Atlantic City Restaurant Week starts Sunday

Durham baker brings sweet and savory pies to market

Phoebe Lawless bags up donut muffins

A cake stand held the remains of the day - two rustic pies, one sweet and the other savory - and it wasn't yet 10:30 a.m.

There was roughly an hour and a half left for shoppers at the Durham Farmers' Market and an unlucky few likely had already gone home empty-handed, without the hybrid sugar-frosted "donutmuffins" or savory pies crafted by baker Phoebe Lawless.

Lawless bagged up two of her baked goodies, one buttermilk, the other chocolate, then called out an order for a cappuccino. Freshly brewed espresso permeated the air with a thick earthy aroma and frothy whoosh.

On an unseasonably warm winter morning, a line formed in front of the tented booth for Scratch Seasonal Artisan Baking, where customers patiently waited for some of the best baked goods in the county.

"Everybody loves the donutmuffins," said market manager Erin Kauffman. "I love the red beet pie. It's salted red beets with cheese. It's really good. It's sweet and savory."

Prepared foods and baked goods make up the 25 percent of the market not allocated to farmers.

"Phoebe had a unique product that we didn't have," Kauffman said. "Everything she uses, she sources locally as much as possible. We look very favorably on products using locally sourced ingredients."

Fall and winter menu items rely heavily on root vegetables and greens, featuring such pie fillings as chorizo-sweet potato or garlicky greens with Asiago cheese. When warmer weather prevails, there may be classic pies like local asparagus, bacon and egg, or Shaker lemon pie made with Meyer lemons from L'Hoste Citrus in Louisiana.

Almost entirely locally sourced, her ingredients come from Chapel Hill Creamery, Lindley Mills, Maple View Dairy, Fickle Creek Farm, and Capriotopia Farm, among others.

Lawless, former head pastry chef at Magnolia Grill, didn't invent the donutmuffins, nor does she consider herself a trend setter.

But her pies - and her Community Supported Pies subscription - have created a bit of a cult following. Local foodies began buying them at the Moore Square market in Raleigh where Lawless first started selling. Then on a customer's suggestion, she started a pie subscription - $65 for four weeks. Customers specify sweet or savory, either three small pies or one large, and pick up their orders at the market.

Hot off the shelves

In fact, her subscription was so hot, the demand outpaced her ability to produce pies for pick ups in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. Pie subscriptions now are available only for pick up in Durham.

But soon there will be pie for everyone.

Lawless's baked goods are so well-received, the young entrepreneur plans a spring opening of a Scratch outlet at 111 Orange St. in downtown Durham.

The new retail space will serve an expanded savory menu of her empanadas and hearty pies as well as traditional Italian filled pastries like Stromboli and Tuscan topped flatbreads like schiacciata, which is similar to focacccia.

Lawless didn't pick up a rolling pin as a kid, determined to be a baker.

Originally, she intended to work as a savory cook and attend culinary school. Her boyfriend at the time was Greek and cooked everything on a grill with the bright, joyous flavors of the Mediterranean.

"He really pushed me into food," Lawless said. "He cooked in a way I was never exposed to. It really opened my eyes, really got me curious."

While looking for a position in a local kitchen, she applied for an opening as assistant baker at Magnolia Grill, working with former head baker Wynn Clark. Lawless said Karen and Ben Barker, chef-owners of the new American neighborhood restaurant, encouraged her development as a baker.

Elbow deep in pastry, she discovered her new passion in the tactile nature of baking. She also found pleasure in the science of her craft, solving problems and understanding ratios as well as the balance of flavors.

"It was just my hands and the dough," she said. "There wasn't even a knife separating me from the food."

Karen Barker says Lawless's palate is excellent. Usually savory chefs don't understand pastry, and pastry chefs don't understand savory, she said.

"She is probably one of the more talented bakers to come out of this kitchen," Barker added. "Even if you want to be a savory cook, you need to have baking skills, and a lot of savory cooks don't."


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