Friday, August 16, 2013

Secrets of a 'Perfect' Pie Revealed

I've been a huge fan of KCRW-FM's weekly Good Food show with host Evan Kleiman for many years. When I heard that New School of Cooking in Culver City was doing a fundraiser for the radio station that included pie demonstrations by Kleiman and the famed pastry chef, Sherry Yard, I had to go!

The sold-out evening on Aug. 14 drew 50 to 60 excited fans to the New School's spotless demo/dining room. We sipped champagne and chatted a bit, but then listened raptly as these two pie pros spilled secrets about making perfect crust in a lively back-and-forth that was punctuated by questions, comments, and then an echo chamber of "ooh," "ahh" and "mmmmmm" as we dug into helpings of Kleiman's Chicken Pot Pie with a Duck Fat Pie Crust, followed by Yard's Plum and Blackberry Pie with Toasted Almond Crumble and Quintessential Apple Pie (recipes to come in a future post). It was probably the most lively, delicious and informative evening of food I can remember.

Following are a few tips and observations I picked up on pie-making. So much of interest was said that my trusty Pilot pen nearly died. In future I may tote an audio recorder and post choice bits on the blog.

Pie Mavens

"Were you a pie hog as a child?" Evan Kleiman asked her co-host.

"My first pie was Hostess," answered Yard to much laughter. "My family never baked pies. We just opened up cans."

Yard worked worked with Wolfgang Puck at Spago for 19 years, wrote two cookbooks, collected a James Beard Award, and is planning to reopen Helms Bakery in Culver City with another celebrity chef, Sang Yoon (Father's Office, Lukshon). A tiny pink and white whirlwind at the front of the room, she seemed like she might be your chummy neighbor, if that neighbor also happened to be the most accomplished pastry chef on the planet.

Kleiman, taller, sporting chef's whites and spectacles, curly hair tied back in a ponytail, fell easily into her role as interviewer, which she does with such aplomb and skill on "Good Food."

"It's difficult to believe it's me and Sherry up here," she said as she began to demo making the crust for the chicken pot pie. "I'm a cook who loves to bake," she said. She didn't mention that she was the chef/proprietor of the well-loved Angeli Caffe for 28 years before it closed in 2012.

Tips & Comments

- As Kleiman measured flour on a scale, she reminded the audience that weighing your ingredients is the best way to ensure accuracy. Yard added that the best way to check the accuracy of your scale is to put a pound of butter on it.

- Kleiman made her dough with a mixture of chilled high-fat butter (Plugra or Kerrygold, she suggests) and rendered duck fat, also chilled, while Yard's "3-2-1 Flaky Pie Dough" used only butter. Neither thought much of using the old standby, Crisco, in crust. Duck fat is particularly flavorful, but chicken fat can also be used, Kleiman said. Both she and Yard love using leaf lard.

Two apple pies: One with crimped crust, one without
- Both women used a little vinegar in their crust recipes. Kleiman also threw in a little sugar and a pinch of rosemary. But when I checked the recipe in the goody bag we received at the end, neither vinegar nor spices were mentioned. I guess you're on your own as to amounts, though Yard's written recipe calls for 1/2 a teaspoon of vinegar for a double-crust pie.

- Kleiman likes her dough to chill in the fridge overnight, while Yard removes it after only an hour, because "I like it wetter."

- Both are careful not to try to "pretty" the dough by breaking the butter down into uniform, pea-sized bits, as so many recipes suggest. "I prefer not pretty," Yard said, showing off dough with large and small pieces of butter plainly visible. Later we saw two very large brown pies in the reflecting mirror over the workspace--one with neatly crimped edges and the other showing a very layered, flaky looking edge, not prettied up at all.

- Yard precooks her bottom crusts almost completely so that once filled with fruit they don't turn soggy. To make sure they hold their shape, she uses two industrial-sized paper coffee filters, coated with a little nonstick spray. She fits them inside the unbaked pie shell and fills them with uncooked beans or rice to weight them down. She bakes her pies in pyrex pans so that the bottoms can be checked for browning. Once the browning begins and the crusts have settled into their final shape, she takes them out of the oven, removes the first filter with the beans or rice, returns the pan with or without the second filter in order to cook the crust until almost done. Then she adds the filling, which she has partially cooked first. Got that?

- Yard never uses white sugar alone in her baked goods, always adding brown sugar or some other variant. Her almond crumble topping, for example, includes confectioner's sugar and light brown sugar (not to mention espresso powder, almond meal and fleur de del!). And she baked it first before putting it on her blackberry-plum crumble confection. That way, the filling doesn't make the topping soggy.

Mini Chicken Pot Pie
- Noting how both she and Yard work with what's available and don't sweat the details, often adding a dash of this or that along the way, not always pulling out the measuring spoons, Kleiman commented toward the end of the evening: "Chefs don't think in terms of recipes. We think in terms of building blocks."

"I'm not big on measurements. I like to kind of go with the flow," added Yard. Take the idea of perfect and throw it out. Perfect is the enemy of the good."

Let Them Eat Pie

Apples a la Mode
Plums, Berries & Crumbles
But for those who sampled the results, the proof was in the pie--and it was perfect. The chicken pot pie was the ultimate in comfort food, with a meltingly delicious crust; the apple pie was chunky, with the apples spiced and cooked just right and the crust substantial but not heavy. The plum-berry crumble had a tongue-pleasing tang, with the crumble texture a mind- (and tastebud) blowing cross between candy and cookie.

As for me, my diet went to hell--and I simply didn't care, as I was in pie heaven. It would have been a sin to leave a crumb (or crumble) on the plate at the end of the evening. And I didn't.


  1. I just love this food site. It's more than about food. It's about making the most delicious of the food one can make. Your recipes sound fabulous and I want to make most of it. Obviously I can't due to time constraints but I will try.

    I am especially drawn to the bread and butter pickles and want to do it this week! Thank you for inviting me to your food blog, Ruth!

    1. Cherry, thanks for the comments! The bread and butter pickles were fun to make, as were all the pickles. Next I'm going to try to make a pie crust--perhaps the all-butter one.