North Carolina baker Keia Mastrianni spreads the love.

Its easy to feel the love around Keia Mastrianni.

First of all, theres the clear pride and joy poured into every slice of her small-batch bakery, Milk Glass Pie, which uses local and seasonal ingredients to spread sweetness that tastes like the time of year and North Carolina terrain.

Then theres the community she helps foster—an eclectic, creative mix of farmers, food makers, and other artisans who cheer one another on in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Not to mention that she works in tandem with her husband, Jamie, who runs Old North Farm on the land where they live and he was raised, with the duo dreaming big for their little pocket of the American south, drawing visitors from near and far and forging a deeper sense of place.  

And when shes not slinging pie at local farmers markets, hosting a new on-farm Sunday supper series, or writing about food in the likes of Bon Appétit and Southern Living, Keia is schooling us on how to make a mean crust (no Lily White Flour, folks) and exuding the warmth of her love is pieethos.

We caught up with her in early March, before Old Norths annual Fish Pickin’ event, to chat about her home states foodways, how she began baking, and her favorite ingredients—go ahead and splurge on the good butter.

Before you were a baker, you were a food writer. Where did your love of food begin?

I grew up in central Florida, in the Orlando suburbs, but my interest in food really started when I moved to North Carolina [after college]. I landed in the Charlotte region, and the abundance of local farms and farmers markets was quite astounding. It was so easy to buy local food every single weekend. I would go to the markets every Saturday, engage with local farmers, and that led to me writing about food. I got to meet a lot of really cool people—farmers and chefs and artisans, and I found fascinating. Its always been about connecting to peoples humanity and finding the deeper meanings; food is a great vehicle for telling those stories.

How would you describe your local North Carolina foodways?

I began my foray into food and food writing in Charlotte, North Carolina and one of the most pressing questions was what unites Charlottes food scene? The answer was always our proximity to local agriculture. People are working with the landscape and growing beautiful food here. As a pie baker, I get my flour from Carolina Ground, a local grain mill I first encountered on my writing beat. The woman who runs the mill, Jennifer Lapidus, spent a good decade of her life connecting farmers, millers, bakers, and agricultural research to develop a local grain economy—and now, an hour from me, theyre cold stone milling regionally grown wheat into fresh flour. That’s a pretty big deal. But there are so many stories, from fisherfolk on the coast to all the people in-between who are making good use of what North Carolina offers.

Tell us about the farms grapes, which are both native to North Carolina.

We have muscadine and Scuppernong vines that Jamies grandfather planted years ago. His family takes care of them, and its always been that, during muscadine season, they pick what they want, and then invite the neighbors over to pick grapes. I make a lot of muscadine handpies during that time of year and whole muscadine pies. During a dinner with Lost Creek Farm in West Virginia, I did a [savory-sweet] green tomato and Scuppernong pie, which was fun and delicious. . . . Muscadines and scuppernongs are their own taste. The skin is firm and tart, but the juice is sweet, its own thing, the rural cousin of a grape.

Tell me a little bit more about kind of the origins of Milk Glass. Why pie?

I tell people that I wanted something that felt kind of Southern and domestic. When I wrote a about Carolina Ground way back in like 2012, I interviewed Jennifer Lapidus in her old mill space. In doing my research, I stumbled upon a bakery in the mountains of Marshall called Smoke Signals. Turns out this bakery was only open on Sundays, the same day I happened to be on my reporting trip. That was the first time I met Tara Jensen, this rad chick who was pulling wood-fired bread out of an oven that built by Alan Scott, this famous oven maker. I returned to Marshall for a pie workshop led by Tara, and came home with the confidence to bake more. I latched onto pie, and that was close to the time when I met Jamie. Our first Christmas together, he gave me The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book and wrote a note inside that said, Love is pie.He saw me as a baker before I saw myself as one, and now thats the tagline for the business.

You moved to Shelby in 2019 and launched Old North Farm in 2021, with Milk Glass Pie really taking off throughout the pandemic in 2020, with your front porch piedeliveries. How does the bakery cross-pollinate with the farm? 

I use our vegetables all the time—every weekend, Jamie and I collaborate on a farmers quiche with whatever weve got available on the farm. The other week, Jamie cleaned out a bed of carrots and tossed a bunch of ugly carrots aside. I made carrot cake out of it. We also have an orchard on the farm, with cherry and plum and fig trees that will eventually be used for pies. Jamie also built me a pie garden, which will have more long-term crops, like strawberries and asparagus and we just planted 10 blueberry bushes. Were always looking to have a more closed-loop system and are committed to growing these businesses in place.

What are the pluses of pairing pie with cast iron?

I love baking in cast iron. Because of its incredibly even heat distribution and how it holds heat, it just makes a super crisp pastry. Of course, Im normally baking for production, but when we have company or I want to bring something to a party that makes a statement, baking in a cast-iron skillet always produces a wow factor. Im thinking about a strawberry brioche bread pudding that I did once that was really stunning. A pan is also perfect for making a double-crust pie, the edges are a great fit for the crust and it just gives it a nice shape. I never use any parchment, just put it straight into the pan. We’ve done an impressive oyster pie in the Lily, a showstopper.

As a pie baker, what are your go-to ingredients?

Carolina Ground is what I use exclusively for flour. I love supporting my local mill and believe freshly milled flours have the best flavor. I use Plugra butter regularly, but any high-fat, European-style butter is going to make a flaky pie crust. Im a big fan of using whats in season. Strawberry season is nearly here. Weve been making jam with tunnel-grown winter strawberries, but I refuse to make a strawberry pie until the real springstrawberries, field-grown and ripened by the sun, show up. Oh, I use Diamond Kosher salt. But we are house divided—my husband likes Mortons.

Do you have a favorite pie?

Ill use what Jamie always says: “my favorite pie is the next one.” I do make the brown sugar buttermilk pie out of Ronni Lundys book, Victuals, a lot. I call that my back-pocket party pie, because its dead simple and really delicious. Anybody could make it. Its one of those recipes where people think you’ve done a lot of hard work to get there but its so easy. Im always gonna include a berry pie with rye crust as one of my favorites too.

What about go-to kitchen tools that you couldnt live without?

This kind of sounds silly, and this is not a plug for Rachael Ray, but theres this Rachael Ray bench scraper with a red handle that is like my third appendage—I use it every single day, from unsticking pie dough from the baking table to cleaning up the crumbs and scraps to chopping butter when Im mixing dough. Its how I move pastry around the baking table. That thing is indispensable.

Also, a short, wooden rolling pin. Someone gave one to me as a gift. Its about 10 and a half inches long. I use it to laminate dough. It gives you way more control than a long, tapered rolling pin.

And then, as a baker, Im always going to say a digital scale. If you want to do baking in any sort of capacity, and do it well, having a scale is the best way to go. Ask four people to measure one cup of flour, then weigh them all, and theyre all going to be different. But if you know that a cup of flour is 144 grams, you can just measure 144 grams, and everyone will have the same weight, every time.

Growing up in Florida, when did cast iron first come into your consciousness?

With Jamie. When his grandmother passed, his aunt gave him her biscuit pans, which are probably over 100 years old. His great-grandmother used them. We have those now, and we use Butter Pat every single day. Right now, we have our Heather and our Joan on the stovetop. We cook in them for everything that we do here. Breakfast frittatas in a Butter Pat. Farm lunch, served in a cast iron pan. When we cook dinner, we use a pan. It’s part of our kitchen life and home life.

Read Mastrianni’s recipe in Family Receipts.

Photographs courtesy of Jonathan Cooper, Johnny Autry and Keia Mastrianni.

March 30, 2023 — Dennis Powell