Time has come, again, for this classic dessert.If you are having pie lust, what better spot to indulge than comfort-food central, a '50s-style diner. The quest for the perfect slice is accompanied by a nostalgic soundtrack that brings back our memories by tuning in flavors from the past - sweet tunes that keep playing in our head, but, oh, can we remember the lyrics? "Bring back that lovin' feeling ..."At the Roundabout Diner, which opened last April near the Portsmouth traffic circle, you'll find a modern take on the diner concept. The old tunes are played out here. The owner Don Posternak remodeled an old Bickford's, replacing '80s décor with a 21st-century take on mid-century design. The checkered floor, metal-wrapped counter stools and a pie case at the register beg you to relive your forgotten youth. And if the trappings and food don't bring you back, the music will. "I found my thrill on Blueberry (pie) Hill."Speaking of dessert, I went straight for the pies. Ashley Schaefer, 28, is the pastry chef on mission to fill the pie case with puddings, pies and a variety of homey specials every day. Desserts are her thing, so it has been working out nicely.Ashley, originally from Charlestown, N.H., found herself flipping through Wilton cake books at her desk job a few years ago. When she won a scholarship to the New England Culinary Institute, she felt headed in the right direction. When she won a chocolate sculpture competition during her two-year studies, she knew this was it. "How bad can making desserts all day be?" she asks, not expecting anyone to argue the point. "Sugar, ah, honey, honey, you are my candy girl and you got me wanting you ..."She does have a passion for designing plated desserts, but enjoys the customer feedback she gets here from her basic pies and puddings. After all, everyone has an opinion on the hits from the past, both over the sound system and on the menu. "Wake up little Susie, wake up ..." Both are familiar territory and that's where the comfort comes from.What makes her pies and pudding crowd-pleasers? "It's pretty simple, I just make everything from scratch and use basically good ingredients; vanilla beans instead of vanilla extract, butter not shortening and fresh fruit not frozen when possible. Just like ... maybe your mom? "To everything - turn, turn, turn There is a season - turn, turn, turn ..."We could offer you her pudding recipe, but you could probably find it in the classic "Joy of Cooking" published in the '60s and re-released several times since. This classic cookbook was re-written with each edition, as the editors re-thought what the American homemaker needed to know in 1975, 1997 and 2011. (Canning is out for 1997, in for 2011.) Ashley's mother's edition was the foundation for her pies - it is her favorite resource.Ashley's other favorite cookbooks? Her mother's collection of old Pillsbury Bake-off publications. That's not a scary thing. She takes the home cook's creative ideas and re-writes the recipe with scratch ingredients. Google the winning recipes and you find a reflection of the "food-geist" from whence they came - scratch baking in the '40s and early '50s to the 2010 winner - a really frightening combination of three commercial products. That doesn't bode well for the future home cook, but it did look pretty. The fact that an ordinary apple pie won a few years ago is testament to pie's term of endearment - each generation restarts the love affair. "Dre-ea-eam, dream, dream, dream ..."Ashley fills the pie case with her daily inspirations. A Turtle Pecan Bread Pudding beckoned, as did her Lemon Drop Cupcakes filled with her lemon curd. Single-serving size Boston Cream Pie is another recent hit.In summer the fresh fruit pies are rolled out, but until then Ashley presses on with her pastry cream pies and down-home puddings.A customer favorite is the banana cream pie. Just good basic ingredients, a nice crisp hand-rolled crust and, heretical to some, a bit of cream cheese in the topping. Butterscotch pudding is popular, too. No Royal Pudding here - the flavor simply comes from caramelized sugar and butter. Comfort foods comfort because of the fond memories of home cooking. If your mother made instant pudding, then head on down to see where your childhood went wrong. "Heartaches by the number, troubles by the score ..."Owner Dan Posternak, who previously owned Muddy River Smokehouse, has taken the simple food served at diners and done something very simple - just make sure all is good. Besides Ashley's desserts, just about everything else is made from scratch and there is a commitment to using local sources. Their diner classic Reuben ($8.99) is made from their own house-cured corned beef sandwiched between When Pigs Fly marble rye. It works. The turkey meatloaf ($11.99) was savory and the bacon-wrapped pork loin was succulent while the accompanying roasted red bliss potatoes and Brussels sprouts were perfect.Breakfast is big, too, and served all day long. "Bring back that lovin' feeling ..." Local, cage-free eggs are sourced for eggs Benedict and more. Since there is a small lounge in back of the house, you can order just about any drink with your dinner entrée or even a Bloody Mary for brunch.Management has found a sweet spot with a comforting menu with just enough bounce to keep people coming back. I know I will. "Sugar in the morning, Sugar in the evening, Sugar at suppertime." NHClick here for Chef Schaefer's recipe for Pecan Turtle Bread Pudding.
This article appears in the March 2011 issue of New Hampshire Magazine