5 Questions with Four & Twenty Blackbirds

November 12, 2013

We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.

Today: We talk to sisters Melissa and Emily Elsen about baking with love, their Brooklyn community, and all things baked in a pie at Four & Twenty Blackbirds.


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The Four & Twenty Blackbirds pie shop in Brooklyn, New York (pop. 2.56 million) is a long way from the town of Helca, South Dakota (pop. 230), where sisters Melissa Elsen and Emily Elsen were born and raised. At the center of this tiny town -- on Main Street, naturally -- was a restaurant owned and run by their mother and two aunts. Surrounded by strong female cooks, Melissa and Emily washed dishes, waitressed, baked pies alongside their grandmother Liz, and learned the value of hard work and cooking with love. 

Melissa and Emily may have set down roots in one of the largest cities in the world, but they have brought all of their small-town charm and tradition with them. Their pie shop, opened on a shoestring budget in 2010, is now one of the most celebrated pie shops in the country, with flavors that follow the seasons (a lesson from Grandma Liz), and a style that is homey, yet fresh. With their new cookbook, Melissa and Emily pass along their significant pie wisdom step by step, and share the recipes that made them the most beloved pie shop around.

What's your pie strategy for Thanksgiving: What do you make and when do you make it?
We start planning for Thanksgiving in September. We offer our customers the option to pre-order their pies online starting in late October. This year will be our fourth Thanksgiving and we've more than doubled our production each year. This requires an immense amount of advance planning, organizing, and prep. We make the crust about three weeks in advance and freeze it, then we roll out the dough the week before and freeze it until we start baking. All the fillings and fruit are prepped as needed the week of, and the pies are baked fresh to order. We bake for 24 hours 3 days in a row. We take a limited number of orders so that we can be sure to hit the mark.

We also offer first-come, first-serve of any extra we are able to bake, which sort of sets up a challenge for us -- we push ourselves to execute everything well and bake as much as possible in that three-day period. It's an exciting time at the pie shop and our staff does an amazing job putting their all into making it happen.

Black Bottom Oatmeal Pie on Food52

More: Get the recipes for the Four & Twenty Blackbirds All-Butter Pie Crust and Black-Bottom Oatmeal Pie.

What's the most important think your grandmother taught you about making pie?
Make your pies with fruit that is in season, and with love. 

What's the most common mistake that people make when they're baking pies?
Under-baking. Often the outer crust will start to brown quickly and the bottom crust will not be quite done. Using a glass pie pan is a good trick; if you are unsure, you can actually look and see if the bottom is done. 

How long did it take you to make this book happen? 
We began work on the book in late 2011; we wrote, recipe tested, and photographed simultaneously throughout 2012 in order to capture all of the seasonal fruits we could in the Northeast. We were lucky enough to work with our friends Andrea Gentl and Marty Hyers who are incredible photographers and stylists, and our friend Jodie Gatlin who is a brilliant designer (she also does all of our branding) worked with us on the design and layout of the book. The whole process was a creative collaboration in making a useful, interesting pie book with unexpected ingredients and good, solid advice on technique. 

Creating and fostering a sense of community is clearly important to you. How do you use your shop to do that?
We opened the shop with the intention to serve the community of residents, small business owners, artists, designers, and musicians that make up the ever-changing neighborhood that is Gowanus -- we recognized a need for such a place in this area. The shop has ample seating and wi-fi which makes it useful for meetings and business conversations, or for freelance workers. We give priority to supporting community-based projects and initiatives when donating pies and gift certificates. We host a fresh fish CSA and a vegetable CSA in the shop, and we are close friends of our neighbors the Gowanus Studio Space and support their mission, and we love the 8th Street Block Association -- we have an amazing community of neighbors right here on our corner and their support is invaluable to us. 

Top three photos by Gentl & Hyers; bottom two photos by James Ransom

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • AntoniaJames
  • ElsenEM
Recovering lawyer, food writer, pastry chef, and lover of food-related everything (namely: cheese, baked goods, and anything made by Mom)


AntoniaJames November 12, 2013
Wonderful interview! If I didn't live in the SF Bay Area, I'd want to live in your neighborhood. Thank you for contributing your time, recipes and wisdom to Food52. ;o)
ElsenEM November 14, 2013
Thank you AntoniaJames! We're honored to be sharing with the great community that Food 52 is!