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Think you know the best pie in America? Try Wisconsin's paper bag apple pie

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

What's your favorite holiday sweet - cookies, cakes? Well, for pie lovers in southeast Wisconsin, the market The Elegant Farmer offers a special treat - pies baked in a paper bag. Food Network and Gourmet magazine have called their apple pie the best pie in America. Lina Tran of member station WUWM has more.

LINA TRAN, BYLINE: A steady stream of customers strolls through the market in Mukwonago, a village 30 minutes southwest of Milwaukee. Golden pies nestled in butter-stained paper bags tempt them from the counter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, yeah. It's almost like eating apple pie and candy at the same time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The crust is fantastic.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's a treat. It's a really - quite the treat.

TRAN: But this isn't your grandma's pie. It's a boulder, packed with crispy Ida Red apples and topped with a craggy crust that tastes and snaps like a sugar cookie. Ernie and Jackie Hill are picking one up for their daughter and son-in-law. They've been coming here for decades.

Does anyone fight for, like, the biggest piece or something?

ERNIE HILL: They got to be even for sure, got to be even.

TRAN: Whoever cuts the pie is lucky. They get dibs on the sugary goo stuck in the bag.

E HILL: You save it.

TRAN: Well, you eat it.

E HILL: You eat it. Yeah, I mean, you don't throw it in the garbage is what I'm telling you.

JACKIE HILL: I fold it in half with the stuff showing and lick it (laughter).

TRAN: To prep for the season's pilgrimage of pie lovers, Elegant Farmer starts baking in January. They stock freezers all year to stay on top of orders that come from all over the country.

KATIE SCHMIDT: Everything from, like, September to the end of the year, it's just a nonstop thrill ride for us.

TRAN: That's Katie Schmidt, the director of operations. Her parents own the place now. The story goes, in the '70s, the previous owners were looking for something to sell and thought apple pie. The owner's wife found a recipe for pie baked in a paper bag. Then, in a lucky mistake, an ingredient in the topping got doubled, amping up the crunch. They would never say which it was, and now the paper bag is their hallmark.

SCHMIDT: So it starts fully closed. And then as you get through the baking process, we cut a hole in the top to really crisp up that flaky top crust.

TRAN: And no, the bag doesn't catch on fire.

SCHMIDT: I think that's what people get concerned about. We've been just fine.

TRAN: The bag captures moisture. Tara Jensen, a baker and author in Virginia, says steam is crucial in baking for a tender crumb. Over Thanksgiving, Jensen's brother didn't have anywhere to go for the holiday. She learned Elegant Farmer would ship him a pie - a pie baked in a paper bag.

TARA JENSEN: I had never seen that before, and I've been baking apple pie for 20 years.

TRAN: So she tried making one herself with a clean grocery bag and her own pie recipe.

JENSEN: I think there's something about the extra level of moisture, like the water in the air reacting with the sugar in the streusel. It almost made a creme brulee crackle on the top.

TRAN: The siblings ripped the bags open like Christmas presents.

JENSEN: You know, he was going through some personal struggles. I just had twins. And we just had this nice moment of like, cool, we just baked this unusual pie in a paper bag, and it brought us together.

TRAN: Katie Schmidt says that's what makes her proud to work at Elegant Farmer.

SCHMIDT: People come up to me and they have memories. And they're just like, oh, this is something that we have at our family gathering every year. I try to remember that when, you know, we're in our scheduling, and I'm like, these are going out to actual people.

TRAN: As much as crust matters, it's about the family and friends who share it. For NPR News, I'm Lina Tran in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lina Tran