Eyes on the Pies: A slice of Indiana in the heart of Chicago
Pastry chef Paula Haney’s love for pies is homegrown.
“I grew up eating pie,” said the Chicago-based pastry chef, owner of the successful Mama Hoosier Pie Company. “That was the dessert of choice at our house.”
The company operates two bakeries: The original shop in downtown Chicago and a larger outpost in Evanston, which offers a wider assortment of savory pies and quiche, in addition to its sweeter mainstays.
“There’s a reason I became a pastry chef,” Chef Haney admitted, “I have a tremendous sweet tooth.”
Chef Haney, who hails from Indianapolis, didn’t originally set out for a life of baking. While studying journalism at Indiana University, she got a side job making pastries at the Runcible Spoon, which is where her career path began to cement. A few years later, she decamped to Chicago to work towards becoming a pastry chef.
Her first job in the Windy City was working in a hotel, which handled a high volume of banquets.
“I would segment two cases of oranges, or I would separate 200 eggs. It wasn’t highly skilled, but they were patient and willing to teach me,” she said.
From there, she moved on to an assistant job and eventual pastry chef position at Trio, Chef Grant Achetz’s first Chicago-area restaurant.
“The expectations were very high,” she said. She was tasked with creating desserts to follow Achetz’s innovative courses. On her days off from the restaurant, all she wanted to eat was a simple piece of pie.
“I developed this fantasy pie shop in my head,” Chef Haney continued. She and her husband talked for several years about the idea of opening their own bakery. “One day I was, like, ‘You know, we might as well do it.’”
It took them a while to find the right space. Chef Haney and her husband, Craig Siegelin, sold their pies piecemeal, courting customers at local farmers markets and coffee shops, and according to her that’s how they built their reputation. At the same time, they searched for a space of their own. They found it in a small defunct hotdog stand near Wicker Park; the infrastructure was already in place and the space was cozy. The move was a testament to their ability to see potential in the past.
“A lot of emotion is tied up in pie, and it’s not just about the taste—everybody has such warm memories of their mother or grandmother making them a pie.” While apple pie is the company’s best-selling variety, Chef Haney put special effort into making sure another Indiana staple—Hoosier sugar cream—caught on with her customers. But the embrace wasn’t immediate.
The first week the shop added sugar cream to the menu, they were forced to throw them all away.
“It tanked,” she said. “But everybody in the kitchen tasted it and thought it was amazing.”
The store baked sugar cream pies to hand out as samples to everybody who came into the shop; the pie is now a favorite of customers. Chef Haney’s sugar cream is based on a recipe she came across in a 1964 issue of Farm Journal. The pie was listed as a historical oddity.
“So of course we made it, and it was wonderful,” she said. She tweaked the original recipe, and the version now served at Mama Hoosier has more heavy cream and vanilla.
The oldest variation for sugar cream included only a few ingredients: cream, sugar and flour for thickener.
“The story goes, the early pioneer farm wives would run inside, throw those ingredients in a pie shell, mix it up with their finger, and throw it in the oven. They didn’t do any dishes, they were only away from their work in the fields for a few minutes,” she said.
Chef Haney is also paying homage to her Midwestern rural heritage through her baking.
“One of the things I really wanted to do when we opened the pie shop was partner with local farmers,” she said. “My grandparents were farmers, my in-laws are farmers. Indiana has some of the best farmland anywhere.”
With this in mind, she partners with local farmers markets, and sources many of her ingredients from family-owned farms in northern Indiana.
“It’s really nice to have resources like that. If I have questions I can just call them up and be, like ‘Hey, I need to make a cobbler, what have you got right now?’”
For Chef Haney, her business boils down to a few ingredients: Midwestern produce, historical curiosity for baking and of course, pie.
“The thing I really love about pie is it’s not fancy,” she said. “It reminds me of my aunt and my relatives, and how resilient the Midwestern farmers were.”