Her Norske Nook was a pie piper, but now Helen Myhre's just rolls out cookbooks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OSSEO, Wis. -- About 1,200 pieces of pie are sold every day in this small farming town. That's almost a slice per resident.

We are not talking ordinary pie. Osseo -- located between Madison and Minneapolis -- is the home of Helen Myhre (pronounced MY-er), who practically reinvented the pie at her Norske Nook cafe. People from all over America detour off Interstate 94 to eat Mrs. Myhre's pies: apple, banana cream, blueberry, butterscotch, cherry, raspberry, coconut cream, rhubarb, glazed peach, homemade mincemeat, custard, lemon, chocolate, pumpkin, sour cream-raisin and fresh strawberry.

The "Today" show's Willard Scott has stopped by for pie. So has Charles Kuralt of CBS, and sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer. David Letterman heard about it and flew Mrs. Myhre to New York to teach him how to bake a pie.

Eating pie, of course, is great. But Mrs. Myhre's customers all started to want recipes. That got Mrs. Myhre thinking about how much easier it would be if she had her own cookbook.

So when "Farm Recipes and Food Secrets From the Norske Nook: the Midwest's 1 Roadside Cafe" (Crown: $24) came out in May, it pleased just about everyone. Written with Mona Vold, a former Osseo resident, the book is rural and folksy, filled with recipes and stories about the life of a Midwestern farm woman. A featured selection in two book clubs, it is already in its second printing.

Not all peaches and cream

L But despite all this attention, Mrs. Myhre is not impressed.

On the phone with her New York publisher, she has just been told that the second printing will take a month. "Hah," she says as she hangs up, shaking her head and frowning. "If I ran the Norske Nook that way, I'd have been out of business a long time ago. If I was low on pies, I'd get right with it and make some more before we ran out."

And that is not all she has to frown about. "The book wasn't quite the way I wanted it to be," Mrs. Myhre says. "I told my stories, but Mona had different ideas."

In the book, Osseo is transformed into something resembling Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon.

Granted, there are plenty of Norwegian bachelor farmers in the small hamlet, and everyone in these parts drinks cups and cups of weak coffee. But Osseo is not Lake Woebegon; the Norske Nook is not the Chatterbox Cafe.

Mrs. Myhre was also annoyed that she was asked to leave one of her favorite recipes out of the book: red cherry bars. "The editors didn't want maraschino cherries because they had red [food] coloring in them," says Mrs. Myhre. "I told them, 'Look, it isn't only New York that is going to buy this book.' Still, they demanded I make a substitution. What do you substitute for red cherries. Grapes?"

No Miracle Whip?

Miracle Whip was also unacceptable. "When I made potato salad or coleslaw down at the Nook, I used Miracle Whip," says Mrs. Myhre, still bristling at the effrontery of a New York editor. "Now they were telling me they didn't like my ingredients."

To satisfy them, Mrs. Myhre made mayonnaise from scratch, doing, she says, "everything I could to snap it up . . . even added lemon juice."

It's difficult to imagine anything wrong with her recipes. In a world of plastics and preservatives, real food has been the key to her success.

After more than 20 years of farm life, after raising six children, Mrs. Myhre took a job cooking at a root-beer stand. She was 40 years old. Every week she peeled 600 pounds of potatoes. Every day she made cakes and doughnuts, rolled out cookies, flipped burgers, roasted chickens and served dozens of hot-beef sandwiches. By 1973, the drive-in had been sold and the new owners owed her six-weeks' back pay. Looking for a steady source of income, the enterprising Mrs. Myhre bought the Star Cafe, one of three restaurants in town.

"I asked the owner if there was any money to be made in restaurants," says Mrs. Myhre, "and she said 'Oh, yeah.' " The bank wasn't so sure. They agreed to loan her money only if she would put her two farms up as collateral. "I wouldn't do it," says Mrs. Myhre. "I wasn't prepared to take my two homes with me if I went belly-up."

She came up with most of the money herself and renamed the place Norske Nook after a group of Norwegian men who sat in the corner of the place every morning to drink coffee and gossip. Mrs. Myhre kept the menu small, bought locally and made all her dishes from scratch.

Being prepared with roasts

Every night before she closed the restaurant, she'd put three 22-pound beef roasts and six 12-pound pork roasts into the oven to slow-cook until morning. "That way if we ran short of our special for the day," says Mrs. Myhre, "we'd always be able to give them a roast dinner."

Things were going along fine -- and then Mrs. Myhre got a mention in Jane and Michael Stern's book, "Road Food." They paid special tribute to her sour cream-raisin pie. At the time, Mrs. Myhre was baking about four pies a day. Pie sales grew quickly to 25 and then 75. By 1988, Mrs. Myhre was turning out 150 pies a day. Today, summer and winter, people from all across the country stand in lines halfway down the block just to eat stuffed pork chops, hot roast pork sandwiches and great big pieces of pie. People have even been known to plan vacations around the Nook's daily specials. Leave maybe on Thursday (stuffed pork chops); return the following Tuesday (meatloaf).

There have been a few other changes: Despite protests from her staff of 23 women, Mrs. Myhre eventually hired a man as a grill cook. "We just didn't know if he could do it or not," says Mrs. Myhre. "At first they poked fun of him. He probably didn't have the mentality that the rest of them had, but his breakfasts were good. He was really fussy on his eggs. Even the girls finally admitted his eggs were better than the other cooks'."

The biggest change: Mrs. Myhre, 65, sold the Norske Nook last year. "I felt I just couldn't keep on rolling and making that many pies every day," she says. "It's hard on the back and it's hard on the knees." During the time Mrs. Myhre ran the restaurant, she worked 15 hours a day, six days a week and never took a vacation.

Mrs. Myhre is planning another book. This time, she hopes to collaborate with her daughter, an archivist at the University of Wisconsin. "We really had a lot of fun at the Nook and there are a lot more stories to tell."

I= This is the recipe Mrs. Myhre's New York publisher nixed.

Red cherry bars

Makes about 12 bars

1/2 cup butter

2 teaspoons powdered sugar

1 1/4 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup sugar

1 (9-ounce) jar maraschino cherries, chopped

2 eggs, well beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla

Cream butter, powdered sugar and 1 cup flour and pat into bottom of 8-by-8-inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees until brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from oven.

Sift remaining 1/4 cup flour, salt and baking powder. In separate bowl, mix sugar, cherries, eggs, vanilla and add to sifted flour mixture.

Spread on top of baked bar in pan and return to oven until done, about 25 minutes. Insert wood pick to test for doneness. If it comes out clean, top is done. Cool, then cut into bars.

*

The sauerkraut really does provide a coconut-like texture.

Chocolate-sauerkraut cake

Makes 16 servings

2/3 cup butter

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 eggs

2 1/4 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup cocoa

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup cold water

1/2 cup sauerkraut, drained and lightly chopped

1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract

sweet milk frosting

Blend butter and sugar in large bowl until creamy. Add eggs. Stir in flour, baking powder, salt, cocoa, baking soda and water. Stir in sauerkraut and vanilla.

Mix well and pour into buttered 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees 40 to 45 minutes. Cool. Frost with sweet milk frosting.

Sweet milk frosting

Frosts 1 9-by-13-inch cake

1 cup milk

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/2 cup Butter Flavor Crisco shortening

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Heat milk and cornstarch in small saucepan over medium heat, cooking until thick, about 10 minutes. Cool.

Cream shortening and sugar together in medium-sized bowl. Add cooled milk mixture. Mix in vanilla extract and beat well.

*

The Norske Nook sells about 30 strawberry pies a day during the summer. Make sure the glaze is good and smooth, and use firm, ripe berries. Use the imperfect berries to make the strawberry juice.

Fresh strawberry pie

Makes 8 servings

strawberry juice

2 cups sugar

1/3 cup strawberry gelatin

3 heaping tablespoons cornstarch

cold water

1 baked basic pie crust

1 1/2 -2 quarts strawberries, stemmed, washed and drained, larger berries cut in half

2 cups whipped cream

Combine strawberry juice and sugar. Boil about 2 minutes, until sugar is completely dissolved. Add gelatin and stir until boiling. Dissolve cornstarch in a little cold water, adding quickly to gelatin mixture and cook, stirring slowly until clear bubble forms, about 5 minutes. Cool until mixture is thick as molasses.

Pour some juice into baked basic pie crust to cover bottom. Arrange berries over crust. Pour on remaining juice, covering berries completely. Refrigerate. To serve, top with whipped cream.

Strawberry juice

1 pint strawberries

2 cups water

Place strawberries and water in stainless-steel saucepan and cook over medium heat until berries are pale, about 5 minutes. Strain and reserve juice. Discard berries.

Basic pie crust

Makes 4 (10-inch) thin crusts

2 cups flour

1 cup Butter Flavor Crisco shortening or 1 cup home-rendered lard

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup cold water

Using fingers, mix flour, shortening and salt in mixing bowl until crumbly. Add cold water and mix until smooth. Do not overmix.

Cover hands with flour and knead dough on floured table or board back and forth few times, then hit dough. Divide into 4 balls, each about size of tennis ball. Set 1 ball on floured board, then flatten, keeping round. Keep rolling until crust is 1 inch bigger than pie tin.

Lay crust in pan. If making baked single crust, take fork and poke holes all around bottom and sides to keep crust from bulging or bubbling during baking. Flute edge. Press hands around side of fluting to get rid of excess pie crust. Repeat process with remaining 3 balls of dough. Bake at 350 degrees 10 to 15 minutes, until nicely browned. Let cool.

*

This is the pie that Mrs. Myhre taught David Letterman to make. If the filling seems runny at first, don't worry; you can mend it. Simply add a little flour as the filling cooks.

Sour cream-raisin pie

Makes 8 servings

2 cups sour cream

4 egg yolks

1 3/4 cups sugar

4 heaping teaspoons flour

1 1/2 cups raisins

1 baked basic pie crust

meringue

Stir sour cream and egg yolks together in heavy medium-sized saucepan. Add sugar, flour and raisins. Mix with wooden spoon. Cook over medium heat until raisins are plump and filling glossy, about 5 minutes after full boil. Cool slightly, then pour into cooled, baked basic pie crust.

Using rubber spatula, spread layer of meringue onto pie. Make good seal over filling. Spread meringue until it meets edge of crust to keep meringue from shrinking as it stands or bakes. Repeat until meringue is used up, then gently swirl top to make pie pretty.

Bake at 400 degrees, watching closely, just until peaks are golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove pie and let cool. Eat immediately or store in cool room. Do not refrigerate unless keeping pie overnight.

Meringue

Makes enough for 1 (10-inch) pie

12 medium egg whites

1/4 heaping teaspoon cream of tartar

2 cups powdered sugar

Place egg whites (save yolks for another use) and cream of tartar in completely clean mixing bowl and beat until stiff, using electric mixer on high speed. Add powdered sugar and beat until soft peaks form.

Butterfinger bars

Makes 18 servings

1/2 cup dark corn syrup

2/3 cup butter, melted

1 cup brown sugar, packed

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 cups oatmeal

PEANUT BUTTER TOPPING

1 (6-ounce) package chocolate chips

1/2 cup peanut butter

Mix syrup, butter and brown sugar in large bowl, using wooden spoon. Add vanilla extract and oatmeal. Mix together, using fingers. (Mixture will be firm.)

Press mixture into buttered 9-by-13-inch baking pan and bake at 350 degrees 15 minutes. (Do not overbake.) Cool slightly. Meanwhile, place chocolate chips and peanut butter together in saucepan over very low heat. Stir until melted.

Spread topping onto bars. Cut into 18 pieces. Chill until set.

EASY AS PIE

When rolling out the pie dough, make sure you roll in every direction, or you'll get what Helen Myhre calls "Africa." The crust will not be round and it'll be difficult to fit into the pan. Of course, anyone who turns out 150 pies a day ought to know a thing or two about pie. Mrs. Myhre, known as Wisconsin's Queen of Pies, no longer needs to measure. A scoop of flour, some shortening, "and then I go under the faucet and mix until it feels right." A pro, she makes a dozen pies at a time. But even if you are only making one, Mrs. Myhre suggests a few things you can do to improve your pie making.

* "Taste everything as you go. A pinch of salt can make all the difference. And use your finger instead of a spoon. Ingredients change flavor when they hit metal or wood."

* "When measuring shorten- ing, wet the measuring cup first and the shortening will slide right out. Home-rendered lard makes the best pie crust, but it's practically impossible to get. Store-bought lard is awful. There is something in that lard to purify it that gives it a bad flavor. I use butter-flavor Crisco. I tried Spry, but it's waxy and just doesn't mix well; it breaks up."

* "Always use your fingers to mix pie dough. But don't mix too long or the crust will get tough."

* "For better flavor, crusts should be well browned. Plus, it keeps them from getting soggy after you add filling."

* "A rolling pin should be wooden and heavy. One about five pounds works fine."

* "Heap the filling into the crust. I've never liked a skinny pie."

* "Insert a knife into the slits of a double-crust pie. It should come out clear. If it's sugary, the pie needs more baking time."

* "When following a recipe, do the best you can to be precise, but remember, nothing turns out if you're too fussy."

* "Meringues, however, are another matter. When making one, be sure the bowl is completely clean and that no egg yolk drips into the white. And use medium eggs instead of large. Large eggs have a lot of water. If the meringue doesn't come out right, it probably means the eggs were in cold storage too long."

* "Don't dump all the meringue on the pie at once; add about a quarter of an inch at a time. And spread it around with a licker (rubber spatula) to get the bubbles out."

* "When removing a meringue pie from the oven, use thin pot holders. Thick ones will bunch up and tear the meringue."

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