For more than a decade, drivers on the highway between the cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand, have been making a delicious stop: the pie shop at Charin Garden Resort. There, road-weary travelers sit down to cups of full-bodied coffee brewed from beans raised by nearby hill tribes. And, more important, they eat pie: sweet Chiang Rai pineapple pie and locally grown macadamia nut pie; pungent durian pie and honey-banana pie. There's a "pumpkin" pie made with kabocha squash, a toddy palm pie made with palm seeds, taro and mango cream pies, and the shop's most popular selection: coconut cream pie, made with the tender meat of just-picked fruit (see Recipe: Young Coconut Cream Pie.)
If some of the 30 or so rotating flavors seem distinctly American—strawberry and old-fashioned apple, for instance—that's because they are. The pies are the creation of proprietor Charin Singkarat, who moved from Bangkok, Thailand, to Los Angeles in the 1970s and lived there for 18 years. An avid home baker, this petite, determined woman took a pastry course and experimented with recipes from American cookbooks while working full-time as a medical records clerk. Eventually, she saved enough money to invest in land near Chiang Rai. Her plan was to open a bakery there, a dream she fulfilled in 1992 when she retired from her hospital job and moved back to her home country.
On a recent trip to Thailand, I tasted a slice of her famous coconut cream version. Tucked between a flaky butter crust and several inches of meringue topping is the pie's silky filling, rich with coconut milk and young coconut meat. It melted in my mouth. Thankfully, Singkarat, at 86, has no plans to retire. Presiding on the day I visited over the resort's dining room, she watched me roll my eyes with pleasure as I polished off the pie. "I bake it fresh each day," she beamed.