Phoebe Lawless is the pie maven behind the award-winning Scratch Bakery
a beloved neighborhood spot in Durham. Crowds flock near and far for their
signature doughnut muffins and their Buttermilk Sugar Pie. The Ohio native got
her start as a pastry assistant alongside James Beard Award-winner Karen
, at the legendary Magnolia Grill in Durham. Eventually she became head
pastry chef. Knowledge and inspiration in hand, she went on to sell pies at the
Carrboro Farmers' Market
, where she developed a devoted following. After
outgrowing her home kitchen, she opened Scratch in 2010. Owning up to its name,
everything you see at Scratch is homemade, from each condiment down to the rice
flour, used for Philpy (a Lowcountry rice bread, similar to cornbread). Since
opening, the bakery has evolved into a restaurant, serving breakfast and lunch
and featuring homemade breads. Scratch boasts an array of sweet and savory
pies, empanadas, and other fresh goodies, an impressive coffee program, and a
brunch menu that will make you weak in the knees. A stickler for cooking seasonally and locally, Phoebe endeavors to
preserve food traditions, and she values local ingredients, especially those
native to the South. Though her style is mostly Southern-influenced, she draws
inspiration from around the world, and you're likely to see things like bánh
mì, charred eggplant fatouche, carnitas, and gumbo on the menu. Phoebe's pies
have earned her recognition and praise in The New York Times, Bon Appetit
Magazine, Garden and Gun, Southern Living, and from the James Beard Foundation,
among others. She now sells at the Durham Farmers' Market, and loyal fans still
queue up every Saturday morning for doughnut muffins and of course, pie.
is the concept and story behind Scratch?
Scratch has changed quite a bit since I first started baking out
of my house five years ago! The original idea was to sell pie at the farmer's
market. That morphed into a pie subscription program. That was when my husband
began his protest over living in what was becoming a full-scale bake shop in
our home. When we discovered the space on Orange Street in 2009, it seemed like
the right time to make the jump to a brick and mortar. And though the fare we
serve now has changed considerably since first opening our doors three years
ago, I still stand by our commitment to tasty, handcrafted food.
You are known for a lot of things, among them
pies. Do you have a particular philosophy on pie and its place in the American
Pie is very simple at its core: filled dough. I don't want to
diminish the craft, because it does require skill and an attention to detail,
but most of all, it's practice. As a culture we don't bake nearly as much as
our mothers and grandmothers did, and those rituals of biscuits or quick breads
or pies that graced tables daily have become relegated to special events or
holidays. I do feel though that with folks becoming more conscious of how they
source their food and an appreciation of local producers, pie baking follows as
a great medium for showcasing high-quality ingredients.
role does Buttermilk play in your baking?
Buttermilk is front and center at Scratch. Most of our cakes,
donuts, and batters use it when dairy is needed in a recipe. The staff favorite
pie is nothing but buttermilk, vanilla bean, and sugar.
you familiar with churned buttermilk and if so, what do you think sets it
If you are talking about the by-product of small-scale or DIY
butter making rather than the commercial low-fat version found in most grocery
stores...yes, there is a huge difference. The 'milk' that is left behind when
you agitate cream has no culture or sour flavor, natural or otherwise. Real
buttermilk, or cultured butter, was made when refrigeration wasn't readily
available, and the cream had been left to sit or stored in containers that held
a previous batch, resulting in a pleasant and mild, sour taste. Its uses
pre-20th century were for silage and valuable calories for the poor. Most
commercially-cultured buttermilk is made from skim milk and has an extremely
sour, pungent flavor. I would much prefer to drink a glass of real buttermilk.
know the period leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas is your busiest time
at the bakery. Do you have any new creations coming into the mix this year?
We have found that most folks are pretty traditional in their
holiday sweets, so we are keeping the majority of our menu the same. This was a
great year for muscadines, so we have put up a few gallons to make appearances
in the coming months. We are also very proud of our native fruit cake that uses
only local/regionally sourced fruits. This year it will have persimmons,
heirloom apples, plums, chestnuts, and organic Florida citrus. And Hanukkah
does fall in the same week as Thanksgiving, which means we'll offer some of our
spins on traditional Jewish baking.
is an ingredient that can get lost in the final product. Can you think of any
sweet or savory dishes that really allow buttermilk to shine?
We use it as much as we can as a featured component of a dish: In
early summer we offer a bowl of toasted cornbread with fresh berries, buttermilk,
and sorghum. We suggest you have it with our granola instead of milk. We have a
drink special that pairs it beautifully with honeysuckle and is carbonated.
We've used it to replace Mexican crema in salsas to cut the richness of
carnitas. It's a wonderful base for cold soups in summer when blended with
beets, or cucumbers, or super-ripe tomatoes. We make iced-fruit milks that
incorporate a touch of buttermilk to add complexity.
Buttermilk seems to be making a comeback in
professional kitchens. Why do you think that is?
Southern food is pretty hot these days,
and buttermilk has always been a staple. It's also easy to replace
ingredients like yogurt, sour cream, even some vinegars with buttermilk and get
a different flavor profile altogether.
What is it about
Southern food that makes it hot right now?
think Southern food is hot for a few reasons. For one, I think Southern food is
very approachable. It’s food that people feel comfortable producing at home.
It’s something they have some frame of reference for, maybe not the specific
ingredients like buttermilk, or grits or collards that are more
regionally-based, but the other things like pot pies or fried chicken –everyone
has some sort of experience with them. And people don’t feel so intimidated
making those dishes for themselves. Another reason Southern food is hot has to
do with the current economy. The raw ingredients are pretty humble and generally,
not pricey. Meat is used more as a component, to add flavoring, rather than as
the star in Southern cooking. Moving
towards Southern food is also a natural extension of the farm-to-table movement,
an appreciation of agrarian-based cuisines and foodways, that’s been growing
for the last 10 years.
brought you to the Triangle region of North Carolina?
grew up mainly in the mountains of North Carolina, in Appalachia. I came here
for school and then cooked in various places around the state and really liked
this area a lot. The food in the Western part of the state is pretty different.
It’s also agrarian-based, farm-to-table, but the growing season is shorter.
There is a larger preserving tradition there because of the shorter season, and
because it’s more remote, there is not the kind of access that we have here in
the Triangle. Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill is a pretty liberal bubble. Even
though we are Central North Carolina, it’s hard to get a good plate of BBQ in
this town. We do benefit from having the Northeastern, West Coast transplants
and their food sensibilities, as well as their enthusiasm. We also have this class
of cooks that are coming up and settling here because it is affordable. You can
cook here and live here, a rarity for a city that has a thriving food scene.
You can’t do that so much in DC or New York or San Francisco.
you have a childhood memory or Aha! moment associated with buttermilk?
As a little girl, I used to spend weekends with my Aunt Betty at a
family cottage on Lake Erie. Every morning she would serve me a glass of
buttermilk in an amber, Depression-era honeycomb tumbler. I never questioned or
complained; it was her version of a morning constitutional.