Just in time for holiday baking, pie-maker Michele Stuart offers Perfect Pies: The Best Sweet and Savory Recipes From America's Pie-Baking Champion (Ballantine Books, $25). Stuart opened the first Michele's Pies in Norwalk, Conn. in December 2007. Since then, she has won 26 National Pie Championship awards (mostly first place). In March 2011 she opened a second shop in Westport, Conn. She and her pies have been featured in The New York Times and on Good Morning America and the Food Network.
The 224-page tome, her first book, includes more than 80 recipes, including instructions for fruit, nut, cream, savory, sugar-free (sweetened with Splenda) and "party" pies, as well as a "fail-proof" crust recipe. Selections include a Pineapple-Mango Pie With Macadamia-Coconut Crumb, Chocolate Peanut Butter Dream Pie, Strawberry Glace Pie, Australian Beef Pie (savory) and Eggnog Pie (party).
On the plus side, this book is incredibly comprehensive and has a nice blend of classic and innovative recipes, along with 30 enticing photos. On the minus side, it is not for novices. We tried making two of Stuart's recipes for Thanksgiving: the Pumpkin Chiffon and her "signature" pie and first National Pie Championships winner, the Chocolate-Pecan-Bourbon. Unfortunately, the "fail-proof" crust (made with flour, Crisco and ice-cold water) managed, in fact, to fail spectacularly. Her "you may need a tablespoon more, a tablespoon less" of water presupposes some experience and perhaps some instinct with crafting crusts. If you have neither, you may end up with a sticky mess that falls apart when you try to pick it up. We ended up pressing ours in the pie pan with our fingers. It tasted okay, but wasn't pretty.
The Pumpkin Chiffon filling turned out fantastic, however, even though we were caught by surprise when the recipe called for using a double boiler and we realized that half of ours was lost in the bowels of an ex-boyfriend's kitchen. We improvised with a saucepan inside a double-boiler pan -- even though we spilled water all over the stove, it worked, turning out a light, fluffy and flavorful filling.
The Chocolate-Pecan-Bourbon filling was not as successful. In the recipe, Stuart says that during baking, "The edges of the filling will rise, but the middle will remain a little loose. Don't worry about this -- the pie will continue to bake after it's removed from the oven." We should have fretted because even though we let the pie set overnight (far longer than the recommended two to three hours), it failed to set properly. When cut, it oozed into a gloopy chocolate-pecan-Bourbon sludge. But, given that it was chocolate, pecan and Bourbon, it still tasted good, and a big dollop of homemade whipped cream hid its unattractiveness. If we make it again, we will do the knife-sticking test while it's baking rather than leave things to chance. (Please consider this if you make the following recipe!)
It was somewhat annoying how Stuart played a little fast-and-loose with some elements (such as more or less water for the crust, baking time) and then was incredibly precise with others (such as 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar for the Chocolate-Pecan-Bourbon pie filling). Bottom line, these recipes take some practice before your average baker will achieve pie perfection. But for pie aficionados looking for interesting new concoctions, it's worth the effort.
From: Michele Stuart, Perfect Pies
Makes: one 9-inch pie, 6 to 8 slices
1 traditional pastry piecrust dough for a 9-inch single-crust pie
1/4 cup heavy cream (to glaze the crimped pie edges)
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/4 cups dark corn syrup
1/2 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon Bourbon
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and kept warm
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. To prepare the pie shell, on a clean, lightly floured work surface, roll out half a ball of dough with a rolling pin until it forms a 10-inch circle. Wrap the remaining half of dough tightly in plastic wrap and reserve it in the refrigerator for future use for up to five days. Fold the circle in half, place it in a 9-inch pie plate so that the edges of the circle drop over the rim, and unfold the dough to completely cover the pie plate. Using your thumb and index finger, crimp the edges of the pie shell. Brush the edges of the pie shell with heavy cream to create a perfect, golden brown finish. Set the pie shell to the side while you make the filling.
3. To prepare the filling, using an electric mixer on medium speed, mix together the eggs, sugar, corn syrup, vanilla and Bourbon. Be sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl at least two times while mixing. Add the warm melted butter and mix well. In a separate bowl, combine the pecans and chocolate chips. Sprinkle the pecan-chocolate chip mixture across the bottom of the pie shell. Pour the filling over the nuts and chips, covering them completely.
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4. To bake, place the pie plate on a baking sheet and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the pie is firm. The edges of the filling will rise, but the middle will remain a little loose. Don't worry about this -- the pie will continue to bake after it's removed from the oven. Transfer the pie plate to a wire cooling rack and allow the pie to cool and set for two to three hours before serving.
5. If you choose, drizzle each slice with Bourbon sauce to serve. Chocolate-Pecan-Boubon pie is best enjoyed either at room temperature or warmed at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes. It can be stored in the refrigerator for up to five days. When wrapped tightly with plastic wrap, it can also be frozen for up to two weeks.
"Chocolate-Pecan-Bourbon Pie" from PERFECT PIES by Michele Stuart. Copyright © 2011 by Michele Stuart. Used by permission of Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.
Follow Samantha Bonar @samanthabonar.