Onnalee and Tim Nicklin of Sweethaven Fields are market regulars in Emporia for the past six years, and last summer they even allowed Prairie Earth Tours to bring a crowd to their beautiful home and land south of Emporia as part of an Emporia Farmers Market farm tour.
Participants got to see their unique gardening style, with one for shade and one for sun as well as beautiful “native forest” landscaping with a magical theme, as well as the “castle” of rock that Tim built with his own hands. Every stop on the tour was great, but Sweethaven was like stepping into another world.
The Nicklins follow natural gardening practices: Raised beds, sodded aisles, no tilling, fertilizing with compost only, mulched beds and a permaculture design and practice. Permaculture is rooted in three principles:
Take care of the Earth.
Take care of people — starting with yourself!
Share resources and abundance
The couple likes trying new plants, such as arctic kiwi, honeyberry and a quince tree. at the market, depending on the season, you will find purple passion asparagus, black raspberries, strawberries, all manner of culinary herbs, red and green romaine lettuce, new zealand spinach, shallots, chinese and crimson okra, bittermelon, gooseberries, asian pears and much more.
Onnalee always has some of her unique art and crafts available. And then there are the Pie Bites.
The Nicklin’s pie bites have become famous. Easily eaten in two or three bites (though some can do it in one) and packaged in a lovely little trio, the pie bites are a lovely snack, breakfast, dessert, tea cake — you name it. Sweet, but not too sweet, plenty of fruit flavor (as opposed to gelatin) and a sturdy, yet flaky crust that’s not at all gummy.
Onnalee and Tim graciously agreed to let me invade their sanctuary and observe the making of the pie bites.
Onnalee wants to be clear that the couple works as a team.
“He’s a great cook. He’s a great baker,” she said. “And I enjoy going out and building things with him.”
“When we do the pies, we do it together, the entire process,” she said.
“It makes it a lot easier,” Tim agreed.
The couple also believes in staying as close to a whole-foods, plant-based diet as possible. This means finding a way to avoid processed items. Berries and rhubarb are from the garden.
“We had a summer where things were really slow, and we were trying to think of other things to do at the market,” Onnalee said.
“We saw people at the market trying to sell pies, and people were telling us they couldn’t eat a whole pie,” Tim said.
“Tim said well, let’s do something smaller, something more personal, bite-sized,” Onnalee said.
Their first thought was to watch the sugar content.
“We had fruit. We had berries — strawberries, black raspberries, apples,” Onnalee said. “We don’t add very much sugar because we want people to taste the fruit. We’ve had people ask us if we would do sugar-free, but we haven’t gotten there yet.”
“So, we kind of started out with a basic dough recipe,” Onnalee said. “But then he’s the one that tweaked it and perfected it, and they sell really well.”
The Nicklins have a special dough recipe that uses a unique fat: coconut oil.
“It’s kind of tricky,” Tim said. “But what I do, is, we warm it up a little, then pour it into ice cube trays, a tablespoon each.”
The Nicklins feel this fat allows the dough to cook thoroughly and still be flaky. However, the dough can’t be worked as cold as most pie doughs are; too cold and it cracks, too warm and it tears.
Tim starts the day by putting frozen fruit into saucepans.
“A little bit later I will make the crust,” Onnalee said. “And then when it has had a little bit of time to chill, he will roll it out and cut it; I put it into the muffin tins and add the filling, and then they are baked.”
At this point Tim is usually on his way to work, so Onnalee finishes up with the packaging.
The three fillings on my visit were strawberry and rhubarb, gooseberry and rhubarb and black raspberry. A few complimentary spices are added and then it’s thickened with cornstarch.
“We use cornstarch instead of flour as a thickener,” Tim said “It make a nice, shiny, filling.”
“Flour kind of makes it dull,” Onnalee said. “Yeah, cloudy,” Tim added.
I was unfamiliar with a black raspberry, and Tim explained.
“Black raspberry has a little bit more of a raspberry flavor to it, and it doesn’t have the stem like a blackberry.”
The Nicklins are meticulous about cleanliness, making sure everything is pristine before preparing.
Tim begins rolling the prepared dough into an oblong shape. A homemade pastry cutter of a recycled shortening can allows him to get 10 tart shells per batch.
As Tim releases each circle from the cutter, Onnalee receives them and shapes the crusts in the muffin tins. Once a tin is filled, the filling is spooned in.
Three tins later, 36 pie bites are ready for the oven. They will be cooled, packaged and sold the next day at the market.
What a great idea, and easily executed at home, or, purchased locally at the Emporia Farmers Market.
Reach the Nicklins at firstname.lastname@example.org.