Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Gram Approved.

This is a long(er) post, but it had to be and I promise you'll be rewarded with a treat at the end.

I LOVE to bake.  Delicious treats are my bread and butter and I owe all my kitchen knowledge to my Gram.  She was the best mentor a girl could ask for:  no nonsense in the kitchen, uniform cookie size, clean as you go, and there is such a thing as too many almonds in the sticky buns.  Every holiday was graced with her wonderful confections: chocolate mint bars, peanut butter rice krispies treats, carrot cake adorned with colorful peeps, gingerbread smiley faces, chocolate chip cookies, and my personal favorite, pies.

As I got older and my baking skills became more refined, I was promoted to more important tasks in the kitchen.  I went from grinding walnuts to piping icing to mixing the kuchen dough to what I consider the pinnacle of family baking, making pies for Thanksgiving.

Sarah, Amy, Gram, Mollie, and me baking pies on Thanksgiving morning.

Last week, as I was carrying a pie to a dinner party in my Gram's pie basket, I couldn't help reminiscing about her showing up to Thanksgiving year after year carrying that very basket filled with delectable homemade pies.  She would spend weeks prepping for the feat of baking 8 pies for our feast.  It was amazing.  Blueberry, Apple, Pecan, Mince Meat, Peach, Chocolate Cream, and Pumpkin (always 2).  She was a SUPERWOMAN!  The anticipation of seeing those magnificent creations made with such love and care is a feeling I'll always cherish. 

You see, there is an art to pie-making.  It requires years of practice to simply perfect your dough recipe let alone whatever you choose to fill it with.  I don't consider making a pie rocket science, but it does require attention to detail, fortitude and most importantly, patience.  Sometimes, a recipe, no matter how tried and true, just doesn't come out right.  Other times, people will inhale 3 pieces exclaiming it's the best pie they have ever eaten.  Any way you slice it, a person who takes the time to make a pie from scratch (dough included of course) deserves serious accolades.

This past Sunday, I put my years of practice to the test.  I entered the 2nd Annual Brooklyn Pie Bake-Off.  I participated in the contest last year with a Cranberry-Ribbon Apple Pie.  I had made this pie several times before and at one dinner party even was told "This is the best pie I've ever tasted."  Unfortunately, that was not the reaction of the judges.  I went home extremely humbled with half a pie still in my plate, quietly plotting a comeback for the following year.  My mom suggested pumpkin pie because when made from fresh roasted pumpkin, it blows minds.  I took heed to this valuable advice, as she was 100% correct, but it felt a bit risky to enter such a plain pie.  So I cracked open some cookbooks and got to work.

After some serious research and a few discussions with my good friend and co-entrant Lucy, I decided on a Maple Pecan Pumpkin Pie.  The concept was by no means earth-shattering, but it combined two of the best seasonal Thanksgiving pies.  I often cringe at the saccharine overload of most pecan pies and weep at the taste of a pumpkin pie apathetically spiced.  With this in mind, I chose to use maple syrup instead of corn syrup for the pecan portion, and freshly grated spices for the pumpkin.  A thin layer of bittersweet chocolate brushed over the crust before putting in the pumpkin, and a splash of bourbon in the pecan filling were the final touches.  

The test pie was utterly superb.  



The test pie was utterly superb the day after.  In fact, my boyfriend responded to his first bite of the pie only about an hour after it came out of the oven with the following, and I quote, "It's good, but it's not going to win."  However, the pie was like a caterpillar that turned into a butterfly overnight, and my boyfriend literally ate his words.  A crisp, flaky crust, flavors in perfect harmony, beautiful striations of chocolate, pumpkin and pecan!  It was so delicious that I was certain it could never be recreated...

On Sunday, as I walked my pies to the contest, I had no ambition of winning.  I already had a fantastic new recipe and was quite pleased with my own ingenuity.  I checked in and lo and behold, another Maple Pecan Pumpkin Pie!  How could this be?!  My ego was completely deflated.  The contest started and Lucy and I tasted 4 pies included my pie's doppelganger.  I wasn't blown away, but there were nearly 30 we didn't try.  

The competition.

I watched the judges taste my pie and could have sworn I heard them comment on the "porkiness" of my crust, i.e. The Final Blow.  We had a few beers and waited to hear the winners.  As I collected my empty pie plates, the announcement was made.  

"Best Sweet Pie:  Maple Pumpkin Pecan by Caroline."

Shut - the front door.

I couldn't believe it.  Honestly, I really couldn't.  While this competition is no Top Chef: Just Desserts, I was quite proud that I had come back to even the score, and won.  It simply felt good.

Thanks Gram.

My Gram

Maple Pecan Pumpkin Pie

The fillings in this recipe are inspired by the Sugar & Spice Pumpkin Pie recipe in the November 2008 Fine Cooking and the Maple Nut recipe in the Williams-Sonoma Baking Book.   I had to make two pies for the contest, so this recipe will yield two pies.  Simply cut the measurements in half for one pie, or throw caution to the wind and bake two!

The Dough:
Everyone has their own dough recipe that they are comfortable with, but here's mine for those of you still on the search.  I adhere to a strict 60/40 butter to lard ratio, and use my Gram's pastry cutter instead of a food processor.  This makes enough dough for two 9" pies with some scraps to spare for extra decoration.

2 1/2 cups of flour
1/2 tsp. salt
12 TBSP unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
8 TBSP rendered leaf lard, cut into small cubes (Best if frozen.  It thaws very quickly.)
4-10 TBSP ice water

Mix together the flour and salt.  Add butter and lard and cut into flour until it forms chickpea-sized balls.  Add water a TBSP at a time until the dough is moist enough to stay together.  Wrap tightly and chill for at least an hour.  If you're preparing the dough ahead of time, it will keep in the freezer. You can also place it in the plate and chill it or freeze it up to 2 weeks.

Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface.  The less you work the dough, the better.  Place the dough in a buttered pie dish, leaving a slight overhang, as it will shrink slightly when you blind bake it.  Place a piece of tinfoil or parchment neatly inside the crust and fill it with beans or pie weights.
Bake at 400F for 15-20 minutes.  Remove the beans or weights and parchment carefully.  Let the crust cool on a wire rack.  For an added touch, add some bittersweet chocolate and place back in the oven until the chocolate softens enough to spread, 1-2 minutes.  Use a spatula to smooth the chocolate over the inside of the crust.  Allow to cool.

The Fillings

1 3/4 cups. pumpkin (15oz of canned pumpkin, but I highly suggested roasting your own.  Treat it like you would any other squash. And don't forget to remove the skin!)
2 large eggs
1 yolk (Save the egg white to brush over the edge of the crust before baking)
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup lightly packed light brown sugar
1 tsp.  ground ginger
1 tsp. freshly ground cinnamon stick (another 1/2 tsp. if you are using pre-ground)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 tsp. freshly grated black pepper
Pinch of freshly ground cloves
Mix the pumpkin, eggs, yolk and cream in a large bowl.  In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar and spices and whisk them into the pumpkin mixture.   Pour half of the pumpkin filling into each crust.  Bake at 375F for 20-25 minutes or until only jiggly in the center.  Remove from oven and let cool a few minutes before topping with the pecan mixture.

2 cups maple syrup (please don't use Mrs. Butterworth's)
2 large eggs
1/4 packed brown sugar, light or dark
1/8 tsp. salt
2 TBSP unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups chopped pecan
2 TBSP good bourbon

Boil the maple syrup on medium heat for about 8 minutes.  It should reduce by 1/2 a cup.  Reboil it if not.  Let cool completely.
Whisk the eggs, sugar, salt, cooled butter, syrup, vanilla and bourbon.  Stir in the pecans.  Pour half of mixture over slightly cooled pumpkin.  Decorate the edge of the pie with cut-outs from the scraps of dough. I use an apple corer to make tiny circles to edge the crust.  Brush with egg white and sprinkle with turbinado sugar.  Return to the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the top is firm to the touch. 
Let the pie completely cool on a wire rack.  For best results, let it rest overnight.


  1. You are amazing, Caroline! This is a wonderful tribute to Gram.

  2. My fiance said he will be stealing this recipe. Just so you know.


    Hi. I have been following your blog and I think you should join the NPR contest.