Peer inside the glass windows of the Country Store at the ExxonMobil gas station in Dubois. After 9 p.m., it’s the only thing you can do.
The doors are locked. The parking lot is empty. The store is dark and closed.
This is the home of the world’s largest jackalope exhibit. It’s a popular souvenir shop in town, a great place to stock up on fudge and jellybeans, the store where tourists stop while driving to and from Yellowstone National Park.
Peer long enough, though, and you’ll notice one light remains. It’s toward the back of this wooden store, where a slender woman appears and disappears as she moves with purpose in a room visible only through a tiny doorway.
Her apron is white. She has blond bangs and long fake fingernails, occasionally nodding to the loud tunes from a radio in the corner of this small back-room bakery.
This is Sherri Hildebrand. At 10 p.m. on a Tuesday, she’s just beginning a workday that sometimes stretches until 5 a.m.
You probably don’t know Sherri by name or face, but most people who visit this tourist town know her craft. It’s featured in a glass display case at the Cowboy Café, a small restaurant down the street, and mentioned in TripAdvisor reviews all over the Internet.
That raspberry rhubarb pie you love so much? That’s Sherri. The bourbon chocolate pecan, the peach caramel crunch, the apple blackberry and around 20 other pie varieties? Sherri.
For four years, she’s been the woman baking what many consider the best pies in Wyoming. They drive across the state, make special orders and tell their friends, and tonight, like almost every other night, Sherri is alone baking at the Country Store, making 23 more pies that will be devoured in the next 48 hours.
Sherri has a freezer stocked with these desserts. But this past summer, the 1,000 pies she worked so hard to stock up for the 2015 tourist season vanished in a record two-month span, meaning each night since has been filled with urgency.
Sherri is no longer trying to stock up for the next holiday or tourist season. She’s trying to make sure the Cowboy Cafés in both Dubois and Sheridan have enough pie to last the day.
“Every year has gotten worse. Or better. However you want to look at it,” the 49-year-old said in her Galveston, Texas accent.
“Gosh. The word is out.”
The pies are not Sherri’s recipes. They are Severine Murdoch’s.
She and her husband Robert purchased the Cowboy Café in 1993. When the two acquired the Dubois staple, they noticed one thing in particular under the previous ownership.
Desserts were frozen.
Severine is from Paris. She revamped the menu with a more homemade touch and introduced a unique dessert recipe from a childhood tradition she learned from her mother and grandmothers.
“I’m French,” the 44-year-old said. “I wasn’t going to not make pies.”
The pies were met with rave reviews, and over time, with an increase in online review sites, social media and word of mouth, the pies became a feature of their own.
Severine is constantly thinking of new recipes. This year, she came up with the rhubarb ginger crunch. Another year she introduced the chocolate pie with a salty pretzel crust.
Over the years, Severine has employed a handful of bakers who create her unique recipes. She hired Sherri back in October 2011, the only full-time baker on staff.
That’s a problem.
Last year, the Murdochs opened another Cowboy Café in Sheridan. During peak tourist season, the restaurant in Dubois goes through 30 pies a day. About 10 raw pies are sold from the Country Store, not to mention the many pies they ship daily to the café in Sheridan.
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“It’s a good problem, but it’s a problem that nags at me,” Severine said. “There’s more demand than what Sherri’s producing.
“In the morning, my servers (at the Cowboy Café), they look at what we have and they call the Country Store. They talk to the clerk, and say ‘I need this, this and this.’ Now they say, ‘I’ll take what you have.’"
Tonight’s process begins with a microwave.
Sherri thaws the frozen fruits before methodically mixing them in a bowl with sugar, corn starch and lemon juice.
On this night, the first round of pies will be three each of blueberry rhubarb, raspberry rhubarb, strawberry rhubarb, apple rhubarb and strawberry peach.
She’ll make a large batch of dough, measuring out ingredients, and after the concoction has been mixed and kneaded, she’ll pack them in large rolls like she’s making a snowball.
“These (pies) I can do in my sleep, and I literally have done them in my sleep,” Sherri said. “I’ve actually fallen asleep rolling out dough.”
She doesn’t always work late at night, but she prefers it. She gets more done when it’s quiet and lonely. During these hours, Sherri doesn’t need to think. She’s on autopilot. Her baking experience dates back to the days of cheesecakes and pecan pies she’d make for family and friends during her upbringing in Texas.
She moved to Dubois in 2011, and got this job a few months after.
Next, Sherri rolls out the dough. Her forearms are flexed and defined from repeating the process over and over. She uses her favorite red rolling pin. The handles are loose and cracked, and it squeaks like a grocery cart wheel.
“It has a lot of miles on it, but I love it. It’s the best.”
She’s very particular when it comes to her craft. She uses the same tools and ingredients it takes to create the 20 or so pies she makes on a daily basis. There are no cheat sheets or cookbooks lying around. The recipes are in her head.
Every night is a different pie. While this one is dedicated to fruit pies, Thursday nights are generally geared toward cream pies. She makes a coconut cream, a key lime pie, a peanut butter satin and sometimes meringue pies.
She likes the variety and challenge.
“When I’m doing this, I’m happy. There’s probably not a lot of people who could do this day in and day out and be happy,” she said. “After one summer people would probably be like, ‘I’m out.’”
These past few summers, Sherri received part-time help. Even so, she still worked 50-hour weeks.
The next steps in the pie-making process happen at a quick, robotic pace. Cut a large circular piece of flattened dough. Place it in the pan. Scoop an even amount of fruit. Crimp the crust using long fingernails.
And before blanketing the pie with a layer of top crust, Sherri leaves her mark the way an artist signs their name. She imprints a stencil in the middle of the dough (a cowboy, boot or cowboy hat) and carves four diamonds around it.
“Perfection,” she said. “In the end, my goal is to make it look like it came out of a factory.”
The raw pie will make its way to a shelf on the freezer, joining only 13 pies that remain from the day before. It’s usually after Christmas time when the freezer starts to fill.
It takes about 30 minutes for Sherri to finish this batch of dough. She created 15 pies from scratch in less than two hours.
It’s now 11:41 p.m. She takes a deep breath and reaches for the ingredients for another round of pies.
“Now,” she said. “On to the next one.”