Michele Albano Stuart, aka the Pie Lady, says that "love" is the secret ingredient in her pies. And it certainly seems to be a key to her success. She learned to make pies from her beloved Italian grandmother and first sold her versions of grandma's pies at a farmers market in Vermont. By the end of the first summer, it was clear that Stuart's pies were a hit.
On a whim, she entered her Chocolate Pecan Bourbon Pie in the 2007 National Pie Championship, and to her immense surprise, she won the blue ribbon in the commercial nut pie category. It was love, too, that propelled her to open her first bakery. Her boyfriend, Kelly Stuart, who later became her husband and business partner, convinced her that she was ready, and with his expertise in refrigeration, she opened the first Michele's Pies in Norwalk, Conn., later that year. Since then, 26 of her pies have won National Pie Championship awards, based solely on blind taste tests.
It was love of a different sort that landed Stuart on Good Morning America. Fans of her pies nominated her for GMA's "Pie of the Nation" on-air competition, and "from the minute the segment aired, the phone did not stop ringing," Stuart says. She returned to her bakery to find lines of people waiting outside her store-and an invitation to appear on the Food Network.
"It was always my dream to be on the Food Network," she says.
Competing with Bobby Flay on his Throwdown show in 2009, Stuart didn't win, but the judges' decision stirred up quite a bit of controversy. Viewers vehemently contested the selection of Flay's pie, made with canned pumpkin, over Stuart's pie, made with fresh. Flay himself is a fan, and Stuart's recipe has the last word-it's the last recipe in Flay's Throwdown! cookbook.
From the original seven varieties offered at the farmers market, Stuart's rotation of pies has grown to more than 80 recipes, which can be found in her new cookbook, Perfect Pies. She's gone from baking in her condo kitchen in Vermont to owning two Connecticut bakeries–the second is in Westport.
On any given day, customers can expect a choice of 20 different pies, ranging from fresh fruit-filled pies, to nut pies such as maple walnut or pecan, cream pies, and even savory pot pies and quiches. The aroma alone is enough to make grown men and women cry when they come into her shop. Stuart's pies aren't just about the perfect filling, flaky crust or delicious streusel topping; they are also about nostalgia and, of course, love.