Feb 05 2013

A Pie Revelation

If I were to hazard a guess as to how many times I've talked about 4 and 20 Blackbirds, or how many hunger pangs I've felt thinking about their pies, the numbers would seem ludicrous to you — unless you yourself have eaten a slice at 4&20 (or live close to the pie shop, as we used to). Then, you'd understand.

If you talk to me long enough, the conversation will inevitably turn to food. While living in Brooklyn, if I felt a conversation starting to lull, I frequently would direct it to one of my favorite topics: pie. And that would lead to talking about one of my favorite places to eat pie, the aforementioned 4 and 20 Blackbirds.

Brooklyn's 4 and 20 Blackbirds has an unassuming storefront on an ugly, busy stretch of 3rd Avenue. While the shop's close proximity to a subway station is certainly a plus, it's hard to be in the mood for pie when walking about the Gowanus Canal and its network of loud, dirty roads. When I'd stop in for a slice and find not a single seat available, I'd sometimes eat my pie on the bench outside of the store, facing the traffic. And as annoyed as I would be when I first sat down, every time I had my first bite of pie, the noise quieted and all of my attention and senses were directed to the plate on my lap.

Founding sisters Melissa and Emily Elsen make creative pies with a rustic, clean sensibility. The common theme among their pies is seasonality with the addition of a strong flavor component, whether an herb or unexpected aromatic (such as rosemary honey shoofly or cranberry sage). While I enjoyed their seasonal fruit pies, including a stellar strawberry, each time I pushed the shop's door open, I'd squint up to the chalkboard in hopes that I'd see one of my two favorites listed: black-bottomed oatmeal or salty honey.

Justin was the first to order the salty honey pie, simply out of curiosity. It's hard to forget the look on his face after his first bite: alternatively incredulous, confused, and utterly content. I immediately scooted his dish over to me, took a small bite, and promptly experienced the same rush of feelings his face had registered a few seconds earlier.

Salty honey pie is a revelation. This pie melds the nuanced sweetness of honey into a firm custardy texture, and just when your mouth has had enough sweet, the sea salt sprinkled on top chimes in, surprising your tastebuds, and necessitating the need for another bite to try and understand how the opposing flavors work together.

Portland's pie shops are excellent. I feel spoiled in my choices of Lauretta Jean's (my personal favorite), Random Order, or Pacific Pie Company. So spoiled in fact, that I had stopped lusting over the memory of that salty honey pie... until I went to Sweedeedee for a late lunch and spotted a freshly baked honey pie in their pastry case. All my memories of 4 and 20 flooded back, and though I hadn't been in the mood for pie, I felt compelled to order a slice. Sweedeedee's honey pie is excellent: the custard is less firm than 4 and 20's and the dough is softer, but it's certainly a crave-worthy pie, and one that I'll seek out in the future.

Inspired by the merging of my memories of 4 and 20's pie and the recent slice from Sweedeedee, I researched a salty honey pie to make at home. Just a few clicks later, I found the recipe to 4 and 20's salty honey pie, and several days later, loyally recreated it.

My pie isn't an exact bite-for-bite replication of their pie, but it's an excellent homage. The custard is as thick as I remember and the flavor just as rich as before. I'm still working on the consistency of my pie dough: I used Deb's recipe again, but this time I fear I rolled the dough too thinly. Once again, the dough's flavor was spot-on, but the texture was less so. (A work in progress, if ever there was one...)

If you've eaten at 4 and 20 Blackbirds, then you've probably skipped to the end of this post already and have started scanning your pantry for ingredients. And if you haven't, but are intrigued by this recipe, I wish I could see the expression on YOUR face when you take your first bite.

Salty Honey Pie

By Melissa and Emily Elsen of 4 and 20 Blackbirds

Recipe Source: Courtesy of the South Brooklyn Post

Makes one 9-inch custard pie.


  • 1/2 c butter melted
  • 3/4 c white sugar
  • 2 Tbsp white cornmeal (I used yellow cornmeal here)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3/4 c honey
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 c cream
  • 2 tsp white vinegar
  • 1 tsp vanilla paste (if you can't find vanilla paste, substitute 1 tsp vanilla extract)
  • 1 or 2 tbs flake sea salt for finishing (Maldon is a good choice)


Preheat oven to 350F. Have prepared one pre-baked pie shell of your choice. Here's a link to the crust I used.

All of the mixing can be done by hand, or with an electric mixer.

  1. Melt butter and combine with the sugar, salt and cornmeal to make a thick paste. Add the honey, vanilla and vinegar and mix together. Fold in the eggs, add the cream and blend.
  2. Pour the filling into a pre-baked pie shell and bake at 350 F for 45 to 60 minutes. The filling will puff up like a marshmallow and the center will be just slightly wobbly.
  3. Once cooled (at least one hour), finish with a sprinkling of flake sea salt. Slice and serve with freshly whipped cream.