne of desserts, Dufflet Rosenberg of Dufflet Pastries, says, “Fruit pies have always been in demand and have their own following, even more with the trend toward health-conscious desserts. Customers might take a break from buying a dozen cupcakes, but one pie can serve a family and sneak some fruit into their kids’ diets.”

On the food trends side, the locavore mantra – which includes eating seasonally and sustainably – continues to gain credence and momentum with Jane and Joe Public. If it’s local, seasonal fruit you want in your desserts, pie’s got that market cornered. Chef Brad Long, owner of Toronto’s Veritas Restaurant, says, “I’m a big fan of the pie – simplicity, clarity, to the point and, if need be, a great way to preserve fruit. Cupcakes are all about the surface – the decoration and frills. Pie is all about what you can’t see – integrity hiding inside a feathery crust. It’s back in a big way!”
Kyla Eaglesham, a baker and owner of Toronto pastry shop Madeleines, Ice Cream and Cherry Pie, agrees.

“When we talk about commodities and the economy, pies are making a big comeback, along with conservative values,” she says. “We have made pies for people’s weddings, and bonbonnieres of individually boxed three-inch or five-inch pies are popular around here. It is a great gift and people usually appreciate the ‘home-made’ quality.”

Wedding pie instead of the traditional wedding cake? You bet!

“I have done wedding pies for a number of weddings,” says Wanda Beaver of Toronto-based Wanda’s Pie in the Sky. “We’ll do pies and put them on tiers – or in one case, one on each table. I made a whole spread and everyone got a slice of three or four pies.”

Pastry chef and baker Bettina Schormann of the Ancaster Old Mill in Ancaster, Ont., was the recipient of miniature fruit pies at a recent wedding and thinks the idea is delightful – and very Canadian.

“In Canadiana terms, the pie has a lot of cultural significance – from the Shoofly pie to mincemeat. People have always looked to the past for inspiration. It’s what I’ve always done,” Schormann says, adding that at least 15 pecan pies are being consumed every weekend at Ancaster Old Mill’s Sunday brunches.

Perhaps Rosenberg is the voice of reason in this debate.

“In my opinion, fruit pies and cupcakes fall into the comfort category,” she says. “I personally love and sell both!”

There’s certainly room for the two treats, but for those who want a taste of something nostalgic that’s also almost virtuous and luscious, Beaver claims that pie wins the argument hands-down.

“I’ve always been a real proponent of pies being one of the perfect desserts,” she says. “It’s like something your mom, grandmother or aunt made; it’s a homey thing.”

It can also be as girly and beautiful as cupcakes.

“Take one of my favourites, for example, the Lemon Meringue Pie,” says Beaver. “It’s the Marilyn Monroe of pies – tart, blonde and voluptuous!” Cupcakes, eat your heart out!
 
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