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A slice of Americana

Church bake sales are as American as, well, apple pie

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Jean Duprey and Barbara Steiner with Robbins Memeorial Congregational Church's famous apple and blueberry pies.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Jean Duprey and Barbara Steiner with Robbins Memeorial Congregational Church's famous apple and blueberry pies. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>In this picture taken last year, members of the Sunderland Congregational Church get  ready  for  a  Saturday  pie  sale. Pictured are, from back left, Louise Gunn, Chris Drake, Susan Robertson and Edna Gunn.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    In this picture taken last year, members of the Sunderland Congregational Church get ready for a Saturday pie sale. Pictured are, from back left, Louise Gunn, Chris Drake, Susan Robertson and Edna Gunn. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Jean Duprey and Barbara Steiner with Robbins Memeorial Congregational Church's famous apple and blueberry pies.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>In this picture taken last year, members of the Sunderland Congregational Church get  ready  for  a  Saturday  pie  sale. Pictured are, from back left, Louise Gunn, Chris Drake, Susan Robertson and Edna Gunn.

Once a month, the sweet smell of warm apples, flaky pie crust, baking blueberries, along with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg, come wafting from Robbins Memorial Church at 55 Munson St., Greenfield.

That’s where you’ll find a group of 10 to 12 church members kneading and pounding dough, preparing ingredients and baking fresh pies for the church’s monthly sale.

For 61 years, Robbins Memorial Church has been baking and selling apple and blueberry pies, a tradition that has become well known across Franklin County. The next pie sale is on Friday, July 19, at the church. It will include frozen apple pies, blueberry pies and, possibly, a few strawberry rhubarb pies.

The sale runs from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the church. To pre-order, contact Jean Duprey at 413-773-7624.

To announce the latest details on its monthly sales, the church runs an ad in The Recorder during the week leading up to the sale.

The pie-baking operation began in September 1952 under the leadership of two sister-in laws, Lillian Steiner and Rose Woodard. The Kiwanis Club first approached the church members to make pies for the Franklin County Fair. Taking on the challenge, Steiner and Woodard brainstormed and figured out crust and pie recipes for bulk baking.

Robbins Memorial Church uses the same recipe to this day. The recipe remains a secret known only to Barbara Steiner and Jean Duprey, the granddaughters of Lillian Steiner and great nieces of Woodard.

Cousins Steiner and Duprey are some of the original pie bakers, starting off in their early 20s.

When the time comes, either Duprey or Steiner will pass the recipe onto another church pie baker.

“We don’t give it out because then every other church in the county would use it. It’s direct competition,” Duprey said.

The church continues to get new members willing to become part of the pie baking. “We kept it going for 50-plus years. We’ll still keep it going,” Duprey said.

The pie sale has grown tremendously since its inception.

In the beginning, the church ladies used only one oven and baked only apple pies. They used to arrive at the church kitchen at 6 a.m. to get the pies ready. At 8 a.m., pies would be sent to be baked at the former Martin’s Bakery in Greenfield. Later, the church acquired a convection oven and later it ramped up sales to, most years, 12 months a year and introduced blueberry pies. This year is its first year selling strawberry rhubarb pies.

The church eventually stopped selling pies at the fair. Instead, it chose to hold sales only at the church, where members could easily dish out pies from their front door. During the fair in September, they sell pies for three days. In November, because of Thanksgiving, they typically sell pies for two days.

The church tries to get most of its ingredients from local farms and shops. Its apples come from Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain and its blueberries from Burnt Hill in Heath. The church also offers unbaked and sugar-free pies.

The pie sales are on Fridays. But the days leading up to the sale are when the work is done. At 8 a.m. on Tuesdays, the church ladies gather to peel apples. On Wednesdays, the group makes pie balls for dough. On Thursdays, they roll out the dough for the pie crust and start making the pies.

Due to the pies’ popularity, Steiner and Duprey recommend people pre-order pies.

The church usually receives between 50 and 75 orders a month, in addition who just walk in and buy the pies. The winter holiday season from October to December is when the pies are most popular.

Tricks of the trade

Although a pie, with its seemingly intricate dough, abundant spices and fruit, seems difficult to bake, making one can actually be quite simple.

The biggest decision is whether you want to make homemade dough or simply use the frozen, store-bought version.

Even store-bought crusts, such as those made by Pillsbury, can be deliciously crispy when they come out of the oven.

If you choose to make your own pie crust, there are dozens of methods to choose from depending on the cook and the cookbook. It’s not all that complicated, but can be time consuming.

The basic steps include first mixing the salt, flour and shortening — the main ingredients to any pie crust — together. The Robbins Memorial Church members have a day dedicated to making the dough. It’s a balancing act.

Steiner warns to not over-mix the ingredients. When it comes time to add cold water to form the mixture into the dough, don’t add too much or it will become tough and sticky, Steiner said. Just enough is needed to hold it together.

It should feel a little like Play-doh.

Shape the dough into a ball and put it into a gallon zip-lock bag. It should be refrigerated for at least a half-hour. When you’re ready to make a pie, cut the dough in half and roll both halves into a circle. Place one of the circles of dough into a 9-inch pan, being careful to not stretch it into position, to form the bottom crust. So they can add more blueberries and apples, the Robbins Memorial Church ladies use an extra deep dish. Their recent supply of pies tins are “extra-extra deep,” Duprey said.

Then comes the sweet fruit filling. In a mixing bowl, add sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg to the sliced apple wedges or blueberries.

Next comes the most precarious step — placing the top pie crust layer over the pie filling.

To keep the two crusts together, dot the edge of the bottom crust with water.

You will notice extra dough jutting out from the plate. Use this to seal the pie by pinching the two sides together.

The church’s apples pies are vented with one slit in the top crust; the blueberry pies have two slits.

Now, put it into the oven and bake.

See, easy as pie.

Staff reporter Kathleen McKiernan has worked at The Recorder since 2012. She covers Deerfield, Conway, Sunderland and Whately. She can be reached at kmckiernan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.

Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at pfranz@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.

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