On recent warm afternoon, with the smell of the holidays freshly in the air, I thought I would check out a place that I had heard about, but had put off visiting for one reason or another. Jumping into my car, I made my way to the Pie’d Piper, a little gem located in the Trenton Farmer’s Market that sells the most delectable pies, rolls, breads, cakes, cookies, and — most notably — pierogies. Trenton baker, Walter Czajkowski, whose name is pronounced like Tchaikovsky, the famous Russian composer, does his composing with doughs and fillings.
After I passed rows of local produce stands and the ever-ubiquitous Amish fare, I approached the modest but generously stocked stall where a frenzy of customers were busy picking up orders of cakes and pies… and dozens of pierogies.
“The pierogies are my mom’s recipe,” said Czajkowski, whose mother taught him to cook many Polish favorites. Czajkowski continues using his mother’s recipes today, but adds his own touches, which explains why customers ordered more than 637-dozen for Christmas.
Besides offering the traditional potato-cheddar and sauerkraut-mushroom pierogies, he also makes fresh ricotta and cherry pierogies. My intrigue was indeed piqued. “These are my dessert pierogies. A lot of people love these and serve them sauteed in a butter sauce and top them with whipped cream,” said Czajkowski. I imagined them in a warmed champagne, or rum butter sauce with fresh whipped cream and a nice glass of something…adult.
A full inventory of the display case yielded about 8-10 different well-filled, homemade pierogies whose numbers dwindled the longer I stuck around.
“I grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country where we fry pierogies, but Walt convinced me to sauté them in butter and onions, and I love them. My favorites are the potato-onion and the potato-mushroom,” said Jeanne, a loyal customer.
After making pies and desserts for years as a hobby for friends and family, Czajkowski decided to take the plunge and, with encouragement from family and friends, began baking full-time And full-time it is. He often puts in 15-hour days, working solo, churning out cookies, pies, coffee cakes, cupcakes. And, in the summer, he makes his own mozzarella cheese.
“I was always a baker and, when I was a kid, my mother ‘farmed’ me out to Robert Tilton of Bob’s Cake Box right here in Trenton on Adeline and Beatty Streets. Bob’s wife gave me my first job after hearing that I loved to bake. I worked for Bob and his wife all through high school and college,” relays Czajkowski.
Growing up in a house with his Polish speaking grandparents, he learned to cook many Polish favorites from his mother who, at a young age, was tasked with having to feed her siblings after her mother died. A graduate from St. Mary’s College Michigan, this theology and philosophy major deftly hands off two key lime pies and two dozen pierogies to a patiently waiting customer just before he hurries to the ovens and removes three beautiful cherry and pear galettes from the oven, almost overwhelming the aromas of nearby vendors. I could see customers and passersby breathing in deeply the smell of buttery, fruit filled pie crust. Many of them, looking for the source, rightly glanced our way. Those of us who bake know how challenging making a pie crust can be, but Czajkowski wields the ingredients like a pro who knows the difference between a good pie crust and a great one And there is a difference.
Czajkowski lives with diabetes and, over time, developed recipes that have little or no sugar added. Knowing that many of his customers also live with the disease, he makes sure they know exactly what ingredients are in his many offerings.
“My macaroons have about 75% less sugar than most, and I also use organic coconut flour and real unsweetened coconut,” said Czajkowski. “I have customers who are diabetics and since I know their dietary situation, they often ask me ‘What can I eat today?’”
As racks of Polish-Hungarian kifli cookies, filled with raspberry and such, are cooling in the background, four fresh racks of hamentashen are sorted by flavors and put out in the display case… right next to the homemade cinnamon apple donuts.
As I started to take a picture, a customer inquires what I was photographing and why. After informing her of my article, he exclaimed, “His scones are fantastic! The best that I’ve had — both the cinnamon and the blueberry!” Clearly, people love The Pie’d Piper which was obvious from the non-stop flow of patrons on a weekday.
I wanted to know a bit more about the pierogies and why they seemed to be the big draw to this humble baking outpost. I do like pierogies, but was ashamed to say that I had never really had any besides the kind you can by in the supermarket. Looking through the glass case at these pale dough colored packets, I was beginning to wonder what secret wasn’t I privy to and, after some consideration, I chose my first homemade pierogies. With a few kiflis, hamentashen and a bundle of a dozen assorted pierogies in hand, I surveyed the 700-square foot stall for anything I had missed.
As I was doing so, I saw Czajkowski place a sour cream coffee cake (also known as a Jewish coffee cake) on a cake stand, much to the delight and the curiosity of waiting customers. “My mother would make this on Sundays, as a treat. Coming home and smelling this cake was always…ummm,” he sighed, remembering those long ago Sundays and smiling. The walnut-topped confection joined the many pies, tarts and tartlettes, all filled with 100% natural ingredients. “I use real Meyer lemons in my lemon tarts and lemon meringue pies,” he boasted just loud enough for a passerby to hear, who comes over to the stall. Czajkowski and I both smile as the customer leaves with two pies and a dozen pierogies. From all that I tasted and smelled, I had little doubt he would be amply satisfied.
Excited to try the pierogies, Czajkowski told me, with a sly smile on his face, “You know the pierogies are good enough to eat even cold.” I wasn’t sure about that, as I had a picture of what the perfect plate of pierogies would look like in my head and I didn’t want to ruin it. Getting to the car, I dare say those words egged me on and, as much as I tried to resist, I gave in. Ten minutes later, I arrived home with 4 less pierogies. Well done, Walter! You’ve made your mother very proud and many others very satisfied. With enough pierogies left to create the perfect plate, I wondered what the rest of my family will have for dinner.
Start your New Year off right by holding off on the gym membership and visiting The Pie’d Piper in the Trenton Farmer’s Market, located at 960 Spruce Street in Lawrence, NJ 08648 (609-775-5087). Get the butter, onions and frying pan out and a sturdy fork. You’ll be there a while. Yum it up. Tell all your friends.