The Myth of the Pie Crust

Dorie Greenspan had almost completed her doctorate in gerontology, and then she veered off that path and became a baking expert and ace food writer instead. She’s a special correspondent at Bon Appétit and pops up regularly on NPR’s The Splendid Table to talk about the latest kitchen gadgets, but she is probably best known as a cookbook collaborator. She has worked with Julia Child (Baking with Julia [Morrow, 1996]), Daniel Boulud (Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud Cookbook [Scribner, 1999]), and Pierre Hermé (Desserts by Pierre Hermé [Little, Brown, 1998] and Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé [Little, Brown, 2001]).

Now Greenspan has come out with her own grand tome, a compendium of her favorite homemade pastries: Baking: From My Home to Yours (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). I’ve already used recipes from the book to bake my son’s birthday cake (the fluffy feather boa of a cake that’s pictured on the book’s cover), to quell an overwhelming chocolate pudding urge, and to supply an elegant torte for a chic dinner party (her chocolate-Armagnac-prune number, which apparently got her fired from her first baking job for creative insubordination). Though the Hermé books proved that Greenspan can hang with the most finicky techniques of French patisserie, her new book is entirely approachable—Greenspan’s observant prose is one of the best coaches a novice baker could have in the kitchen. The advanced baker has plenty to learn from her, too: She convinces you of the glory of both homespun American desserts and more elegant composed sweets with a European edge. It’s among the best bakery text to come out in years: warm and ebullient, but with that sensible spine that a cookbook needs to help you get things made. I talked with Greenspan recently, while she was on her exhaustive book tour.

Your book is a tribute to home baking. Do you find that there’s an advantage to home-baking over just ordering it at a restaurant?

It’s more than you’re going to want to know, but I’ve been thinking about it lately. Sometime in 1987 or 1988 or so, fancy French restaurants stopped wheeling around the dessert cart and went to plated desserts. So a restaurant at a certain level lost the ability to present a whole cake, to have the pleasure of seeing something whole. There’s something really wonderful, and this is what you can do at home, about bringing out a whole cake, bringing out a whole pie, and cutting it and sharing it with your friends. There’s something very generous about it.

Are there any restaurant dessert trends you think are interesting right now?

Lately, you see desserts that seem to be coming from the savory side of the kitchen; they might be baked, but they seem to be using some cook skills as well as some pastry chef skills. This has been going on for a while, but you see a lot of herbs in desserts—bay leaf, basil, rosemary. When I was working on the book, I went back and remade—rejiggered in some cases—recipes that had been favorites in the family, and I found that in the old recipes there was much less salt than I’m now using. Pierre Hermé said to me, “You know, you’re very timid with salt; salt is a really important ingredient in sweets.” [And so,] I found myself upping the amount of salt in the desserts I made with butter, with chocolate, with caramel, just getting to understand that salt was an important part of dessert.

How has it been different to be able to work on your own, and create your own recipes?

It’s been both liberating and lonely…. It was fun to have the freedom, the liberty, to be so selfish as to just use the recipes that I wanted to use, my favorites; to write my stories, but I missed having a partner.

Are you going to go back to any collaborations?

I don’t know, I might do another one. I learn so much working with other people. I don’t know how many hundreds of génoises I’ve made in my life, but I believe if I were to watch somebody make a génoise, or, you know, a brownie, I’d learn something. Pierre and I have been talking about something, but the next book that I know I’m going to do is going to be about French home cooking.

How much time do you spend in France?

Usually about three to four months a year, but in little pieces.

When you’re developing a recipe, do you find you work in a French mode when you’re working on a French recipe, and in American mode when you’re working on, say, a Bundt cake?

I’ve learned so much working with French pastry chefs, but when I’m developing a recipe, I think I am at heart an American baker. I like crunchy, I like chunky … I think of those as very American, but there are things I’ve learned working with French chefs: My cakes are a little lower; I’ll go for a ganache before I go for a powdered sugar and butter frosting. I think some of my flavor combinations might be Frencher, with ground nuts and things that are more European. But in the end, when you taste what I make, I think it’s pretty American.

One of the things you’re so good at is describing these things that I know are hard to describe—how, for instance, you perch a pan full of water filled with custards on the edge of the oven. Do you have a hard time coming up with the descriptions for physical acts like that?

When I was in high school, we had sororities, and when you went for your sorority interview, they asked you to describe a spiral staircase without using your hands. There are times when I’m trying to describe something and I’m sitting in front of the computer and I’m making the hand motions and trying to figure it out. I always think of “describe a spiral staircase without using your hands.” There are some things that are so hard, even talking about how to make the rim of a pie crust—as I say this to you, I’m making it with my fingers. When describing making caramel, trying to talk about how the size of the bubbles changes in the sugar, or, for the most extraordinary French lemon cream, which I adore, how the texture comes together—you can check it by temperature, but you can also see it. When I am making the recipes, I take notes as I’m making them, on the visual, how things look: It might curdle, or it will thicken; it will be thicker or thinner than you would expect. When I’m writing the recipe, I actually think about somebody being in the kitchen. I imagine myself talking them through the recipe. How to give all the warnings: It may bubble up furiously if you’re doing caramel … it’s supposed to. Or, it may smell like you’re burning it … it’s OK. It’s a lot to keep in mind if you want to be able to help people get through each stage.

What baking problem are you most asked about?

People talk a lot about pie crusts. There’s the myth of pie crusts, that you have to be born being a pie hand. I actually was afraid to make pie crusts—and I’d been baking for a while—until a friend of mine came over and said, “I’ll teach you how to do it.” Then I realized that I loved doing it; there’s something so satisfying about rolling it out, lifting it up, and getting it fitted into the pan. I make both my pie crusts and my tart crusts in the food processor. The important thing is to keep the ingredients cold, and you can make it so quickly in a food processor that they stay cold and the dough doesn’t toughen.

Is there one kind of sweet that you just crave and adore on a fundamental level more than others?

Ice cream. I know it’s not baked, but it’s the one thing that I am actually totally out of control about.