I'm not saying I actually had a plan in the works to launch a pie company, but, say, just for the sake of argument, that I did. Well, former teacher and barista Katy Branson stuck a fork in it. First of all, she took my name — Foxy Baking Co. That's exactly what I would call my pie company. Secondly, what's the point of my launching a pie company when Branson is already making such delicious and well-priced confections?
I first encountered Foxy Baking Co. while skipping around on Facebook, but Branson debuted her adorable sticky-footed-fox logo late last year at local farmers' markets downtown and in Woodbine. You might find her soufflé at YOLOS restaurant in Green Hills or her jam bars at Whole Foods in Green Hills, when they hit the shelves later this month.
Soon, you'll see Branson approaching in your rearview mirror, when she gets her refurbished ambulance up and running as a mobile pie wagon. Branson plans to paint it pink and name it "Clara," in honor of American Red Cross founder Clara Barton. "It's better to sell pie out of it than take it to a junkyard," she says of the repurposed vehicle, which formerly served as a shuttle for rescue workers at Ground Zero.
Indeed, Clara the pie ambulance will enjoy a cheerier second life, shuttling around a sweet and savory repertoire of pastries. Working out of the East Nashville kitchen that formerly housed the beloved Dee's Q barbecue stand, the self-trained Branson has concocted a menu of pies, quiches, cakes and breads that make use of local ingredients. Think tomato quiche with Noble Springs goat cheese; greens-and-mushrooms quiche with Kenny's Farmhouse Cheddar; butternut squash pie; and parsnip pie with maple-glazed pecans.
Right now, Branson's favorite recipe is a buttermilk pie made with buttermilk from Hatcher Dairy. But it's hard to imagine a dessert that could top her chocolate-polenta tart. She brought me a couple of slices of that blockbuster recently when we met at a coffee shop to talk about her fledgling business. Branson arrived toting a periwinkle-blue collapsible basket, laden with tiny loaves, individual quiches and other goodies. She pulled a white square cardboard box from the basket and set it on the table. Inside was a sampler of slices, reassembled into a variegated wheel of golden crust and decadent fillings. Plastic fork in hand, I set to work, moving clockwise and intending to eat only the central point of each wedge.
All restraint went out the window with the first bite of chocolate-polenta tart. Unlike the majority of Branson's pies, which are cradled inside a golden flaky crust made with shortening, salt, sugar, flour and a little butter, the chocolate tart employs the coarse cornmeal texture of polenta in both the rich dark filling and the pastry shell. Baked about an hour earlier, the thick crust was still pliable, bending like fresh-from-the-oven biscotti and dissolving across the tongue with a grainy finish and hint of butter. The secret, Branson confides, is the addition of olive oil, which infuses the crust with a faint trace of citrus. Meanwhile, cornmeal stirred into dark chocolate gives the filling an unexpected chewy texture and cuts the intense sweetness.
The next sector on the wheel of decadence was rich custard over a schmear of Nutella hazelnut-chocolate spread. This silky smooth layering of light and dark was the instant favorite among kids who also taste-tested the array of desserts.
Salty, sweet, toasted and gooey, Branson's version of the Southern staple pecan pie (made with dark brown sugar, honey, roasted Georgia pecans and salt) was so far above the ubiquitous Karo syrup-soaked formula that I kept stabbing at the dark-amber filling to figure out how a simple delight could rise to such alluring complexity. The answer: browning the butter. Branson says the extra step adds a new dimension of nuttiness.
In the course of our tour de pie, a couple of friends stopped by the table to see what all the fuss was about, and Branson quickly cut them in on the action. The first to arrive stuck his fork into a cinnamon-tinged sweet potato pie made with Delvin Farms potatoes. Straddling the line between fluffy and custardy, the recipe transformed the traditional autumnal dessert into a flavor fit for spring, with the lively addition of orange peel. ("After the holidays and all the friggin' pumpkin, I wanted to do something a little more lively," Branson said.)
A few minutes later, my friend's 40-plus-weeks pregnant wife joined us. As she surveyed the Foxy Baking sampler, her husband offered a primer on the varieties. "You've had this kind of pie before," he told his spouse as he plunged his fork back into the sweet potato triangle, "but it never tasted anything like this."
Like any reasonable pregnant woman, she went straight for the chocolate. After scraping the fork clean, she asked how to go about ordering a pie for herself. Branson gave her the Foxy details and advised that she often needs 48 hours notice.
"That's perfect. I'll be in the hospital for two days," the mother-to-be said, patting her belly, "and this chocolate pie is the first thing I want to eat when I get out."
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