Daniel Sheehan's Humble Pie
Dawn is barely breaking over the West Side as I groggily arrive at Crossroads Rhode Island, the homeless service organization on Broad Street where the Humble Pie Company volunteers in exchange for use of the commercial kitchen. Owner Daniel Sheehan’s lanky six feet and four inches glide about the kitchen in relaxed, focused rotations—from table to oven to sink and back again.
Over the hum of the oven and throb of a playlist I made for him to combat solitary mornings and late nights, we begin the day’s labor. The stainless steel worktables are shining and pristine for now—they’ll soon be checkered with pies in autumnal tones of chocolate, ocher and cinnamon.
Today we’re making a few dozen mini pies—the muffin-sized versions of his brawny 11-inchers. These grab-and-go delights won customers over during his debut seasons at the Pawtucket Wintertime Farmers’ Market and four others this past summer plus Providence Flea. They are also available daily at downtown Providence’s New Harvest Coffee & Spirits and The Shop in Fox Point—the order we’re filling today.
We fold and gently squeeze each palm-sized square of dough into Humble Pie’s signature flower petal shape, then baste in the roasted pumpkin, Dutch apple, maple pecan or parsnip custard fillings. Despite the morning’s remnants of summer, these fall offerings are inducing all kinds of sweater-weather fantasies.
Preparing parsnips and pumpkins, Sheehan is also busy gearing up for the busy holiday season—a time of year when warm, gooey pie, gobbled with family and friends, is on the tip of everybody’s tongue. Our small state so often feels like a large extended family—one that squabbles over the small stuff, celebrates accomplishments, pries into your personal life and likes the same weird snacks (coffee milk and hot wieners, anyone?).
As it happens in Rhode Island, Sheehan is part of my actual family. When he first entered my cousin Alex’s life and began bringing his creations to our clan’s dinners, everyone resoundingly agreed—“he’s a keeper.” According to Alex, who frequently accompanies Dan in the kitchen and at the markets—“he had me at parsnip custard.”
But it’s not just the aesthetically seductive pies in traditional-with-a-twist flavors that had us all weak in the knees and bursting in the belly. It’s the love, care and intention Dan pours into everything he does—whether it’s relationships, business or baking.
“It’s all about balance to me—that word, it’s a mantra in my head whenever I’m devising a recipe and making a crust,” he explains as his long arms pull another tray of pies out of the oven to cool. “My crust is heavy but flaky, which is a neat contrast. I get excited by making something that defies convention.”
With some pies weighing in at a strapping three and a half pounds, Sheehan’s savory crust, made with a mix of Kenyon’s Grist Mill whole-wheat flour, King Arthur all-purpose flour, butter, water, sugar, salt and lemon juice (for tenderness), is no joke. It’s golden, flakey and dense, yet impossibly soft in all the right places.
Dancing between the classic and the unconventional, Sheehan loves to update time-honored recipes—ricotta with candied kumquats, maple s’more, Southern chess pie and, of course, the parsnip custard. The latter started out as a Fanny Farmer recipe but evolved over years of holiday and potluck tinkering to become a simplistic, ethereally smooth pie flavored with only the sweet earthiness of Schartner Farms parsnips and a hint of cardamom.
Sheehan says that the quality of his locally sourced ingredients saves him from using a lot of added sweetener. The sugar pumpkins from Chase Farms, for instance, are “good products that are naturally sweet—how they’re supposed to be. A sugar pumpkin from a nearby farm is going be sweeter than a standard pumpkin you’ll find in a big grocery store.”
Being a (mostly) one-man show allows him to take “field trips” out to the many farms across the state and region to buy ingredients in person. He says it’s one of his favorite parts of the business—extending the family further.
The oven timer dings and after 10 minutes of cooling time we’re driving over to New Harvest to deliver the pies and (blessedly) continue the conversation over coffee—but not before I grab a Dutch apple for breakfast. The best part of these semi-sweet personal pies exploding with the natural flavors of Rhode Island: They defy the time constraints of dessert.
Sheehan actually didn’t like pie as a kid, judging crumbly and tasteless store-bought crust a lame vehicle for chunky fillings. But that swiftly changed when he became a baker and discovered pie’s simple charms and the zen of working in big batches—“I love spending two hours peeling a bushel of apples,” he claims.
A Roger Williams University–trained architect and former construction project manager, Sheehan decided to try baking for the same reasons many do—a break from office life and to satisfy a wicked sweet tooth. Despite having no experience, his analytical foundation and rigid attention to detail proved vital and transferable in the kitchen. He thought it would be a temporary gig but nearly a decade later he’s still happiest shoulder-deep in a bag of flour.
“Most people think you have to be good at math to be an architect, which is true—but it’s really an art and design degree that teaches you to unleash your creative energies,” Sheehan explains when I ask about his transition from building to baking. “At first I thought baking was going to be this hokey, dabbly occupation but I got to experience how very structured and efficient it needs to be—and I began to develop speed.”
That efficacy led him to a job at renowned Seattle bakery Café Besalu and later to his role as bread baker at Seven Stars Bakery where he baked and shaped bread for three years. But for Sheehan, all roads lead to his dream of owning a brick-and-mortar bakery that also serves as a “third place” community institution. When imagining the farmers’ market–based baking business that would launch this mission, Sheehan realized Providence had a piehole that only he could fill. Finding a home within the shelter was an oddly fitting last step.
Crossroads Executive Chef Dave Rocheleau says forming an alliance with a local food business is a concept he’s explored since taking charge of the meal program two years ago. He says when Dan approached him last year, “we formed an immediate (in my opinion) connection. Each party has a hand in fulfilling the other’s needs.”
“I’m thrilled that Crossroads and Dave were receptive to the idea of having another warm body in the kitchen,” Sheehan says of this unique partnership. “As a business, I want Humble Pie to be involved in its community—whether that’s at farmers’ markets, locally sourcing ingredients, raising money for organizations we believe in or volunteering our time.”
As I take the last bite of Humble Pie and wash it down with life-affirming New Harvest coffee, I feel overwhelmingly grateful to be part of this rambling Rhode Island family. We really know how to eat well.
Meanwhile, Dan is waxing poetic about his favorite pastry—almond croissants. He loves their complex structure of intricate, buttery flakes but knows that his pies satiate the soul as well as the tongue.
“Pie hasn’t really experienced a lot of time as a ‘high pastry,’” he says. “It’s not viennoiserie—it’s rustic, it has connotations of home.”
For more information and where to find Humble Pie, visit HumblePiePVD.com.