Commitment: What motivated you to write a book about pie?
John Phillip Carroll: I started baking at home, pies and cakes mostly, when I was about thirteen. Since then I’ve seen homemade pie dough and freshly baked pies, along with the skills for making them, practically disappear from kitchens today. And I believe a home kitchen is still the best place to learn to cook, and for family and friends to gather and get to know one another.
Commitment: You wrote, "More than almost any other dessert, pie for me has stood for what is good and nurturing about American life." What is it about pie that you found good and nurturing?
John: Pie, like homemade bread, has a unique allure. The aromas--sweet, toasty and fruity--are enticing, and draw people into the kitchen faster than anything else I know, Just the mention of pie can spark a conversation about food-related memories, carrying people back to things they trust, and are comfortable with.
Commitment: What do you think it takes to be a great pie maker?
John: The same thing it takes to get to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice. That, and knowing that even if your pie didn’t turn out exactly as you wanted, it will probably still be very pleasant to eat, and your next one will be better. The right equipment helps, and none of it is fancy or expensive. A rolling pin, measuring cups and spoons, and the right pie pan will all make the task easier and more enjoyable.
Remember that ovens, like the cooks who use them, are all a little different. Learn your oven’s quirks, its hotspots, and adjust accordingly. Good directions are essential, and for a cookbook author and recipe writer, that means knowing your audience, and giving the book a clear, distinct voice, as though you are taking your reader gently by the hand.
Commitment: Why does pie seem to evoke so many good memories for those over 40?
John: Because people of that age (and they are probably closer to fifty now) are likely part of the last generation to have a parent, grandmother or other older relative, or neighbor, who could care for a family full-time, and not have to work away from home. If you were lucky to grow up with such a person, you could learn to cook almost by osmosis.
Their kitchens were apt to be the center of daily activity, a place for cooking and gathering, not just feeding. Wonderful aromas came from those kitchens, families and friends gathered, and traditions and recipes could be passed on. Cooking and baking were noble pursuits, and not considered a chore.
Commitment: Can you give us your best tips on making great pie dough?
John: Don’t be afraid, just plunge right in and do it!. Use your hands for mixing as much as possible, so you develop a feel for when the dough is right--neither too wet nor too dry--so it is easy to roll out and shape.
As I wrote in the book, my favorite fat for making a flaky, crisp American pie crust is vegetable shortening. I use Crisco, and trans-fat-free shortenings are available if that is a concern to you. Shortening is the easiest fat to work with because you use it at room temperature, it blends easily into flour, it is generally forgiving of some rerolling or rough handling, and it keeps indefinitely at room temperature. A dough made with vegetable shortening is ready to roll out right away, with no waiting or chilling.
These are all great benefits, particularly for those new to baking. Butter can make wonderful tart pastry, which is more cookie-like than pie dough, but it is more difficult to handle, especially for a novice.
Commitment: What are some of your favorite pie recipes in this book?
John: Shaker Lemon Pie, Cherry Rhubarb Pie, Peach Pie, Apple Pie, Butter Brickle Banana Cream Pie, Chocolate Cream Pie, Chocolate Walnut Pie, Fresh Lime Pie, Chess Pie, Chocolate Malt Chiffon Pie, Black Bottom Pie and Shoofly Pie.
Commitment: Where did you find most of your pie recipes?
John: Inspiration has many sources. Recipes come from tradition and experience, and others are shared by family, friends and colleagues, and some are influenced by what was in the cupboard or on the grocery shelf that day.
Commitment: What are some of the toppings you enjoy most on your pie?
John: That depends on the pie. On a warm fruit pie with a top crust, vanilla ice cream; on most cream pies, sweetened whipped cream And on lemon and lime fillings, a fluffy meringue is usually my favorite go-along.
Commitment: What are some of the most common mistakes made when baking pie?
John: Substituting one ingredient for another, or one pan size for another, is usually not a good idea, and the results can be disastrous.
Some mistakes stem from timidity: Don’t be afraid of your ingredients. Try to shed your your fears and forge ahead, and if something doesn’t turn out quite how you wanted, chalk it up to experience and keep baking.
At potlucks and in restaurants, I’ve had an awful lot of fruit pies that were underbaked--fruit fillings should be tender and fully cooked, not crunchy.
Commitment: What is the most difficult pie recipe in your book?
John: All the recipes are approachable, though some are more suited to beginning bakers, and a few are for more experienced cooks. Black Bottom Pie has several steps and takes more time than most of the others. Yet, it is a great lesson in basics: making a crust, cooking a custard, whipping egg whites and cream, and blending together the ingredients for a chiffon filling. It is really a great cooking lesson on its own, and when you master these basics, you can make all kinds of pies.
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John Phillip Carroll has authored or co-authored more than a dozen books on food and cooking, including California the Beautiful Cookbook and The Baker’s Dozen Cookbook, and numerous volumes in the Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library.
His articles have appeared in several publications, including Gourmet, Cook’s Illustrated, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also serves on the panel for the Tasters’ Choice column, which appears weekly in the Chronicle Food section. In addition, he writes copy and recipes for catalogues and commodity boards. He is a past president of the San Francisco Professional Food Society, and serves of the board of directors of the Baker’s Dozen. He lives in San Francisco, and finds time spent in the kitchen the most pleasant part of any day.