ELLSWORTH — “Don’t diet, pie it,” says the slogan on mugs and T-shirts sold at Helen’s Restaurant, located high up on the long slope of Downeast Highway descending into town.
In Maine, the word “pie” has been synonymous always with Helen’s Restaurant in Machias since Helen and Larry Mugnai and his siblings Julie and Esther opened the original Main Street place in 1950. Eating strawberry cream pie remains as ritual there as feasting on Red’s lobster rolls in Wiscasset, or treating yourself to a rum raisin cone at Mortons Moo or a raspberry tart in season at Frank’s Bake Shop in Bangor.
Still, for 25 years, Cathy Hodgkins has been hard at work making a name for her pies in the kitchen of Ellsworth’s Helen’s. The baker now has a faithful following for her blueberry, banana split, graham cracker, chocolate cream, lemon meringue and other pies made from scratch daily. She also makes cream puffs, hermit and molasses cookie bars, bread pudding and other old-fashioned desserts.
“I enjoy it,” Hodgkins says of her pre-dawn start time. “I’ve been here so long, I am used to it.”
During the off-season, Hodgkins makes about a dozen pies daily compared to nearly 30 during summer hours. Last year, from Aug. 1 through Oct. 31, the Ellsworth Helen’s sold roughly 9,000 slices of pie, of which 2,000 were blueberry.
In the kitchen by herself, with the radio turned up, Hodgkins was nearing 11 a.m. and the end of her workday. She recalled how she began working as a dishwasher at the Ellsworth Helen’s first location on Route 3. Several years later, she transitioned into baking.
As to pie-making, some tips and tricks have stuck with her and eased the process over time. For starters, she makes a higher-than-usual crust to ensure her pies’ cream fillings do not spill over. She uses shortening in her pastry dough, which yields a flakier crust. She also recommends rolling “the dough out while it’s still cool,” to more easily maneuver the shell in a pie dish.
Over the years, Hodgkins has slipped in a few of her own dessert recipes such as her mother’s “chocolate mayonnaise cake.” She says the unlikely condiment, “gives the chocolate a nice little zing.”
During her long tenure at Helen’s, Hodgkins has never once called in sick. She also makes the restaurant’s daily specials some of which are from her own recipes like the crabmeat quiche and cream of broccoli soup.
“I could disappear and these guys would be fine,” the Ellsworth Helen’s owner Melanie Fox declared, marveling at her steadfast staff, many of whom have worked at the restaurant for at least a decade.
Fox, herself, got her start in the restaurant business at the Machias Helen’s. Beginning at age 16, she worked for that restaurant’s previous owners, Gary and Judy Hanscom, who had the vision to bring Helen’s home cooking and famed pie-making to Ellsworth. The mother of four bought the business after having her third child.
From the promise of fresh homemade pie at a bargain price and the fireplace glowing in the dining room, the atmosphere was warm and bright on a recent Tuesday. On Tuesdays, in honor of the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce’s March Madness promotion, a slice of pie costs $2.99 and that bargain price draws big lunch crowds.
Tom and Diane Dunn are among the regulars. When they enter, the Ellsworth couple are greeted by name.
“I love the banana split pie,” she says, while his favorites are the chocolate cream and the blueberry.
Fox is partial to blueberry pie too because she “can eat it for breakfast and eat it for dessert and it all feels OK.”
Such favorable responses are affirming for Hodgkins, who strives to “put love into my cooking.” It’s not listed in the instructions on many recipe cards, but the behind-the-scenes baker says, you need “to really care about what you’re doing,” is key.
Helen’s is open daily from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. For more information, call 667-2433 or visit helensellsworth.com and its Facebook page.