Karen Uyeda's background in aerospace engineering and helping to launch the first (MPEG-2) digital broadcast in the world has come in handy in the world of pies. She's won a first-place ribbon last year at the Orange County fair, and has a regular stall at at Irvine's Great Park and Capital Group campus farmers market. And she made splashes across the Southern California pie circuit by being one of the winners in
KCRW-FM 89.9's Good Food 2016 pie contest, winning first place in the vegan category with her amaretto cherry pie with coconut oil crust.
“For the KCRW contest I decided to enhance my cherry by adding in the amaretto and it made a big difference in the flavor,” she says. “I buy the cherries frozen from Michigan, sour cherries, and I really believe it’s their sour cherries that’s reason I got the blue ribbon. Because they’re just beautiful cherries, and beautiful fruit makes beautiful pie.”
Uyeda recalls baking her first pie when she was twelve years old—lemon meringue. “My mother's from Japan and she didn’t know how to make pie,” she said. “So I had to learn how to make pie just from reading cookbooks and it turned out really good my first try.” she said. Uyeda continued her confectionary exploration baking pies, cupcakes, cookies and cakes as a home baker, while embarking on a successful engineering career. But right before she was going to retire, Uyeda was laid off. She had already been taking cooking classes and saw the adversity as an outlet to do full-time what she’s always loved.
“After I was laid off from aerospace I enrolled into the culinary program at Orange Coast College and received basic culinary and baking certificates from there,” she said. Uyeda’s culinary resume is just as impressive as her engineering career, with stints at Mitsuwa Delica, Tustin's Cream Pan Bakery, and at Leatherby's Cafe Rouge, where she currently works as a garde manger. Aside from her part-time position there, Uyeda also operates a cottage food company baking pies.
For those unfamiliar with cottage food, the California Homemade Food Act passed a bill allowing the sale of certain homemade food products deemed “non-hazardous,” including baked goods without use of eggs or dairy. “When I first got laid off, my ambition was to make pickles and sell them—not processed pickles but cold fermented pickles, Japanese style tsukemono,” she said. But the cottage food law did not allow foodstuffs that require fermentation and refrigeration, So Uyeda settled on fruit pies, launching Sweetcie Pie in the fall of 2014 and calling it after her daughter’s family nickname.
In addition to her farmer's markets appearances, Uyeda also has a Etsy account where you can order pies and she will hand-deliver them to you as long as you live in Irvine or local neighboring cities (she cannot ship due to CFO restrictions). Aside from her delightful pies, Uyeda offers puff pastries, fruit tarts and dragon tongues. “It’s really a butter-puff-pastry sugar cookie. I put Swedish pearl sugar on the top of it and it looks like the bumps of the tongue, it's flakey, crispy and delicious,” she says. And during the spring season, Tanaka Farms carries her decadent strawberry pies, which won her a blue ribbon at the OC Fair.
Uyeda hopes to retire and focus solely on Sweetcie Pie and spark further OC implementation of cottage food businesses. “My dream is there will be cottage food businesses in every neighborhood,” she said. “And that people will have the choice to get their foods from their neighbors. I know there are other second act people out there like me doing cottage food and I would love to do something with all of them and create a cottage food network.”