Her crusts are definitely upper

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Christine McHale has been baking pies her whole life: She learned to roll a tender crust at her mother's elbow at age 5; tossed together apple crumb pies to relieve stress in college; invented new fruit-pie combinations to relax as a young mom at home with four children.

As word of her pies spread among her friends and neighbors in Moorestown, she started selling pies out of her kitchen, earning her the moniker "The Pie Lady." The line of customers would snake out her door before Thanksgiving and Christmas, when she was turning out 100 pies in a weekend.

Last fall, with her youngest child in school full time, she decided to take her baking to the next level. She opened her own pie shop on Main Street in Moorestown, calling it - what else? - The Pie Lady Cafe.

"Pies have always been my passion," said McHale, 41. "It's been in the back of my head for years."

McHale grew up under the tutelage of her mother, a legendary baker who made pies for the entire neighborhood, and who was always being encouraged to open a store. "My whole life, I was waiting for my mom to open a pie shop," she said. "When this space became available, I took the opportunity."

McHale opened for business Dec. 23. She now spends her days, and some evenings, too - "It's full, full time," she said - baking blueberry and apple pies, cinnamon chocolate scones, and gingerbread muffins, to name just a few.

The shop is small and intimate. Her customers come in for a slice, or to pick up a pie; McHale pours La Colombe coffee and chats.

She has passed her passion on to her children, aged 6 to 14. Even the 6-year-old can roll a pie crust. And her 14-year-old daughter helps out at the shop.

McHale has a simple recipe for success: She puts individual effort into every single pie and tries to give her customers what they want.

Her most popular fruit pies are easily apple crumb and cherry almond, but customers can request any combination in their pies, as long as they call in advance with the request.

People have ordered blueberry peach, triple berry, and raspberry peach, among others. One of her newest innovations: a raspberry pear with orange zest and a coconut crumb top. "There is a lot going on in there," she said. "But it really works." This pie was a happy accident: McHale ran out of lemon zest one day and decided to try orange instead.

"The most fun that I have is coming up with the different combinations and watching people get excited about fruit combinations that you don't normally get," she said.

McHale takes great pride in her products: She hand-rolls every crust, uses butter and shortening, or just butter, in each one. Other than cherry, she uses all fresh fruit in her pies and plans to use only local produce in the fall and spring.

She follows loose recipes for her pies that mostly exist only in her head: Many of them are improvised during the baking process.

She sells a variety of cream pies as well, including white chocolate cream, dark chocolate mocha mousse, coconut custard, chocolate chip walnut pie, and Butterfinger pie, among others.

Linda Tausz-Hannon, a teacher at Moorestown Upper Elementary School, has been a loyal customer for two years. "The thing about the pies is that everybody loves them," said Tausz-Hannon, whose favorite is apple crumb, followed by blueberry and cherry. "I'm not a crust person, and yet her crust is so light and flaky."

While the flagging economy presents a challenge for a new business, McHale remains optimistic.

"My customers have been fabulous," she said. "I have been baking pies out of my house here for 10 years, so people know me, and I think that has really helped."

But she also gets new walk-in customers all the time. "There are not many homemade-pie shops in this part of the country," she said. "I think people are willing to buy the pies because they kind of represent a homey, comfort feeling."

Even though she is working harder than ever - running home after the shop closes to make dinner, help with homework, get the kids to bed, and then, often, returning to her shop to roll crusts or bake scones - McHale is happy she gave her dream a chance.

"It's probably not going to make me a millionaire, but I love it," she said. "I love when someone gets a pie and tells me it's the best pie they've ever had."


Pear Raspberry Coconut Crumble Pie

Makes one 9-inch pie

For single pie crust:

11/4 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup vegetable shortening

1/4 cup cold butter

4 to 5 tablespoons ice water

For filling:

6 to 7 firm but ripe Bartlett pears, peeled and sliced

1 cup fresh or fresh frozen raspberries

3 tablespoons tapioca

Zest of 1 medium orange

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon fresh lemon

juice

Dash of salt

For topping:

8 tablespoons butter

2/3 cup granulated sugar

1 scant cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup sweetened coconut

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 350 F.

2. To prepare pie crust, sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Cut the vegetable shortening and butter pieces into the flour with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

3. Sprinkle in the ice water about 1 tablespoon at a time and toss the mixture with a fork, stirring just until the dough gathers into a ball.

4. Transfer the dough to a pastry cloth that is lightly floured. Flatten it slightly with the palm of your hand. Roll the dough with a rolling pin into a 14-inch circle.

5. Turn the dough into a 9-inch pie plate. Fold edges over and flute as desired. Do not bake. Set aside.

6. To prepare the filling, combine the sliced pears with the tapioca, orange zest, cinnamon , lemon juice and salt. Gently mix the sugar and the raspberries into the pear mixture.

7. For the topping, combine sugar and flour in a large bowl and cut in butter with a pastry blender until it is in small pieces. Add the coconut and mix gently until combined.

8. Transfer the pear mixture into the unbaked pie crust and sprinkle with the topping. Bake for about 50 to 60 minutes until juices are bubbling and top is golden brown.


Pie Lady Cafe


9 E. Main St., Moorestown

856-778-7437; www.pieladycafe.com

Contact staff writer Megan DeMarco at 856-779-3990 or mdemarco@phillynews.com.