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Bennett: Cottage baker offers what the supermarkets can't

Walk into Karen Uyeda's quiet Irvine home most days of the week this holiday season, and you'll be bombarded with the comforting smell of freshly baked fruit pies.

At least that's how it's been since October, when the former aerospace engineer and mother of two took home a first-place ribbon at KCRW's Good Food Pie Contest — one of the region's preeminent deciders of quality homemade dessert — and the orders for her apple, tart cherry and strawberry pies started rolling in.

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For Thanksgiving 2015, Uyeda says, she made 12 pies, mostly for friends and family, in her home kitchen's standard Kenmore oven. This year, she used the same oven to bake 88 pies over three days (many of them ordered by first-time customers through her Sweetcie Pie Etsy shop). Then, she spent two afternoons driving around Orange County delivering them herself.

This is the kind of one-person show that usually befits cottage-food-business owners, fledging culinary startups that operate in accordance with the California Homemade Food Act. Since the law, which allows certain types of non-refrigerated food products to be produced in home kitchens, first went into effect in January 2013, several hundred Orange County residents have applied for a license.

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Uyeda started Sweetcie Pie in 2014 and launched her Etsy page in early 2015. She has a regular stall at the Orange County Great Park's Sunday farmers market, in Irvine, and as of a few weeks ago, her apple dumplings can be found at Stricklands Ice Cream, also in Irvine, on Fridays.

This fall, Sweetcie Pie became more than just a part-time hobby.

"I really like the production aspect, how to do more with less," Uyeda says of her fledging cottage businesses one recent morning while wearing a white chef's skull cap as she checked on a crumble-crust apple pie in the oven.

"It's not ready yet," she says. "I like them to be weeping through the top, those little beads of juice coming out, so I know that it's cooked and all the flavors are mixed and the crust is nice."

She closes the oven door and sets the timer for another few minutes.

Uyeda didn't always want to do pies. Originally, after she was laid off from her aerospace engineering job just shy of retirement, she joined Orange Coast College's culinary arts program and thought about making and selling Japanese-style pickles, the cold-fermented, sweet-and-sour kind her mother used to make when she was growing up. But when she realized that the refrigeration restrictions on cottage food companies eliminated that possibility (and the cost of renting an industrial kitchen was far too expensive), she decided to capitalize on another longtime favorite of hers: pie.

Between shifts at places like Tustin's Cream Pan Bakery and Leatherby's Cafe Rouge (where she currently works part-time as a garde manger), Uyeda would return to her personal pie recipes and tweak them for Sweetcie Pie. She swapped out regular supermarket butter for a European-style cultured butter that was being used for the croissants at Cream Pan. She tested dozens of different apple varietals to determine which ones would not overpower her pies with cloying sweetness. She called up Tanaka Farms near her house in Irvine and bought fresh strawberries for an all-local filling.

"At school you learn techniques and recipes, but my mother taught me how to taste," Uyeda says. "She taught me what tastes good and how to get certain flavors out of foods. With Japanese food, you're not tasting the butter or the wine — it's the ingredients that you're tasting."

The result is a lineup of fruit pies (the only kind that meet the cottage food requirements) that find the balance between sweet and tart, delicate and rich. Last summer, her Tanaka Farms strawberry pie won a blue ribbon at the OC Fair. At the KCRW Good Pie Contest, it was a tart cherry amaretto pie made with vegan coconut oil crust that nabbed her a first-place prize.

She also makes pear pies and berry pies and a custom creation she calls an apple dumpling. By far the sweetest of all her desserts, it has all the caramel syrup and cinnamon gooeyness of a traditional apple dumpling, but instead of an apple wrapped in pastry, it's laid horizontal in a pan, the pastry folded over double-sugar apple pie-style filling like a cut-and-serve strudel.

"I love giving out samples of my pies because people taste it and their eyes light up," says Uyeda. "They're always so surprised it's so good. They don't expect that from pie."

Homemade pies and sweets seem to be a lost art in today's fast-food nation, where the dessert table at any potluck is more likely to be filled with baked goods from Costco or Albertson's than something from a home kitchen.

Because commercially made pies use sub-par flours and fillings, Uyeda hopes to make homemade accessible again.

"There are a lot of people out there who like homemade but can't get it anymore or never had homemade, and once they try it they can't believe it," she says.

The timer on the oven beeps; the smell of baked apples wafts through the house. Uyeda puts on her skull cap and opens the oven door. Indeed, the apple pie appears to be weeping through its now-browned crust.

She takes it out and places it on a cooling shelf on the other side of the kitchen. Later in the day, she will put it in her car and deliver it to another happy Sweetcie Pie customer.

"If you are lucky enough to know a cottage baker that will sell their products to you, I think you are very lucky," she says. "Nice homemade food is hard to come by. Just ask my husband and children. Ever since I started this business, we've eaten so much takeout."

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SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.

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