The top Pi Day stop in Detroit: Sister Pie
Tianna Bogan, 21, baker, went from dishwasher to baker in 8 months. She demonstrates on how to make a Honey Lemon Meringue pie. Clarence Tabb Jr./Detroit News
Correction:In an earlier version of this story, the size of the $28 pies was incorrectly identified, and it took pastry chef Tianna Bogan four months to train for her positionafter four months as a dishwasher. The length of time she spent washing dishes was incorrect.
“You see this shiny side?” says Tianna Bogan, holding a square tin foil sheet in front of her for-now pristine apron.
“You have to make sure it goes on the dull side because if you put it on the shiny side, it will stick and it will rip and you ain’t got crust no more.”
The Sister Pie baker started her pie-baking process by covering 20 raw crusts. All pies made at the West Village bakery begin this way — with Bogan adding beans on top of the foil to weigh down the crust as it bakes at 425 degrees.
“This way, the crust won’t expand, and it will hold its shape,” the 21-year-old says knowingly.
On a recent morning, the slender baker (she credits her high metabolism) from Detroit is whipping up sweet beet, honey lemon meringue, red hot chocolate and salted maple, a staple on the chalkboard menu. March flavors include the sweet beet, banana pete and malted lime — all available for one of Sister Pie’s busiest days: Pi Day on March 14. (Observers honor the mathematic constant 3.14 by indulging in pie.)
Before starting two years ago, Bogan admits the closest she came to baking was buying bake-and-break cookies from the freezer section.
“I watched my grandmother make sweet potato pies a lot from scratch, but I still didn’t know how to bake a pie,” she adds. “Everything I know now is all because of Lisa.”
That would be Sister Pie owner Lisa Ludwinski, who was named a James Beard Award Outstanding Baker semifinalist last month. The 33-year-old Milford native began in her parent’s kitchen, selling to friends and family, before winning the $50,000 Hatch Detroit contest, raising $25,000 through a 24-hour dance-a-thon and opening the brick-and-mortar Sister Pie in April 2015.
Her triple bottom line mission supports the environment, employees and economy. Efforts like a new Pie-It-Forward initiative — where a $4.24 donation gifts a pie slice to someone — is one way the bakery gives back.
Ludwinski also gave Bogan, unemployed at the time, a chance when she inquired about the “dishwasher for hire” sign on the door.
Bogan spent four months washing bowls and spoons. Every so often, Ludwinski asked her to pull cookies from the oven.
“It made me feel like the head chef,” Bogan beams.
When the New Year rolled around, Ludwinski encouraged her staff to write a resolution. Bogan accomplished hers — to bake in the kitchen.
“Going from dishwasher to baker, it took a couple steps to get to where I’m at now, but I’m here,” she says.
She laughs as she remembers the first pie filling she made — the No. 1 selling salted maple.
“It calls for 12 cups of maple syrup. I think I put like 26 cups,” she says, shaking her head at the mistake. “(Lisa) made me sit there, break it down, do the math, do it all over again.”
That doesn’t happen anymore, but that doesn’t mean all pies are perfect.
“Like the other day, I left the salted maple pie in the oven, and I just burnt it!” she says. “I’m glad all it was was an ‘oh no.’ And (Lisa) laughed it off.”
Running into the kitchen to check something, Ludwinski pauses to sing Bogan’s pie praises.
“Tianna is better at all of this than I am,” she laughs. “She’s very precise, and she picked up these skills like no one I’ve ever seen before.”
A sisterly bakery
While the James Beard news may have attracted more sweet tooths to the shop, decorated like a cozy breakfast nook with potted plants, it hasn’t changed what goes into making the pies, scones and best-selling buckwheat chocolate chip cookies.
“It’s just good pressure to keep doing what we’re doing,” Ludwinski says. “We want to just focus on the staff here and our product, and that’s what’s important.”
Ludwinski majored in theater at Kalamazoo College, then moved to New York to pursue that field. But as she explains, standing at a high-top wooden table, her hair tucked in a red and white striped bandana, she got “very distracted” by food.
She started filming a cooking show in her apartment, setting her laptop atop the refrigerator and recording herself making a recipe each week.
“It was like merging the passions I had — both theater and food — and from there, I just got really into it,” she says.
She returned to Michigan in 2012 and worked at a few bakeries, learning through experience like most of the 14 women Sister Pie staffers.
“We have a mix of people who went to culinary school and people who also hadn’t really cooked much before, like Tianna,” she says. “We’re all drawing from our different experiences to create what Sister Pie is.”
The name, by the way, is a nickname she and her younger sister, Sarah Ludwinski, the inventory manager, call each other.
“It’s a term of endearment, like ‘Hey, sister pie!’ ” Lisa says.
Manager Anji Barto says she’s often confused for Ludwinski’s sister, perhaps because they finish each other’s sentences. She also posts #anjigrams on the 30,000 follower Instagram account.
“I call her my sister from another mister,” Barto laughs, typing in the basement, as someone pounds dough above.
“Sister Pie speaks to our sisterhood environment we have here and the community spirit we want to evoke,” Ludwinski says.
Take the Pie-It-Forward slices.
“It could be for someone who’s in need of food, someone who has come to the shop for the first time and has never tried a beet pie before — and doesn’t want to do it on their dollar — or it could be because you forgot your wallet at home,” Ludwinski explains, as a man buys a Pie-It-Forward paper.
“That’s how I had my first slice of pie. I tried their signature salted maple,” says Keith Harbin of Ypsilanti, pinning the paper to a bulletin for anyone to grab. “I loved it so much I figured somebody else should try it, too.”
Using fresh ingredients from Eastern Market and local farms like Coriander Kitchen and Farm in Detroit, Ludwinski bases the flavors on the season.
“We don’t make apple pie in May; we make it in September and October,” she says, adding that she likes to incorporate alternative flours, herbs, cheeses, nuts and floral elements like lavender and rose. She’s now working on a cookbook that will debut next year.
She doesn’t hesitate to name her all-time favorite pie: cranberry crumble — the first Sister Pie pie, featuring Michigan cranberries, orange zest, and a crumble topping with oats and brown sugar.
“ It’s very tart and delicious,” she says. “A lot of people haven’t had a cranberry pie before — they think it’s just plain cranberry — but there’s nothing plain about it.”
Not always as easy as pie
Back in the kitchen, Bogan has filled the egg-brushed crusts and popped them back in the oven, taking them out every eight minutes to jiggle.
The hardest part, she says, is judging the timing.
“There’s no set time on baking pies,” she says. “You’ve got to know what they look like, what the consistency has to be.” Call it pie intuition. “It’s just something you have to know.”
The salted maple, for example, should have a Jell-O consistency when given a little shake. Whereas the honey lemon and sweet beet are “very sensitive,” she says.
“You gotta keep checking them,” she says. “Honey lemon is a tricky pie. The second it’s done and you let it keep going in the oven, it will curdle.”
Then there’s the chocolate pie, which looks melted in the oven, but turns into a fudge texture once cooled.
“Those you really have to make sure it’s done because you don’t want to serve nobody chocolate pudding!” Bogan jokes.
Pulling a tray out halfway, she inspects the filling. Not done yet.
“You don’t want it to be wet,” she points out. “You don’t want it to look like you’re in a swimming pool, and there’s a wave about to occur. When the edges are firm and bouncing back, it’s done.”
The dark chocolate-cayenne pepper-caramel-honey-filled pie is delicious, Brogan promises, but she’s a sucker for summer pies.
“We have a ginger peach with a biscuit topping, and it’s soooo goooood,” she says. “Or the strawberry pistachio crumble. That is like life itself in a pie tin.”
Pi Day at Sister Pie
Order pies by Friday
$28 for 9-inch pies
$3.14 per slice on March 14 (normally $4)
8066 Kercheval, Detroit
8 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Fridays
9 a.m. to sold out Saturdays-Sundays