By Cassidy Ritter
Ladybird Diner, at 721 Mass. St., is known for its specialty pies. We went behind the scenes with Ladybird bakers to see how the magic happens.
Walking into Ladybird Diner, I am welcomed by smiling faces, upbeat music and loud chattering throughout the room. To my left is a white bar with red, circular stools. Waitresses gracefully slide from the bar to tables throughout the room. I’ve walked into a 70s diner with a modern day twist.
Homemade pie is one of the life’s simple delicacies many people take for granted. That is, until you are a college student who no longer gets the luxury of homemade meals much less homemade pie. Luckily, this is what Ladybird is known for.
Ladybird was closed for almost five months after a fire ripped through the diner on March 3, 2015. Megan Heirford, owner of Ladybird, says the thought of staying closed never entered her mind. The diner reopened on August 13, 2015 bringing customers new and old through the door. “This time around I’m blown away by how people must have really missed it because we are selling more pies than ever.”
Once introduced to the staff, I am led downstairs to an unfinished hallway with a bright white room at the end. This is where the pie magic begins. Heirford introduces me to two bakers. They will show me the ins and outs of crafting the perfect homemade pie.
On the weekends Ladybird serves about 600-700 customers and goes through about 250 pies a week. “We just fly through pies,” says Heirford. “There are some days we’re throwing them in the oven as quickly as we’re selling them. We run out of a flavor or two a day.”
Due to the high demand for pie, Ladybird bakes 45 pies at a time. “We start with frozen butter and keep everything as cold as we can,” says Heirford. The frozen butter is mixed into the dough and individually wrapped into 11-ounce portions, says Chris Shaw, baker at Ladybird. The dough then freezes for two to 12 hours while the filling is made.
“You can’t just whip out a pie really,” says Heirford. “When you’re talking about dough if what you want is a result that’s going to be flaky but still have good structure then it needs to not be overworked and not rushed so things need to stay cold. So we start with really cold ingredients.”
Megan Lees, baker at Ladybird, mixes frozen fruit, cornstarch and about 14 cups of sugar over a conduction burner. When this mix begins to bubble the smell of sweet strawberries, rhubarb or cherry fills the air. Lees says this is about a 45-minute process.
Once the filling is cooled, the frozen dough is rolled out and placed in a pie tray. The filling is then added and crust is delicately placed on top of the colorful filling. The pie is then placed in the freezer overnight. The next morning the pie is placed in a 400-degree oven for 40 minutes ready to be served by 8 a.m.
Ladybird offers six to eight pies at a time, but has 50 pie variations. “One day it’s cherry rhubarb, and the next it’s blueberry rhubarb, and then it’s strawberry rhubarb,” says Heirford. “So it all kind of circles around this core group of fruits and custard bases that we work from but we combine them different ways so that it stays lively.”
Eric Pahls, senior from Beloit, Kan., visited Ladybird with his mother for a Sunday brunch that promised huge portions, a home cooked meal and a pie with a twist. Pahls ordered a slice of the Brown Butter Whisky pie topped with fluffy whip cream.
“I actually got a couple pieces and still have one in my refrigerator and I’m just waiting for a time where it’s socially acceptable to eat it,” he says.
The pie was “euphoric,” he says. The texture is similar to that of a pumpkin pie, but not as thick, and the sweet caramel taste is balanced well with the bitter whisky. Pahls says he’s had classic homemade pies before, like cherry and apple, but never anything like this.
Aside from their famous pies, Ladybird offers an assortment of food ranging from breakfasts, burgers, and home cooked meals like pea-less chicken pot pie, doughnuts and hand-dipped milkshakes.
A piece of advice around town: “Get there early, they run out of pie.”
Photos by Cassidy Ritter