Piece of the pie

Nearby shops give Julian a run for its, well, pie

The arrival of crisp autumn mornings, the tail end of fruit season and the realization that Thanksgiving is just around the corner raises important questions: “Who’s hosting this year? Which games are we going to watch? And what kind of pie are they going to have?”

The popular perception of San Diego is one of surf and sand –- not images traditionally associated with America’s dessert - and so every year, many of us take the long drive up Julian Road to find the perfect pie, and in the process, miss out on some magnificent local choices.

Divine desserts

She makes cakes, cookies, truffles and tarts, all with the gourmet touch, but Michele Coulon is really just in it for the pie.

“The wedding cakes pay the rent,” she says, “but the pies are what I love to do.”

One of La Jolla’s premiere dessert and bakeshops, Michele Coulon Dessertier, brings a European touch to traditional American fare. Her creations also benefit from a rich European-style butter. Her pecan pie is not complete without a decorative shortbread cookie and a light dusting of edible 23 karat gold powder. But while the appearance is important, flavor is king.

As an advocate and practitioner of the Slow Food principles, Coulon incorporates local and organic ingredients at every turn and you can taste them. The classic pumpkin pie, of which the shop will turn out more than 100 through the season, is made from fresh, not canned, organic pumpkins from Temecula, resulting in a spicy, fabulously light and creamy filling on a firm cookie-style crust. The bakery also makes individual pies for bringing back to the office or tucking into right on the spot.

Country cuisine

Admittedly, part of the appeal of the cottage pie industry in Julian is the change of scenery, but what if you could find a superb apple pie nestled in forested hills, just a few minutes from the coast?

That is where you will find Thyme in the Ranch Cafe & Bakery, located in the heart of Rancho Santa Fe village. The quaint, delightfully appointed eatery with its sophisticated country menu is owned and operated by Dawn and Shane Pursell, who are gearing up for another extremely busy round of Thanksgiving pie-making to meet the ever-increasing demand.

The pie that attracts so much attention is the Crumble Apple Pie, a long-standing family recipe. With three and a half pounds of tangy, thinly-sliced Granny Smith apples and a light, flaky crust that rises up from the pan to partially obscure the filling, this pie is a monster. Served with freshly made whipped cream, the pies of Thyme in the Ranch are, as described by cafe regular Stacey Petska, “completely to die for.”


Finding Elizabeth Harris’ cute-as-a-button retro bakery, Elizabethan Desserts, might be a bit tricky, thanks to the continuing road work on Encinitas Boulevard and the city’s restrictive signage policies, but the reward is well worth it.

The classic American, 1950s inspired treats in the deli case are as beautiful as they are delicious - smore bars, chocolate chip cookies, red velvet cupcakes and, of course, pies. Aficionados should know that the sweet crunchy lattice top crust on the Cherry, Cherry Baby pie can be quickly dismantled by hand for dipping into the fresh sour cherry filling. The use of a fork for the remainder of the pie proved no obstacle for this near-perfect example of the genre. Thankfully, the pies are available in both full and individual sizes for those times when nothing but pie will do.

Harris maintains an eco-responsible approach to her baking and a socially responsible outlook in her community. While using as many natural and organic ingredients as possible to keep both her regular and holiday clientele satisfied, Harris and her staff also donate their time and skills to baking for the Pie in the Sky holiday pie event on behalf of Mama’s Kitchen, a San Diego charity that provides nutritious meals to those living with AIDS or other critical illnesses.

As the holidays approach, these local shops will no doubt be cranking up their efforts to meet the needs of San Diego pie lovers. So whether you are looking for a fresh, homemade pie to bring home for dinner, for a special event or just a snack to go with your cup of coffee, give a thought to the local option. You won’t be disappointed.