SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — It’s not the flashiest treat on the counter at Little Bigs, but the oatmeal raisin cookie that turned Oprah’s head and soared to national prominence when she named it one of her favorite things has arrived in South Portland.
The baker responsible for whipping up delicious baked goods is eliciting raves with her mini pies and cake doughnuts while quietly slipping these cookies into the mix.
“Oatmeal raisin cookies are very fundamental,” said Pamela Fitzpatrick Plunkett, owner of the months-old bakery on Route 1.
“It’s just rolled oats, raisins, pecans, dried, chopped apples, a lot of butter, vanilla, enough salt and just enough flour to keep it together.”
And the x factor: a baker who turns simple ingredients into delectables that rise to the top in taste, texture and acclaim. This quiet morsel packs a punch.
“All my recipes are trial and error,” said Pamela, who was executive baker at Chicago’s gourmet market Fox & Obel when Oprah became a fan.
Oprah’s chef came in one day and fell in love with her moist and wholesome cookies. Subsequently, the daytime TV queen ordered dozens for her cafeteria at Harpo Studios, more when she traveled, and eventually named this cookie one of “Oprah’s favorite things” on a 2005 episode.
“It was like winning the Academy Awards of foods,” Pamela said. “Within the first couple of weeks after that show aired, we sold almost a quarter of a million dollars worth of that cookie. It was pretty amazing.”
She runs Little Bigs with her husband, James Plunkett. Doughnuts in flavors such as chai spice with a black tea glaze, tart citrus curd and slightly spicy devil’s food cake are elegant offerings.
“This place is amazing. I come here every other day,” Pip Walter, a musician from Cape Elizabeth, said last week while scouring the bakery racks lined with treats. “I think of it as the haute cuisine of doughnuts.”
But doughnuts and cookies are only half of the story.
Egg pies, pumpkin pies and gourmet hand pies, almost too perfect to eat, are “a healthy option for people going to fast food restaurants,” said James.
Fisherman, truckers, hikers — they swing into Little Bigs to grab a few for the road.
Steak, chicken or Texas chili encrusted in dough are “a nice little wholesome good-to-have,” said James, who describes these savory pastries as “hardier climate food,” that one can pop into a backpack and take out at the summit, a sort of handwich.
“We think we are starting this trend,” said Pamela, who learned to bake at La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles from baking star Nancy Silverton.
“I started with bread. I didn’t know a thing about it. I wanted to do something with my hands,” Pamela said.
She went on to consult with Zabar’s and Amy’s Breads in New York and ended up in Chicago, where she met her husband. James had fond memories of Maine from the 1980s. He lead backcountry canoe trips on Moosehead Lake for the Boy Scouts of America and cooked at the Quisisana resort in Lovell for several summers.
“Portland was always a favorite place. We started talking about opening a bakery and putting that together. We moved to Portland in one alley-oop moment,” said James.
When they arrived on the peninsula, they ate everywhere and saw the holes that were missing, said James, who trained at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt. and cooked his way across the country.
After a two year search in Portland, they crossed the Casco Bay Bridge and everything clicked. They scratched their idea of opening a traditional bakery to concentrate on hand pies.
Set up like an open kitchen, Pamela makes dough in one area while her husband prepares fillings in another. Little Bigs takes customers off guard. Is it a shop or a commercial bakery?
“We call it a food studio. A place where we come to work and it just so happens that we sell the stuff that we do,” James said. “We are both very happy to do what we do.”
“This is where we come to experiment and to play,” Pamela said.
They also get to know the community and the foodies who seek them out.
“I’ve done weddings for 1,300 people and I didn’t know anyone in the entire room,” said James. “Now I know everyone on a first name basis. I know what they like. They can tell me what they like and I’ll make if for them. It’s that kind of customization that you can’t beat.”
Located in a mini strip mall right on the highway, response has been encouraging.
“Customers call us and tell us we’ve done such a good job. If this was Chicago, people would say I’m going to get your stuff and leave. We get phone calls,” he said.
“Coming from a big city, customers just don’t do that,” added Pamela.
One customer that hasn’t called yet, however, is Oprah.
“We haven’t kept in touch,” said Pamela.
Little Bigs is located at 340 Main St. in South Portland and can be reached by calling 747-4233. Hours are 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday to Friday, and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.