Chef News

Shauna Lott Harman on Crust, Community and Long I Pie

Shauna Lott Harman's Long I Pie turns out some delicious fall choices.
Shauna Lott Harman's Long I Pie turns out some delicious fall choices. Courtesy of Shauna Lott Harman
In the four years since Shauna Lott Harman launched Long I Pie, the business has gone through a number of iterations. What started as a social enterprise run out of a tricked-out Airstream trailer expanded into a full-fledged bakery at the Temple, a former synagogue in Curtis Park that houses a number of artistic endeavors. “It just didn’t work out,” says Harman of the latter gig, so she pulled out and moved to the tiny kitchen at Fort Greene in Globeville. “I love this place — I got married here,” she says. She has since contracted her offerings, baking pies plus a few special-occasion cakes when customers request them. This has given her time to focus on teaching classes as well as a pair of other ventures: an event planning company called the Convivialist, and a forthcoming supper club. We recently sat down with Harman to talk about her grandma’s pies, the secret to a perfect crust, and why community is so important when it comes to food.

Westword: How did you get into the pie business?

Shauna Lott Harman: I was a social worker for ten years. In my last position, I was working with youth and refugee families living with HIV, and I was seeing an employment gap. During that time, I was also grieving the loss of my grandma — she’s the one who taught me to make pie. So I started making pies for my friends, and they’d say, “These are really good, we’ve never had pie this good. Maybe you should start a business.” I wanted a social enterprise so I could help youth and people on the margins who had barriers to employment. This was all in 2013. I launched [Long I Pie] that summer at the Fellow magazine opening party. I built out an Airstream to do a food truck and started taking interns from around town from organizations like Urban Peak. Eventually, people who were mentoring kids started contacting me.
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Courtesy of Shauna Lott Harman
Wow — is the social-enterprise piece still a major focus?

That’s the million-dollar question. I’m having a really hard time making a food business that’s not a nonprofit into a functional socially hiring business. Most [operations like Long I Pie] in town can get grants because they’re nonprofit. That’s the struggle: I’ve never been able in four years to launch a paid program. People in poverty need money. It’s hard to keep an intern around unless they’re in some sort of program where a nonprofit grant pays for them to be there, and the city cut most of those. I have another business in event planning called the Convivialist. I do stuff with that, too. The event business has a high profit margin. I hope that I could hire in a social way in that business. I can teach front-of-the-house skills; I can teach how to set up a table, how to greet people at the door, how to make decor, how to do floral arrangements.

Tell me more about baking with your grandma.

My grandma was a second mom to me. After I launched the business, my mom was like, go through these keepsakes and pick what you want and we’re trashing the rest. I’m a first-born, so they kept everything. In first grade, my class had all compiled these how-tos. Mine was how to make pie. My earliest memory of making pie comes from when I was about five, at my grandma’s house. I used her pie-crust recipe, adjusted for Colorado. It’s an all-butter crust; I’m against using cheaters like apple-cider vinegar or vodka to make a flaky crust. She would use fresh fruit, not jelled canned filling, and that’s what I do, too. I get fruit from farms during the season, and I bake with fruit that’s in season — right now, that’s nectarines and stone fruits, but not cherries anymore. People have a hard time with that sometimes. They want cherry pie in November, but I’m not willing to do that. My mom and grandma were huge bakers and gardeners, and they used as many fresh ingredients as possible.

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Courtesy of Shauna Lott Harman
Any favorite childhood flavors that have made their way onto your menu?

It was a lot of fruit pies growing up. My favorite pie is on our menu. It’s called Grandma’s Pie because my grandma made it for all holidays; it’s a spiced apple-cranberry. There’s a sweetness in it with the apple, but also the tartness of cranberry, and spice with the baking spices. I think I take that mentality into making pie flavors; I try to have a flavor profile of at least three things. Sweetness is a given. With the salted honey lavender, you also get an herbal flavor and sea salt. There’s a trifecta of flavor. I also never use corn syrup; my sweetener is always brown sugar or honey. With fruit pies, I use the least amount of sugar possible. People over-sugar because they’re not using good fruit. But if you just let fruit speak for itself, it’ll speak for itself.

What’s the secret to a perfect flaky pie crust? How long did it take you to master it?

I teach classes on this, and I always say, I don’t want to go against Martha Stewart on baking, but she says pea-sized butter chunks; I tell people marble-sized chunks cut with a butter cutter. It’s a foolproof way to not overtax your dough. If you want that croissant flakiness, you have to have bigger butter chunks, and the butter needs to be as cold as possible. That’s how you get those layers of flour, butter, flour to get that flake. I learned this when I was younger, and I did it right on the first go-round when I started making pie again — and there was a long stretch when I never made pie. Some people say it’s an internal thing — you just know the texture and touch. Maybe I had muscle memory from when I was little. It didn’t take me long.

You do classes in cast-iron baking. Why cast iron?

Pie in cast iron bakes evenly, with a crispier, flakier crust all the way around. If you use glass or ceramic, a lot of times you get a soggy bottom, and you won’t have the nice, hearty crust all the way around.

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Courtesy of Shauna Lott Harman
What are you seeing in the Denver food industry right now, and what would you like to see more of?

I feel like I see a lot of collaboration among farmers and chefs, or distilleries and brewers and chefs, but not a lot of collaboration among chefs. I like collaboration. My dream scenario would be doing an event with multiple chefs doing multiple courses and learning to collaborate. Living in a kitchen can be very isolating. I have more community with food writers or beverage people than other people who are actually in the kitchen. I wanted to start a bakery guild like they had in San Francisco back in the day. Then all of us who were doing that stuff could be together and talk about recipes. What I have a hard time with — and have been having an extremely hard time with recently, as restaurants have been opening and closing like crazy — is the competitiveness. Food has always been a community kind of thing to me. Maybe that’s from social work and working in kitchens and food banks. For me, being in business is a lot about community. That’s also why I’m drawn toward pie: It was the working person’s blue-collar dessert back in the day, and you savored it. We had pie so often at my grandma’s house; we’d cut one pie, eat it, play cards, and just hang out for hours. I believe firmly that if we could get a lot of people around a table eating, we might even have world peace. Food is a beautiful medium to connect with other human beings.

Are you working on anything to bring that community together?

I’m launching a Sunday supper club this fall. We’ll hold them around town. Sometimes I’ll make the food, and sometimes other chefs will. Some will be a giveback; we’ll have a nonprofit come sit at the table. Sometimes it might be an artist, musician or writer, and we’ll strike some interesting conversation at the table. Ultimately, I’d like to have a couple a month and help people as a hired service throw dinner parties in their home. Eight to twelve around the table is my sweet spot, though we’ll probably do some bigger ones. I think we could get twenty at a long table in the Fort. We’ll launch guerrilla-style and pass out membership cards. My hope is that people will gain the same love for sitting around the table that I have.

What’s always in your fridge or pantry?

I always have pie ingredients in the house, though I don’t bake that often at home. So butter and flour. I always have fresh herbs: thyme, basil, rosemary. Our fridge right now is full of veggies. What I make here is dough-based, so at home we eat way more fresh. We go to the farmers’ market and get a load of veggies, fresh herbs, butter and flour and salt. We also have a very large liquor cabinet, plus ginger beer and tonic water in the fridge.

Go-to late-night snack?

Lately, hummus and veggies. Or a charcuterie board. Popcorn.

How about a shift drink?

In the summer, I like gin — so a good Negroni. In the winter, it’s whiskey — a Manhattan or an Old-Fashioned.

Long I Pie
321 East 45th Avenue
(inside Fort Greene Bar)
Hours: 5 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk