Emily and Melissa Elsen's Four & Twenty Blackbirds Make Gowanus a Pie Destination
Photo by Joshua Kristal
Article by Sandra Nygaard
Once upon a time there were two sisters from Helca, South Dakota, population 214, just miles from North Dakota, who decided to make their way in Brooklyn. Armed with Granny Liz’s pie recipes and years of work experience in the family diner back home, the young sisters opened a little pie shop on a somewhat desolate block of the funky industrial zone that is Gowanus, between Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, at Third Avenue and Eighth Street.
Their aim was modest: To feature pies made from scratch in a little café serving coffees and teas. They opened Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Spring 2010. By October, Bon Appetit named Four & Twenty Blackbirds one of the 10 best pie makers in America and the sisters were featured in Martha Stewart Living. By Thanksgiving there was an hour-long wait and a line down the block beginning at 7 a.m., for three days in a row, for holiday pies. The sisters made 400 Thanksgiving pies and sold out by 9 a.m., all three days.
This is some hot pie.
By Christmas 2010, the Elsens were making 80 pies a day. Media coverage included stories in The New York Times. The attention surpassed their expectations and those of their dubious neighbors on 3rd Avenue.
“The plumber on 3rd Ave used to ask us, “Ya busy? Ya got business?,” laughs Emily.
By coincidence or calculation, Emily and Melissa Elsen have tapped into a nexus of truth and quality that Brooklynites are obsessed with today–everything is hand made, recipes are old, ingredients are local, specially sourced, and unusual, and, in that age-old secret to exclusivity in any town, but especially in New York, there’s a very limited supply of everything.
As Four & Twenty’s website says: “We are a very small kitchen with one oven. We make everything by hand. Even the crust.
“A limited number of whole pies are made to order each week. Orders are taken during business hours, ‘on a first come first served basis.'”
Pie in America, for decades, has been restricted to Autumnal fare: It’s the final act to obsessively orchestrated holiday dinners, the reason you demur from the second helping of potatoes at dinner, your motive to stay for coffee. By March, pie has quietly receded from most dessert menus, awaiting its next chance to shine. For the Elsens, there is no ” pie season.”
“Pie is timeless — it goes with every season,” says Emily.
Winters bloom with custards, creams and puddings. Rhubarb peaks in spring. Summer months are ripe with berries, apricots and cherries. The fall brings mainstays like apple, pumpkin or sweet potato. For Valentine’s Day, the sisters sell Salted Caramel Apple, their most famous, for $35, as well as a Cranberry Sage for $35, a Salty Honey for $32 and a Chili Chocolate for $32. The 50 or so pies they make throughout the year have spotlighted ingredients like balsamic vinegar and lavender.
The sisters earned their pie making skills back in Helca the old-fashioned way: by doing time in a restaurant called Calico Kitchen, owned by their mother. The menu was classic Midwestern – simple, straightforward and hearty. Their grandmother, Elizabeth, baked the restaurant’s well-loved pies.
Calico Kitchen was the girls’ nexus of community.
“My mother and her siblings had a lot of girls, so we grew up all working there. Our holidays were spent there. Friends from high school worked with us,” Emily said, recalling her close-knit community. “It was a special thing.
“We tried to re-create that a little here.”
Brooklyn style, of course. Four & Twenty Blackbirds is perched on a not-very-small-town corner of Third Avenue, across from a body shop, with the Gowanus Canal (now an EPA Superfund site) serving as a backdrop.
Inside, however, is a cozy oasis.
The restaurant has homespun charm, with tarnished tin walls and wooden beams. Friends helped craft rustic wooden tables surrounded by reclaimed chairs. A hand-painted rug adorns the wood floor. During business hours, the scent of Irving Farm coffee hangs thick in the air.
“We wanted that sort of country feel,” Emily explains. “But not too cluttered.”
The interior complements the simple menu. Pie takes center stage. And perhaps that’s the secret to the shop’s success. Cookies are everywhere. Cupcakes are trendy. Homemade pie is special, somehow, sincere. It is baked into the American subconscious, though surprisingly somewhat scarce in New York City.
“I like what pie is,” says Melissa. “It’s not just confectionery. It goes deeper than that. There are so many things you can do with it.”
The Elsen’s unique creations are influenced by what they like to eat.
“We like aromatics and herbal ingredients or sweet and savory pairings that hit all of the tastes and sensations on the tongue,” says Emily. That translates to combining sage and cranberry or lavender and fresh blueberries. Often it means adding a dash of salt to a sweet recipe, such as the Salty Honey or their most popular creation, the Salty Caramel Apple pie.
“We don’t work with a lot of weird ingredients. For us it’s important to keep it simple and rustic. Approachable. People get excited to try them, and that’s how we feel, too.”
The results, as this writer can attest, are delectable.
The sisters got their start baking pies and tarts for special events in their Crown Heights apartment. They showcased their goods for events at Gowanus Studio Space, a workshop for designers, artists and entrepreneurs, where Emily is a founder and co-director. Emily, a Brooklyn resident for more than a decade, studied sculpture at Pratt Institute. Melissa, who graduated with a degree in finance, joined her in Brooklyn right around the time of the financial crisis. The timing wasn’t great for securing a job, so Melissa spent her energy researching recipes.
Ingredients are a sacred issue. The sisters spoke long and hard over the matter of butter versus lard. In the end, they chose butter. Their grandmother was firm on lard.
“She was adamant about that. She would have never used butter or Crisco,” says Emily of her grandmother.
Lard creates a flakier crust and is easier to work with, but butter is where the flavor lies.
“Butter is just tastier. Lard has an animal taste that kind of leaves a waxy residue in your mouth. Vegetable shortening? I wouldn’t even bother with that. It doesn’t have any flavor and it’s not like it’s any better for you.”
“We’re always trying to update classics and give them a twist,” Melissa said.
Emily is quick to add, “But nothing too crazy. We like to say ‘It’s one bell and it’s one whistle.'”
The Elsens share their recipe for Salty Honey Pie.
Four & Twenty Blackbirds
439 3rd Avenue (corner of 8th St. and 3rd Ave.)
Open Tue-Fri 8am-7pm