Michele Stuart makes perfect pies. Her reputation depends on it.
A 27-time national pie baking champion, Stuart has honed her technique to turn out thousands of memorable pastries. Author of Perfect Pies & More (Ballantine), Stuart of course is the perfect person to recommend tips for another food-happy celebration: global Pi(e) Day. Thats Friday. If youre good in math, you know why; March 14 is as close as the calendar gets to pi, 3.14 (and change).
In math, pi is an infinite number that represents a constant: the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. In baking, pie is another constant a (usually circular) dessert favorite with infinite possibilities.
Pie has always been at the top of Stuarts dessert list.
Ive been baking pies for as long as I can remember, said Stuart, 37. I grew up baking with my grandmother. It was one of our favorite things to do together. I just kind of took up the family tradition.
Her destination bake shops in Connecticut attract customers from throughout the Northeast. The two shops sold almost 6,000 pies for Thanksgiving (the nations biggest pie-eating holiday), but turn out hundreds every day in at least 15 flavors.
Shes learned a lot about what people want in a pie, too.
We sell a lot of crumb-topped pies in our stores, she said in a phone interview. People like the extra-sweet crumbly top.
That topping also balances the tartness of berries or apples, for example.
Stuart changes her pie menu according to whats fresh and available.
My favorite pie is whatever is in season, she said.
For apple pie, she prefers to use Cortland apples, a favorite in her native Connecticut. But she also likes Honey Crisp.
The amount of sugar you use depends on the apple, she noted. I prefer (varieties) that are a little softer, a little sweeter (than typical tart pie apples).
Stuart knows her apple pies. Her championships include classic two-crust apple, apple crumb, apple caramel crumb and more variations. She won her first national title in 2007 with chocolate pecan bourbon pie. Her 27 championships were won with 27 different kinds of pie.
Pie baking is something I just absolutely love, she said. Its kind of a lost art.
Most people get stuck on the crust, Stuart noted. Crust is definitely the most intimidating part of baking pies. Anybody can make a good filling, but not everybody makes a good crust.
Stuarts advice: Think cold. Chill your crust ingredients as well as your mixing bowl and rolling pin. You want everything COLD, she stressed. Chill the flour, chill the shortening. Use ice cold water. Then, chill the dough before you roll it. It makes a big difference in how the dough handles.
Stuart recommends chilling the dough for an hour or two before rolling. You can make it the day before, then roll it when youre ready to use it, she added.
For her crusts, Stuart swears by Crisco shortening instead of butter, oil or lard. Ive always used Crisco, she said. Its an old-fashioned way to make dough, but its the best one. You get the best flakiness and the crust will actually turn a golden brown.
Stuarts preference for Crisco led to a natural role as an expert for Criscos national pie hotline, 1-877-FOR PIE TIPS (877-367-7438). Stuarts tips and techniques are now featured on the hotline as well as Criscos recipe-packed website, www.crisco.com.
Pie lovers may have noticed: We celebrate twice. Americas National Pie Day is Jan. 23. Stuart celebrated that day in her bake shops with pie tasting including a twist on an old favorite turtle pecan pie. This caramel- and chocolate-laced dessert is a sweet treat any time.
Which underlines her point: Any day is a good day for pie.
Its the kind of dessert that brings you down memory lane, Stuart said. People always enjoy pie.
Call The Bees Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.