Expert Interview Series: Rebecca Miller of Peggy Jean's Pies About Running a Business and Baking "Perfect" Pies

Rebecca Miller is the co-owner of Peggy Jean's Pies in Columbia, Missouri. We recently had a chance to sit down with the lawyer-turned-pie maker to hear about her journey to becoming a small business owner, and also learned a...

Baking pies

Rebecca Miller is the co-owner of Peggy Jean's Pies in Columbia, Missouri. We recently had a chance to sit down with the lawyer-turned-pie maker to hear about her journey to becoming a small business owner, and also learned a few tips about making tastier pies.

Why did you decide to start a pie-making business? Where did the name Peggy Jean's Pies come from?

My mom - the Jean of Peggy Jean's Pies - owned this business from 1994 to 2004 with her best friend, Peggy. Peggy became ill and passed away quite suddenly when Peggy Jean's was at its pinnacle of success - serving breakfast, lunch, and every pie you could think of in 5,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space. Jeanne decided to close the business simply because she didn't feel she could run it all alone. During this time, I was in law school and then in private practice and had never worked a day at PJP.

Ten years after Peg's death, Jeanne asked me if I had any interest in reopening this business with her because she missed working and baking pies. My initial reaction was "Oh my gosh - that would be so fun and so cute!" In my head, I planned to be a lawyer/pie baker (oh, and have plenty of time to also be a wife and a mom to two, and to never run out of energy or time or money).

So now that we are two and a half years in, I can tell you that I'm no longer practicing law. I wear my hair in a ponytail most days. Every time we stay all night baking, I question all of my decisions. But I've never been happier or more fulfilled in my daily life.

Complete this sentence: "When I opened my business, the most difficult skill that I had to master quickly was..."

... the ability to be in charge. I had always worked for someone, and being the final decision maker - the one that holds all the responsibility - is a challenge. It takes some grit and some determination about your long-term goals, and you must build your voice to be strong in your response to others. I'm a work in progress, but I'm getting there.

So what's the secret to making the "perfect" pie?

The secret to a perfect pie is simplicity. We bake using my grandmother's recipes and use only real ingredients. We don't use pre-made fillings or buy things in bulk out of cans or boxes. Our dough only has four simple ingredients - flour, water, salt, and shortening - because that is what my grandmother used in the 1940s and 1950s to make her dough. We look at a lot of recipes and then ask ourselves, "How can we simplify this and make it out of real food?" And a big dose of love for the process helps as well!

You also host pie-baking parties. For those who don't live near you but want to host their own party, what suggestions can you give them?

We love our pie baking parties! People are often surprised that we host parties because they assume that we would simply want them to buy our pies. And while that is true, the recipes that we use are basic and simple, and we are always happy to share the knowledge (the dough is the secret of what we do!).

A baking party is a great event to hold at home...all you need is an apron for each guest and pie dough ready to go. We teach each guest to roll out their dough with a rolling pin and then we teach each guest to flute their dough. We work communally on the fillings, so it is an idea that translates well for a group of friends that would like to get together and bake for the holidays! Don't forget the wine to share either!

Do you have any tips for helping to keep partially-eaten pies as fresh and tasty as possible?

We bake pies from scratch and we don't add any preservatives to them, so our shelf life is three days or so. To our customers, we recommend taking any fruit or nut pies that are left over after three days or so and wrapping them well in plastic wrap before freezing them. When you are ready to eat them, unwrap the pies and let them defrost at room temperature on your kitchen counter. Then put the pie on a cookie sheet with a low-temperature oven setting, say 225 degrees, for 15 minutes or so. It will be delicious when it comes out!

Do you do much experimenting with new types of pies?

We bake a lot of "old-school" pies - pies that are recognizable to our grandparents' era. What comes to mind especially is Gooseberry pie, Old Fashioned Raisin pie, Brown Butter Chess pie, and the like. They aren't necessarily unusual, but they just aren't found commercially as much any longer because they aren't necessarily trending on Pinterest.

Other than ice cream, what are some common foods (or beverages) that are ideal to serve with pie?

Pie is a great food because you can have it for breakfast with milk or as a treat throughout the day. Obviously, a great cup of coffee or tea pairs well. And we've been known to drink our fair share of wine with our pie. We also make our whip topping from scratch (heavy whipping cream and sugar in the mixer), and that makes everything extra delicious.

What are some of the most important kitchen utensils, tools, and appliances that you have in your pie-making kitchen?

A lot of people ask us if there is a single item you need for pies, and we yell "Pie weights!" We would be lost without our ceramic pie weights, for sure. Pie weights are terribly cheap, but last for years and are worth the investment.

We also rely heavily on our KitchenAid mixers (we just use the standard countertop version, not commercial) and our large metal mixing bowls. Oh, and a great whisk and spatula that you really love; each person at PJP has their own favorite!

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