The journey of Marlene Parlow of Oneida to baking great pies
By Margaret McCormick
Marlene Parlow is filling, baking and boxing up 75 pies to sell at the Hamilton Farmers’ Market on Saturday. Not just any pie: her signature Really Good Pie, in flavors like apple, sour cherry, very berry, blueberry and strawberry rhubarb. In season, the Madison County market opens at 8 a.m. on the Village Green. Some weeks, she sells out by 10:30 a.m.
After that, she’ll pack up her market tent and table and head home to Oneida to relax.
Parlow, 68, is the owner of Really Good Pie, which operates out of Center Street Market, her café and local food shop in Canastota. After taking the summer off to concentrate on the market, farm stands and special events, Parlow has resumed serving café lunches at Center Street and filling her bakery case with cookies, cupcakes, scones, muffins and other treats for walk-in sale. She also bakes pies for Henry’s Farm Stand in Chittenango and the Mosher Farms farmstand in Bouckville (seasonal) and pies and grab-and-go meals for 20/East, a store in Cazenovia.
“Her key lime and sour cherry pies are the top sellers,’’ said Mckenzie Hughes Houseman, owner of 20/East. “Her quiche flies out of here as well.’’
Parlow had a long and varied career before arriving at this sweet spot in her professional life. She grew up in Canastota and graduated from Vernon-Verona-Sherrill High School. She studied nursing at BOCES, but ended up taking a different path, one that led her to travel across the country. When the road brought her back to Central New York, she sold advertising for the Oneida Dispatch and attended the Utica School of Commerce. On Friday nights, she worked as a cook in the kitchen at the American Legion in Sherrill.
The chef there was a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and told Parlow she couldn’t possibly get in. She took that as a challenge and called the CIA to request an application. She was accepted and began her own training there in 1984. “It was intense, but it was a wonderful time in my life,’’ Parlow recalled. “You took classes in everything.’’
Following graduation, Parlow served as product research and development coordinator at SUNY Cortland and later owned a restaurant in Oneida, Ralf’s Downtown Café. She also spent more than a decade as an executive and team leader with Celebrate Home, a home decorating and fundraising direct sales company, and taught cake decorating classes for Wilton Industries.
She eventually decided to stay at home with her two sons and launched home-based Cakes and Other Goodies, quickly developing a following for her cookies, pastries and custom cakes for all occasions.
“I was always baking because that’s what I loved the best,’’ she said.
When the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market opened in 2014, she signed up as a vendor, bringing cookies, scones, biscotti and a handful of pies. The pies disappeared quickly. She added the Cazenovia market to her schedule and brought several dozen pies — and watched them sell out. A customer at one of the markets declared her product “Really Good Pie” and the name stuck.
And that’s how Parlow came to focus mainly (but not entirely) on pies. Pretty much any baker can bang out a tray of cookies or brownies, but pies are a specialized art and take more skill, labor and time. Parlow makes large batches of pie dough during the week and refrigerates pastry for individual pies for later use. On baking days, she makes fillings and assembles one 8-inch, double-crust pie at a time.
The process is smooth and efficient thanks to a custom-built, wooden pie press made for her by a company in Canada. Pressing each pastry ball through the press saves time and eliminates the process of flouring a counter and rolling out dough. Two convection ovens allow her to bake 24 pies at a time. After they cool, they’re boxed and labeled for sale.
Some bakers use shortening (or lard) for their pie crusts, but Parlow believes butter is essential to a flavorful and flaky crust. She favors European-style butter, which has a higher butterfat content than regular butter. “There’s no Crisco here,’’ she said. “Everything is butter.’’
The outdoor market season runs through late October and it’s not too early to plan for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Parlow fills orders for 300 pies (plus cheesecakes) at Thanksgiving, doing the baking on Monday and Tuesday, boxing them up for pick-up and delivery on Wednesday — and recovering on Thanksgiving Day.
“It’s hard work and it’s physically demanding work,’’ she said, noting that family and friends help her out at the holidays.
Then it’s time to fire up the ovens for a month-long holiday cookie baking spree, though plenty of people order Christmas pies, too. Parlow offers more than a dozen varieties of “fancy cookies’’ each year, from chocolate meatballs to orange meltaways to white chocolate raspberry bars to tri-color cookies to almond paste cookies with cherries on top. Rather than arrange the cookies on trays, she packages three dozen cookies in pie boxes.
“I might add coconut macaroons this year,’’ Parlow noted. “I love the classic things and I like to play with recipes.’’
Center Street Market is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Friday.
For more information on the café (and Really Good Pie and other baked goods), call 315-264-1481 or go to www.facebook.com/centerstreetmarket13032
Margaret McCormick is a food writer and food blogger in Syracuse.