Just because it's a pie doesn't mean it has to be sweet. Angela Rowley, owner of Blackbird Foods, chose to focus her business on savory meat pies. Growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, introduced Rowley to the flavors and spices of Cajun cuisine at a young age.
"I have always baked pretty much my whole life," Rowley says. "Even when I was a kid, I used to bake from scratch, which at the time I used to not think anything of, but my grandparents would brag on me and be like, 'Oh, she bakes everything from scratch.'"
All of the pies Rowley bakes for her company are inspired by food memories -- the Cajun-style fried pies her Great Aunt Rose brought to family reunions, or the pies she feasted on while living in England.
"I went over and lived in England for a while and I really fell in love with the pies there," Rowley says. "And then you just start to make the connection in your mind that there are pies all around the world and you have them in different cultures. So when I came back, I was craving the British-style pies, and I married a Brit, too, so that just sort of led to me developing it."
Rowley worked at The Ginger Man in Houston before traveling to England. Once she went across the pond, she began working primarily in bars, including The White Horse on Parsons Green, which sparked her love for gastro-beer establishments. She lived in England for two years.
"Just by chance I ended up working at The White Horse on Parsons Green, which is like this world-famous pub and actually is one of the first gastropubs that you see over there -- it is this more elevated level of cooking," Rowley says. "I just love the whole pub and bar culture, and the pies are such a part of that. There, you see, they make these gorgeous pies and they aren't just the corner-shop pies; they are gourmet, boutique pies."
Now Rowley has her own business, Blackbird Foods, and sells her pies at several bars in Houston. The Hay Merchant, which she manages part-time, carries her Cajun pies, Underbelly carries her pork pies, and she still caters large parties for The Ginger Man. Rowley also markets her wares at Urban Harvest on Wednesdays and at the Eastside Farmers Market on Sundays.
"The main ones that I sell at the farmers' market are the personal-size pies," Rowley says. "The Cajun pies that they do for Hay Merchant are just little pies, sort of like to snack on, like two or three. The pork ones, the one they have here [at Underbelly], are to me large enough for two people, I guess, or one hungry person."
In fact, the pork pie was the first savory pie Rowley ever made. Her recipe uses a pastry that is different from those used for most other pies: It's a hot-water crust.
"It's the only pastry that you make while it is warm," she says. "So you boil some leaf lard, which is some really nice suet, and then some butter, and you bring that to almost boiling; you add that back into the flour, so you work with it warm -- then you have to cool it down -- rather than cool. It's traditional for the pie. It's a really lasting, durable crust; it's very forgiving, and actually, with the British-style pork pies, it was a way to preserve your meat."
Rowley explains that, in the past, the British wouldn't eat the crust -- they wanted only the meat.
"So this is almost just to encase it, although I make a good one that you want to eat," she says. "When you cook it, you let it cool down and then fill it with stock, and what the stock has is antibacterial properties naturally from the bone. So it's something that you can keep on your pantry shelf for a couple of weeks. I recommend in the Houston climate to definitely refrigerate it."
She also uses a variety of other types of pastries to complement the other fillings.
"The one that you see most often, I do a rough puff pastry, and that's the one that you see around the Cajun pies that they carry at The Hay Merchant, but they fry it there, so it comes out light and crispy, it comes out different than if you bake it. So I bake it with the steak and ale, and the chicken tikka. But for the Cornish, I use a pâte brisée, which is almost like a tart dough; it is almost a little firmer, it's just still buttery, still really flaky."
While Rowley specializes in savory pies, she will also make sweet pies with fruit; she takes the basic recipe and adds a little something else to make it her own creation.
"I do one fruit pie a week usually, and I will do a cream-cheese dough with that -- although it can vary. I am about to do some persimmons with a gingersnap crust coming up this next week."
All the produce in her pies is sourced locally, and the beef is Texas T Kobe beef, while the chicken is Tejas Heritage.
"I do take some deviations from original formulas; for instance, the Cornish pasties always have some local vegetable, and traditionally it might be rutabaga, but if rutabagas are not in season, I am going to do something local like a turnip or carrot, whatever you find at the moment," she says. Because Rowley does not have a storefront, she must rent space from someone else in order to prepare all of her pies. Kraftsmen Cafe in the Heights on 22nd Street sublets its kitchen to several businesses, including food trucks and other wholesale bakeries, and that's where she does her baking.
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"I share it [the kitchen] with a couple of other food truck people and Fluff Bake Bar -- that sort of thing. I have learned a lot from going into this kitchen and sharing with people," Rowley says. "It's kind of a hectic environment, because whereas before if you're working in a kitchen you're all working towards that common goal, here actually all of you have your own business and you're all trying to get your own goal at the same time."
Rowley says she's always in the borrowed kitchen, even on Friday and Saturday nights, evenings on which she often has the space to herself.
"I have visions of little pie storefronts; unfortunately, I think that is still too far in my future," she says. "I just think it would be really nice to have this small little pie shop, maybe serving milkshakes, too, and just little pies. You wouldn't even need a lot of space, just like a couple of tables; just something really casual for people to come in and out of."
For now, you can find her savory (and some sweet) pies at the Urban Harvest farmers' market on Wednesdays and the Eastside Farmers Market on Sundays. You can also pre-order frozen pies from her Web site, then pick them up at the market to make sure you get the one you want before they're all gone.