Carolyn Berke dishes it up at Niles Pie
Story and Photos by Katie Yen
How do you run a successful bakery without a storefront and without a commercial kitchen of your own? For Carolyn Berke, who lives in the Niles District of Fremont, the answer is as easy as, well . . .
. . . email, which she uses to blast forth the latest menu for her web-based bakery, Niles Pie Company
All manner of enticing pies, coffee cakes, buns, bites, and breads appear on the e-newsletter, which may compel hungry e-customers to drop everything and visit nilespie.com immediately to place their orders. But those who can delay gratification long enough to continue reading will be rewarded by Carolyn’s amusing culinary adventures. Her repressed inner English major emerges as she recounts the incredible feat of reviving a hopeless eight-year-old sourdough starter, or describes watching in dismay as her new German shepherd pup terrifies her flock of egg-laying hens. She muses about lying awake all night haunted by visions of seasonal produce: “I’m trying out flavor and texture combinations in my imagination.”
But come morning, Carolyn is up and ready for action. She downloads the orders and heads to GourMade Cookery, a shared commercial kitchen in Pleasanton where she rents space. Once the pies are baked, she personally delivers them to the stores in Fremont and Pleasanton that have kindly agreed to serve as pickup points for Niles Pie customers. The list continues to grow, but thus far, patrons can collect their goodies at the GourMade Cookery in Pleasanton, as well as three Fremont locations—J. E. Perry Farms, Mr. Mikey’s Country Store, and Mission Coffee. People who have joined the CSA program at Terra Bella Farms of Sunol/Pleasanton have the opportunity to choose Niles Pie items (some made with Terra Bella produce) as part of their weekly share.
It was a little over a year ago that Carolyn officially launched Niles Pie Co., but when I visit her at the GourMade Cookery, it’s clear that this isn’t her first spin around the kitchen. I watch as she preps a batch of whole-wheat puff pastry dough and explains how the same dough can complement pies both sweet and savory. Today’s batch, she says, will become the base for her Asparagus Asiago tarts.
She measures the ingredients deftly, scooping cups of Giusto’s flour into a large metal mixing bowl and then cutting in blocks of butter. The moment her hands touch the raw ingredients, a bright smile breaks across her face and never leaves. Slowly adding the ice water to the mixture, she surmises that “there’s something very Zen to chopping and rolling . . . it’s hard to be tense when you’re doing that.”
Carolyn started baking during college, when she landed a part-time job in a small Connecticut bakery café. The work involved everything from baking bread at dawn to picking the feathers from freshly butchered chickens. After graduating, her yen for cookery led her to various positions around New England, and she eventually opened her own business, Silver Birch Bakery. The growth of her bakery gave way to the growth of her family, and only after she “couldn’t see [her] toes anymore” did she give in to impending motherhood.
Years later, the siren call of the kitchen and the power of the local food movement have lured Carolyn to dust off her apron. The bounty of year-round regional edibles has her cranking out classic pies like cherry and pumpkin, and the kid-friendly apple “pop tarts,” made with a dash of Vietnamese cinnamon. Seasonal vegetables might land inside a free-form veggie galette. She sources most of her produce from her favorite growers at the local farmers markets, but when friends chase her down with armloads of rhubarb or she stumbles over boxes of persimmons left surreptitiously on the doorstep, it requires thinking outside the box, she says, such as melding the persimmons with a gingersnap pie crust and the rhubarb with some Warren pears inside a butter pastry.
Contemplating her pie philosophy, Carolyn reflects, “I love food, I love to bake, and I love my neighborhood. Here, I get to put it all together. It’s a Niles Pie!”
Recipes from Niles Pie Co.
Carolyn sees pies as extremely versatile: They can go either sweet or savory while starring the same main ingredients. Here, a single recipe for her whole-wheat puff pastry serves as a base for both dessert and the main course.
Writer Katie Rose Yen chronicles the passion of local food producers and purveyors.