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Finished pies cool on the rack.

At 4 a.m., the Yoder’s Restaurant kitchen is quiet, the air thick with the smell of butter and sugar. The hum of the metal kitchen equipment is the early-morning soundtrack; the only other sounds are the creak of oven doors as they open and the squeak of sneakers on linoleum.

This is Yoder’s head baker Steve Hochstetler’s daily reality, and on this fall day it’s mine, too. Hochstetler, who’s been with Yoder’s for six years and is related to the Yoder restaurant family, preps and bakes at least 300 pies every Saturday in season. A soft-spoken man wearing a baseball cap, flour-covered Yoder’s T-shirt and tennis shoes, Hochstetler ran his own bakery in Indiana before taking over as Yoder’s head baker in 2010.

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Yoder's head baker Steve Hochstetler pops pies into the oven.

When I arrive at the restaurant on Saturday morning, sleepy and dangerously undercaffeinated, I expect to see lines of bonneted Amish ladies scooping clouds of whipped cream onto Yoder’s famous peanut butter pies. Instead, I find Hochstetler manning the pies and another baker, Erin Troyer, tending to breads, muffins and cinnamon rolls. No bonnets in sight.

Why am I at Yoder’s at 4 a.m.? To get a glimpse of what it’s like to make the 7,000 pies the tiny kitchen will produce for the Thanksgiving weekend—and to live my dream of baking in a professional kitchen.

I love to bake. When life gets crazy, leveling flour in a measuring cup, turning on my KitchenAid mixer and watching sugar bubble into caramel calms me down as much as any pill would. In an alternative life, I would own a bakery. To me, baking is as much an art as sculpture or painting.

Even better, you get to eat your masterpiece.

But at Yoder’s, baking isn’t a peaceful recreational pursuit. It’s big business, and the stakes are high, especially during the holiday season, when people all over Sarasota and beyond count on their festive dinners ending with a Yoder’s pie.

“After 7,000 we have to cut off [Thanksgiving] orders,” says Brian Emrich, Yoder’s general manager. “They start coming on Nov. 1. Last year, we had to cut off a couple of days before pie-selling day, and people were so upset.”

Emrich says his mother, Mary Lou Emrich—daughter of restaurant founders Amanda and Levi Yoder—remembers when the restaurant would get just 50 pie orders during Thanksgiving season. “There were only three of them, and they didn’t know how they were going to do 50,” he recalls.

These days, Yoder’s sells about 2,500 Thanksgiving pumpkin pies. An entire cooler is devoted to them. “Ten crates high, three deep one each side,” Emrich says. And the lines of customers waiting to pick up their pies can wind around the store. A bevy of volunteers, from Amish bakers who travel from Indiana to Sarasota on the Pioneer Express bus to a retired cop, helps to maintain order in the line.

Emrich says Hochstetler works fast and efficiently. “He’s like a mass producer,” he says. “And there are some things we can do ahead. We’ll make all the puddings for cream pies the weekend before, and we can do all the crusts the week before that, but all those fruit pies are done just a day or two ahead.”

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McDonald adds filling to a strawberry-rhubarb pie.

When I arrive, weeks before the Thanksgiving rush, Hochstetler is already filling crusts for pecan and shoofly pies they’ll sell this afternoon. The baking kitchen is barely big enough for him and Troyer, and I worry I’m in the way. I find myself doing a weird jig to stay out of their paths. But Hochstetler moves like a ballet dancer, avoiding collisions and gliding between his assembly station and the ovens. He could bake pies in his sleep.

Every single pie at Yoder’s is made by hand, from the crust to the final topping. Pie fillings are prepared, then stored in large white containers labeled with that day’s date, and pie shells are baked and frozen for later use. Fillings range from custards to a colorful array of fruit—apple, cherry, raspberry, strawberry-rhubarb and more. When you assemble a fruit pie, you must weigh the filling, making sure the scale registers 3.33 pounds. Some are baked with crusts on top, some have latticework or crumb toppings, others go into the oven plain.

I watch Hochstetler fill a series of pies with lightning speed. Then it’s my turn.  Hochstetler tells me to fill seven pies, four blueberry and three cherry. After I slip on my latex gloves, I agonize over getting the filling to the right weight before setting my pies on a rack. I’m so slow I set him back a good 15 minutes. “Sorry, sorry!” I keep saying. “It’s OK!” he replies.

I begin to relax and feel my way toward a rhythm. I dip my hand into the colorful, jelly-like filling, savor the satisfying plop of the fruit into the pie shell, check the weight and slide the pie to the rack. Next! I work faster, forgetting about what’s going on around me and reaching for bigger scoops of filling. The concentration and precision are comforting, reminding me why I love baking.

By the time Hochstetler is ready for me to help mix the filling for the strawberry-rhubarb pies, I’m feeling cocky. The literal fruits of my labor are starting to come out of the oven, bubbling through slits in the golden-brown crusts. I pause to admire my handiwork, thinking about the customers who will purchase and exclaim over these sweet circles. But I stop for only a second. There are more crusts to fill.

To order a holiday pie from Yoder’s, call (941) 955-7771 at least a week in advance. Prices range from $14.95 for an eight-inch cream pie to $19.95 for a 10-inch pie.

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Yoder's

$$ American, Southern 3434 Bahia Vista Street

Famous for its homemade pies (more than two dozen flavors like Dutch apple crumb and chocolate peanut butter), Yoder’s also offers comfort food.