Sweet or savory, fruit or meat, pie is an unmistakable part of the Midwestern holiday table, and it’s the source of many a fond memory – especially for lifelong bakers in the northwest suburbs.

Pie Stories: A Taste of Grandmother’s House

Few things light up our holiday memories quite as strongly as a beautiful banquet, and for many an area baker holiday thoughts are filled with the sweet taste of Grandmother’s pie. We caught up with four talented bakers who mused about the power of this humble pastry.

Sweet or savory, fruit or meat, pie is an unmistakable part of the Midwestern holiday table, and it’s the source of many a fond memory – especially for lifelong bakers in the northwest suburbs.

As our thoughts turn to the Christmas season, they also turn to those wonderful holiday meals. What better way to conclude a holiday feast than with a slice of warm, homemade pie?

No matter what type you prefer, you can pretty much assume your holiday meal will end with some sort of pie.

We’ve found four bakers in our area who share their love for the sweet treat along with some baking memories. Some chefs are inspired by a family member’s recipe, while others learned from their neighbors or an experienced chef.

The result is a pastry made with love and spirit, just in time for the holiday season.

Mother Knows Best

David Bogash has been baking pies for 40 years, but by far his fondest memories of the pastry involve his mother.

“My mom is the one who originally taught me how to make pie,” says Bogash, manager and head chef at The Atrium Cafe, located inside The Little Traveler, in Geneva. “She was an excellent baker. When you eat a piece, it’s like nostalgia because you always remember how good it tastes.

I think cooking brings back a lot of memories and tradition.”

His grandmother was also a renowned baker; it was she who taught Bogash to use lard, or pig fat, in the crust.

“That’s supposed to bring out the best texture in a pie crust, and I think it does,” Bogash says. “Lard makes a flakier crust, and I always add a touch of butter for flavor.”

Bogash is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, located in New York State. He also has a business degree from Monmouth College, in Monmouth, Ill.

After school, he worked at the former Mill Race Inn and the former Twin-Dor restaurants in Geneva. He also served as the chef at Art & Alma’s Century Inn, in nearby Burlington, for almost 25 years before he arrived at The Little Traveler five years ago.

“Cooking is just something that I love to do,” he says. “Maybe it’s because of the memories. When my mom used to make her apple pie, she’d always make me my own, personal, baby apple pie. To me, nothing beats a homemade pie.”

If you have in mind a fruit combination, chances are Bogash can create it. If you give him a 24-hour notice, he can make it however you want it.

He also enjoys eating the dish, even when he’s not making it; pecan pie with vanilla ice cream is his personal favorite.

But if there’s one pie he loves to make above all others, well, that’s another story.

“I do like making a combination pie with apple, blueberry and cherries,” he says. “Now, that’s good.”

Bogash enjoys watching the responses he gets when serving pie. Each year around the holidays, Bogash bakes one for each employee at The Little Traveler.

“I think there are more than 100 employees, and along with the holiday pies, I think I baked 170 pies from scratch within a three-day period last year,” he says with a laugh.

Perhaps the greatest satisfaction, though, is seeing dessert coming out of the oven.

“The smell, the look, the anticipation and all of your hard work is right there in front of you,” he says. “The greatest drawback, however, is that you have to wait for it to cool. You have to wait 30 minutes before you can dig in to it, so it can cool and so the filling can congeal up a little bit. Until then, you just have to look at it and drool.”

Memories of Millie

As owner of Ella Bonella, a bake shop in Barrington, Andrew Mansour believes he holds a duty to the classic American pie.

“It’s an American tradition, and I think it’s worth putting in the effort to make a product worthy of that tradition,” he says. “I love making people happy through pie.”

Mansour’s appreciation for good pie began when his English-born grandmother showed up every Thanksgiving with freshly baked pumpkin, pecan and apple pies for the family. But it was his Wheaton neighbor, Millie Stebel, who turned his love for pie into a passion.

“Millie was a northern Minnesota farm girl. My grandmother used Crisco, but Millie used lard,” Mansour says. “Until I had Millie’s pie, I really didn’t know how good a pie could be.”

Millie died in 1998, but her memory and her baking live on.

“I did find a recipe that’s very, very similar to Millie’s, and that’s what we use here at the bakery,” Mansour says.

Mansour has also used the recipe at the now-closed Frank’s Karma Café in Wauconda. That’s where he realized how something as simple as pie could have a profound effect on the people who ate it.

“We put it on the menu, and we had customers telling us that was the best pie they’ve ever had,” Mansour says. “We also sold it at local farmers markets and we were a hit at every place we went.”

For 12 years now, each of Mansour’s homemade pies has been made following the same methods.

“For our apple pies, we peel fresh apples, local whenever possible,” he says. “Our cream pies are made with an old-school, stovetop custard that’s made in small batches.”

Mansour doesn’t have a culinary background, but he believes passion is a pretty good substitute.

“I learned so much on my own,” he says. “For me, the thought of sitting in a classroom would take a lot of the heart and soul out of what I do.”

Mansour always seeks out the freshest ingredients, so his pies are constantly changing with the seasons.

“We probably won’t have a blueberry in October, and you won’t find apple in July,” he says. “I only do strawberry rhubarb in the spring, when it’s fresh, because I get the rhubarb directly from the grower. The same goes with the blueberries. So, when the rhubarb and blueberries are gone, I’m done with them for the season.”

Making pies from scratch can be challenging, but Mansour wouldn’t have it any other way.

“This gig is tough because I don’t take any shortcuts,” he says. “We don’t use any machines to make or roll the crust, so the hours are long, but when people tell us how much they like our pies, all the work feels worthwhile.”

Creating Award-Winning Pie

At Royal Oak Farm, in Harvard, crafting a new pie involves a lot of trial and error.

“This is something that you learn on your own,” says Renee Norton, bakery manager at this family-owned apple orchard.

Norton, who’s been working in the farm’s bakery for about 15 years, also uses some tricks from her mother, Gloria, who’s 82 and has been making pies since she was a teenager.

“My grandmother was also an amazing pie maker. Just incredible,” Norton says. “We have a long line of pie makers in our family.”

Alongside Norton are two additional bakers who craft the desserts that are served up at Royal Oak Farm every fall and holiday season. None have culinary experience; everything is self-taught. Their hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Royal Oak Farm’s salted caramel apple pie recently won a contest hosted by the McHenry County Historical Society.

“This pie is something that we’ve been working on for a while,” Norton says. “We wanted to come up with a unique, signature pie so we wanted to try salted caramel. The caramel is made from scratch, and so is the pie. You get the soft, yummy apples, the crunchiness of the top portion and the salted caramel. We wanted to come up with something that’s unique and something you could only get here.”

Norton and her staff can create 13 varieties of the pastry dish from scratch.

“They’re really good, and people will literally buy 10 to 12 at a time,” Norton says. “We do a lot of experimenting here, and we’re always trying new things.”

This time of year, customers are purchasing pumpkin pies by the carload, jokes Norton. But even through the busy times, the staff remains in tune with its art.

“This is what we do here,” Norton says. “We have a system that works, people know what to do and we have stuff prepared for the times when we’re really busy.”

Learning From the Very Best

Raymond Shaughnessy doesn’t think of himself as a professional baker, but his skills say otherwise. He currently serves as executive chef of The Fountains at Crystal Lake, a senior living community in Crystal Lake.

With no trace of a recipe and music playing in the background of the kitchen, he quickly rolls out a pie crust from scratch, cuts the dough, makes a filling and assembles a steak-filled potpie with a flaky crust. After several minutes in the oven, out comes a hot, golden-brown savory dish.

“I’ve been doing this for more than 40 years,” Shaughnessy says with a laugh. “I just go spur-of-the-moment because I know what ingredients should be included in the dish.”

Each day, residents at The Fountains line up for a piece of Shaughnessy’s sweet and savory pastries.

“The residents here go nuts over pie, and I really enjoy making pies for them,” Shaughnessy says. “I can be creative and I can make them some delicious pie. But, the other people who work here have the same creativity and talent that I do.”

Shaughnessy was the food service director when he started at The Fountains 25 years ago. He left for awhile and just returned five years ago. Throughout his career he’s received culinary training in a number of settings.

When he was 16, Shaughnessy traveled the world with various movie companies, including EMI Films and Paramount Pictures. By the time he was 25, he was the executive director for a local country club and a fine dining restaurant.

“When I worked with those chefs, everything they made was baked from scratch,” he says. “I just watched them and learned from them, and that’s where I got my creativity.”

Shaughnessy says he enjoys baking because he likes being creative and making others happy.

“A great pie maker really takes the time to create what they are making,” he says. “A lot of those chefs are gifted and artistic.”

Perhaps Shaughnessy’s favorite pies to bake involve those with more than one type of delicious fruit, such as a cranberry-peach combination.

“That combination is so delicious,” he says. “That’s a popular combo that I learned to make awhile back. It’s a really good one.”

Whether it’s part of a holiday feast with loved ones or a sweet indulgence by oneself, Shaughnessy believes a nice piece of pie is the perfect way to finish any meal.

“You’re always looking for something sweet afterwards,” he says. “A nice pie goes with the ambiance of your meal. If you go to your mother’s or grandmother’s house, chances are you’re probably looking for that pie.”