Monday, March 4

Give Me Some Sugar: Phoebe Lawless

Illustration by Elizabeth Graeber

In "Give Me Some Sugar," Emily Hilliard will introduce us to some of the South's most talented female pastry chefs. They do right by the classics while developing a new canon of their own. Check back every Monday for the next 12 (or so) weeks to meet a reason to save room for dessert.

Emily Hilliard is a writer, folklorist, and baker based in Washington, D.C. She blogs at Nothing in the House and tweets at @housepie. Most recently, she wrote about chess pie for our Gravy quarterly.

Photo by Lissa Gotwals

Who: Phoebe Lawless
Where:  Scratch Bakery, 111 Orange Street, Durham, NC

“I consider myself more of a baker than a pastry chef,” says Phoebe Lawless, owner and chef at Scratch Bakery in Durham, North Carolina. Having had my fair share of her desserts—her Shaker Lemon pie, fluffy buttermilk biscuits, and signature doughnut-muffins—I’d say this is not a qualitative statement, but an explanation of her approach, which she calls “pretty pragmatic,” and “homey and delicious rather than perfect and gorgeous."

She says she’s drawn to food traditions that are based on thrift and necessity, where you might open up the pantry, find almost nothing there, and still set out to bake something delicious, using creativity as your tool. While Lawless’s food is lauded as quintessentially Southern, she says that her inspiration is not strictly from the South, but has a broader rural and agricultural foundation. Growing up in Ohio and eventually moving to the North Carolina Piedmont, she found the cooking of the two regions be very similar. Though the produce may vary, both value frugality and adherence to seasonal and local ingredients.

Lawless takes her “homey” approach literally. She said that becoming a parent and more frequent home cook has actually helped her to diversify the menu at Scratch. “I’ve had to adjust my schedule to cook more meals at home, and I didn’t want to be bored with the food I was making, so that has helped me expand my baking repertoire.” She says she’s also learned to favor recipes that come together quickly, so she can bake them with her 8-year-old daughter.

Though she relies on simple recipes, Lawless still challenges herself. She’s known in Durham and beyond for her pies, but said she’s recently found a new appreciation for simple cakes, crumpets, griddle breads, flatbreads, and crackers. While her food may not necessarily be fancy, she says she “likes baking things that you have to figure out,” and puts a lot of time into perfecting each recipe. It shows.


Rustic Cheese Pie
recipe courtesy of Phoebe Lawless
Makes one 9-inch double-crusted pie, enough for 6-8 servings

2 rounds of pie pastry, rolled (either from your favorite recipe or frozen)

3/4 cup good quality ricotta, drained
2 eggs
2 tablespoons flour
2 1/2 cups shredded/diced cheese (any combination of parmesan, fontina, tellagio, aged provolone, or anything else robust and nutty... a good way to empty out the butts from the cheese drawer)
1/4 cup raisins coarsely chopped
Dash freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
Chili flakes, if desired
1 large egg, whisked with a few drops of water

1. Preheat oven to 375. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients and season with salt and pepper to taste.

2. In a lightly oiled 9x2-inch round cake pan, place one of the rolled pastry rounds, centering to allow
the edges to line the walls of the pan. Fill the pastry with cheese filling.

3. Top with the remaining pastry, tucking the edges into the cake pan to seal the bottom and top crusts. Brush the top of pie with the egg wash and score with a small sharp knife or fork and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until golden.

4. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then turn out to cool completely before serving.