Among Pie’s Upper Crust

5 mins read

Pie is humble by its very nature. Although historians doubt that she ever uttered “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” or words to that effect, Marie Antoinette would not have suggested that starving peasants eat pie, because she was too stuck-up.

While more formal baked goods suggest extravagance, pie promises solid, All-American comfort. And in these troubled times, it’s no wonder that Annika Corbin’s I LIKE PIE, located at 38 S. Raymond, hits the proverbial sweet spot.

Not surprisingly, Forbes named I LIKE PIE one of its “7 Essential Pie Shops to Visit,” with Fodor’sTravel following suit, naming I LIKE PIE as one of the 10 best pie shops in America.

Grace Anne Teal
Annika Corbin. Photo: I Like Pie

Founder Corbin is a Michigan-born entrepreneur and passionate baker with electric-blue eyes and a ready smile. She opened her original I LIKE PIE location in Claremont a decade ago, but says, “My heart is in Pasadena. We first opened in Claremont because it felt so real, and reminded me of the Midwest, where I’m from. But I’m stubborn, and I always had my eye on Pasadena.” This location celebrates its one-year anniversary in mid-November.

Mini’s, jelly-jar style pies without the jar, and hand-pies, sort of like an empanada, are this shop’s signature, although ILP also offers 10-inch pies, too. The singles are about the size of a standard cupcake, but are more substantial, and more satisfying. “We’re about anything in a crust,” Corbin explains.

While the pies are primarily dessert fare, the menu includes a few savories that are just right for the first chilly evenings of autumn. The Chicken Pot pie is melt-in-your-mouth, gorgeous, down-home eating, the perfect meal for one alongside a salad of crisp, chilled, dark greens au vinaigrette and a glass of cold Sauvignon Blanc. The crust is buttery, flaky, fork-tender, but structured enough to firmly contain the pie contents. The filling is perfectly seasoned (just enough salt) and juicy, loaded with bite-sized, choice chicken morsels and finely cut veggies that retain their crunch and color in a creamy, saucy base with velvety mouthfeel.

Also ready for a quick warm-up: Veggie pie, Spicy Potato hand-pie, and Turkey Gravy with Harvest Stuffing pie. Shepherd’s pie, made with ground turkey, will soon be available. Some of these pies, like Caramel Apple and Mixed Berry, are available in both vegan and gluten-free options. Other autumnal favorites Pumpkin and Butter Pecan, as well as the tangy Key Lime, are also available gluten-free.

A selection of Corbin’s Autumn seasonal pies. Photo: I Like Pie

Corbin launched her Claremont location during the cupcake rage, and attributes some of her success to the very nature of pie vs. cake. “Cake has a surface appeal,” she says, “while pie is a different mood. It’s more grounded, more centered, subtler, less flashy.”

She explains that another part of the appeal is that her individual pies make for neater portions than cutting the traditional wedge from a large pie, making them easier to eat and ideal for parties where guests may be balancing plates on their knees, or catered corporate events where sloppy dining may be perceived as a career hazard.

“The good news about pie,” says Corbin, “is that the ingredients are mostly pantry items. So we haven’t encountered a lot of supply-chain issues, thankfully.” She says good pie-making takes a lot of practice, but it’s not complicated. This correspondent suggests intensive field-research at Corbin’s counter to establish baking goals.

Given the charming plainness of pie, quality ingredients are literally the secret sauce. Only fresh, raw apples go into the Caramel Apple, and she never substitutes squash for pumpkin as some bakers do. Corbin has a thing for the sour cherries that grow abundantly in her home state, and so she eschews the canned variety when making her Tart Cherry Pie, instead choosing IQF — Individually Quick Frozen — cherries, the gold standard in the industry.

The quality of the ingredients equates to intensity of flavor, and as a result Corbin’s sweet pies are not overly saccharine.

In December, she’ll offer her festive red-and-white Cherries Jubilee pie with zingy cinnamon crumble topping. In summer, she whips up a seasonal pie that’s her take on the iconic Good Humor strawberry shortcake ice cream bar.

The quality of the ingredients equates to intensity of flavor, and as a result Corbin’s sweet pies are not overly saccharine. The authenticity of ripe fruit, whole eggs, dairy butter, pastry cream, grains and spices override the easier, cheaper sugar-rush that’s the currency of less inspired baking.

In low-end pies, the combination of synthetic preservatives, artificial colors, and lab-fab flavors with no knowledge of rain, sun, seasons or soil renders something that feels, tastes and smells, at least to me, like melted crayons. “Shelf-life is the enemy of quality baked goods,” says Corbin. “Think about those very affordable, mass-produced pies that sit out in grocery stores at room temperature for weeks, marked with a 30-day expiration date. What it takes for a pie to resist the elements for so long is also what strips a lot of the soul from the food and the eating experience.”

When asked about her favorite, she says “All of my pies are like children to me, and I love them equally. But I really love our Strawberry Rhubarb, because rhubarb reminds me a lot of home and of Michigan, and that pie is not easy to get right.”

In the new year, she’ll be offering baking classes, team-building events and more. Meanwhile, sampling and nation-wide shipping are attracting pie-lovers like forks to a shared marshmallow-y S’mores or gently warmed Chocolate Chip Chess Pie. Soon, shipping options will include a monthly and quarterly pie subscription service. 

“Rhubarb reminds me a lot of home and of Michigan, and that pie is not easy to get right.”

Annika Corbin

I digress – I had to ask, too. “Chess” in this sense has nothing to do with the board game. And I’ve since been schooled by several friends from Southern states who offer various explanations for the origin of the gooey, yummy, vanilla-and-vinegar (to cut the sweetness) Chess filling, sometimes thickened with flour, cornmeal, or both.

Possible explanations offered: this Southern staple evolved from cheese pies made by English and early American colonists using cheese curds and custard—the name trailed behind the recipe and morphed slightly in the process. Another explanation: pies were kept in “pie-chests,” so the name is just a softened pronunciation of “chest.” My favorite, from a New Orleans-born friend: “People ask me what I’m baking tomorrow and I just tell them, I don’t know yet, it’s jest – or ches’— pie.”

The Raymond Street setting captures the Pasadena vibe, put through the lens of Corbin’s own understated elegance. She has thankfully steered clear of anything faux-country, cutesy, or pink. The space is made for lingering over coffees and teas along with the pies. Thick, cool marble tabletops and window-bar in natural white and gray establish a deluxe – but not, to use Corbin’s word, obnoxious – presence.

Dark-enameled baroque clawfoot pedestals offset the modern rectilinear marble slabs, complemented by comfortable seating of straw-colored wovens. A subdued floral pattern in neutral tones plays across the wall for an inviting welcome.

Open until 10 PM Friday and Saturday, and 8 PM Sundays, I LIKE PIE is a habit-forming evening pitstop after dinner, movie or theater, and other than holidays, the doors open again at 11 AM for that first bite of warm, late-morning pie.

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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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