It's Time to Indulge Yourself with One of Clare Traynor's Fruit Pies
It was a Thursday afternoon, and I had just left the home of baker extraordinaire Clare Traynor with two of her freshly baked pies. Less than an hour ago, the blueberry streusel and strawberry rhubarb were still in Clare's oven, completing the glorious transformation that occurs when fresh fruit turns to pie, soaking the walls of flour and sugar with its sweet nectar.
"Make sure you leave the box open," she instructed, "so the crust doesn't get too moist."
As I pulled out of the driveway of her Pleasant Gap home, I knew there was no way those pies were making it home untouched.
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As with most of my food columns, I have mixed feelings about promoting one of the best-kept dessert secrets in State College. I like to think of Clare as my personal pastry chef; if we hit the lottery, I'd build an addition so she could move her kitchen into my house.
I discovered Clare shortly after I wrote about missing the pumpkin bread at my favorite New York City café, Ciao for Now. In response, Clare sent an e-mail suggesting I try some of her baked good at Webster's. From the first bite, I was sold. [Click on the gallery to see more photos of Clare and her sweet creations.]
Sweet Indulgence Desserts by Clare Traynor has been making pies, wedding cakes, cupcakes, scones and other treats for 22 years. And before you label me a hypocrite, note that she also makes vegan and gluten-free desserts. (OK, so I'm a bit of a hypocrite. The pies I took home were gluten bombs, but I'm fortunate that I can cheat.) If vegan is your preference, she makes a tofu ganache "that's friggin to die for," she says.
Clare's desserts appear in some of my most vivid memories of life in State College. When my son started daycare, I sent heart-shaped carrot-cake bites (a custom-made Clare creation) to celebrate his first Valentine's Day "in school." When I was pregnant with my daughter, I indulged in one of Clare's chocolate mousse pies, then freaked out after I remembered one of its hallmark ingredients: raw eggs. (No harm done.)
Summer is a great time to try Clare's desserts, since local fruit is the star ingredient.
"This is my rhubarb," she says, opening up her freezer, and displaying what remained of a 60-pound purchase, picked this season from a nearby backyard gardener with a prolific, organic heritage crop passed down from his grandfather.
When I arrive, Clare's trusted assistant and friend, Sandy Kitchen – yes, that's her real name – is wrist-deep in pie. She spreads a mixture of frozen rhubarb, strawberry, sugar and tapioca (which gels the fruit together, and prevents a mess when you cut into it) into pie pans that have already been prepared with Clare's homemade crust. Each $14 pie is packed with five cups of fruit.
Sandy opens the oven, and the most amazing smell fills the tiny kitchen. She pulls out a strawberry rhubarb pie, assembled before I arrived, and asks, "Five more minutes? Seven?"
"Eight," Clare replies without hesitation, sounding more like a surgeon than a baker.
Once the pies are stuffed with their gooey contents, Sandy starts the lattice topping, supervised by Clare, who admits to being a "bit persnickety" about her desserts – particularly the lattice, which is old school all the way. Sandy rolls out a 6-ounce circle of dough, then uses a fluted pastry wheel to form strips that are fastidiously weaved on top of the pie.
"You can use a plastic template to punch out the squares, but that's not a real lattice," Clare says, reaching over to pinch an edge of the crust. When the team is finished, globs of strawberry and rhubarb poke through the opening.
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Buying dessert from Clare takes some advanced planning – there's no "running out" to pick something up. But soon you'll be able to grab one of her pies on the fly. "The Pie Hole," a place where Clare's customers can buy slices or entire pies to go, will debut in the new downtown Webster's location, slated for an imminent opening. Visiting The Pie Hole will be like running to the grocery store, she says, "but a better-quality grocery store."
Meanwhile, her desserts can be found at Harrison's Wine Grill, Champs, American Ale House, Faccia Luna, Luna 2 and the Red Horse Tavern in Pleasant Gap. She's also working on a new breakfast item for Callao Cafe and Market, scheduled to open in late August in the old Webster's location at 434 W. Aaron Drive. ("The target opening date is August 22," says owner David Price, "with the operative word being 'target.' ") Similar to an energy bar, "The Soon-to-be-Nearly-Famous Breakfast Cookie" is packed with dates, dried blueberries, oats, pumpkin and sunflower seeds and flaxmeal. They're hoping it'll appeal to both the bicycle crowd and working folks looking for a grab-and-go breakfast that's satisfying and more nutritious than the traditional options.
In my opinion, nothing beats buying direct from Clare, who calls me "sweet pea" and lets me taste her keylime (proving that this particular dessert is a lot better than the name suggests).
The proverbial icing is the relationship that has formed. When I showed up to watch Clare make some pies for this column, I saw pictures of my kids hanging on her refrigerator. She appreciates the fact that my 6-year-old son asks for two desserts on his birthday: the perfunctory super-hero sheet cake from Wegmans for his friend party and a chocolate mousse pie from Clare for his family party. I'd like to think if he could choose just one, he'd go with Clare's.
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In the penultimate step of the strawberry rhubarb, the pies are brushed with Meyer Dairy milk and dusted with sugar.
"I wouldn't have the business I have without Meyer," Clare says. She uses Meyer cream in her chocolate mousse pie, which she believes gives it its intense texture; the flavor coats your tongue long after the contents have disappeared from your mouth.
"Some bakers don't like to use their cream because it changes with the season," she points out. A cow munching on a summertime meal of grass will produce a different product than one eating a winter meal of mostly grain. But Clare has worked with Meyer cream long enough to understand the complexities.
Finally, the pies are placed in Clare's 1934 Magic Chef, 10-burner, two-oven stove, the very piece of equipment that launched Sweet Indulgence.
She discovered the oven at a friend of a friend's home.
"I need this stove!" she told the owner, who replied that she had no immediate plans to sell, but would let her know if that ever changed.
Three years later, in 1989, Clare was sitting in her home when the phone rang. She had just quit her gig as a pastry chef at Hotel State College, and was dying to start her own business.
"Remember me?" said the woman on the other end of the phone. "I'm selling that oven, but we kind of want a lot of money for it. We're asking $150."
Clare started dancing in her kitchen.
You can order pies directly from Clare by calling 359-2655.