How good are Mama Jo Homestyle Pies?
“Lately we’ve done a lot of weddings. People get excited to see pie,” says Johanna “Mama Jo” Mann. “It’s an economical option and they taste a lot better than some wedding cakes!”
I had never thought about pie in this way, but I had never tried Mama Jo’s homemade, scratch-baked pie. Now that I have, I understand why someone might want to have it at their wedding.
It’s all about the lard.
Lard is what makes the crust hold together under the weight of moist, chunky fillings and what makes it crumble just right when you break it with your fork. It is the thing that transforms the crust into a part of the pie you actually want to eat. Mass produced pies are usually made with oil-based shortening and sometimes a host of preservatives and extra ingredients that extend shelf life. Lard, once a staple of baking and cooking, went out of vogue for a time due to health concerns and the convenience of ready-made shortening products. The practice of using lard is slowly gaining traction, particularly for those who aim to eat close to the source, and who know they’re buying the sustainably produced variety. While it would be a reach to call it “healthy,” it is no longer reviled by the health community. Like everything else, moderation is key.
Of course when talking about a Mama Jo pie we can’t forget to mention the fruit. “You get what you pay for,” Johanna says, noting that customers are often surprised at the weight of each pie. Fruit pies hold up much better when they contain real, chunky bites of apple or cherry, not the gooey, inexpensive, artificially-flavored filling that’s a common shortcut. Johanna keeps an eye on the supply of fruits in mid to late summer and is always thinking about what is going to taste the best. “The bakers can look at the fruit and know what adjustments they’ll have to make to keep it consistent,” she says. They even make a pineapple pie!
Johanna and her husband are in the process of handling the business to their children with plans to tour the country. Mama Jo pies are found in Heinen’s, Discount Drug Mart stores and numerous independent stores and farm markets. They’re about to step into prime time – the holiday season – where they’ll go through 28,000 pies in four days combining their retail and wholesale distribution. While four thousand of those pies are likely to be pumpkin, apple, chocolate, pecan and French silk are their year-long customer favorites. The bakery makes 34 flavors and three sizes. The huge mixer handles 700 pounds of dough at a time – that translates to 1,100 medium size pies.
“We could automate the process, but if we did we’d have to reduce the number of flavors,” explains Jenna. “We do use a hydraulic pie press and an automated dough divider but that’s it, the rest is all done by hand, including filling each pie, and brushing the lid with milk wash and sugar.”
Mama Jo is still around keeping an eye on things, but daughter Jenna Rabosyuk now manages the retail operations while son Ken Dumke, Jr. oversees the baking that takes place six days a week. A close team of employees like Wanda Hewlett who’s been there “forever” knows many customers by name as well as their preferences. The bakery is known for pie, but customers can also get strudels, kifflie, a Hungarian cookie, an oversized chocolate and cream filling Woo-Pie (whoopee pie) and other typical goodies.
Because their baked goods are made without preservatives, they have a shorter shelf life. But they’re so delicious, I’m pretty sure that’s not much of a problem.
With the holidays coming, I asked Johanna and Jenna to make some recommendations for the home baker.
- Use lard. (You probably saw that coming).
- Don’t overmix the dough – a common mistake.
- Keep the dough sufficiently chilled.
- Let the shell sit overnight before baking it.
Of course, you can make things a lot easier on yourself by heading to Mama Jo Homestyle Pies in Amherst at 1969 Cooper Foster Park Road and in Medina at 871 North Court Street or to Heinen’s and Discount Drug Mart locations, and a number of other local stores and markets.
— Lisa Sands