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 thousand of memorable pastries. Author of “Perfect Pies & More” (Ballantine), Stuart of course is the perfect person to recommend tips for one more food-happy holiday — National Pie Day. That’s Thursday.
“I’ve 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 nation’s biggest pie-eating holiday), but turn out hundreds every day in at least 15 flavors.
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“Pie baking is something I just absolutely love,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s 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.”
Stuart’s 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 you’re ready to use it,” she added.
For her crusts, Stuart swears by Crisco shortening instead of butter, oil or lard. “I’ve always used Crisco,” she said. “It’s an old-fashioned way to make dough, but it’s the best one. You get the best flakiness and the crust will actually turn a golden brown.”
Stuart’s preference for Crisco led to a natural role as an expert for Crisco’s national pie hotline, 1-877-FOR PIE TIPS (877-367-7438). Stuart’s tips and techniques are now featured on the hotline as well as Crisco’s recipe-packed website, http://www.crisco.com/.
For Pie Day, Stuart plans a celebration in her bake shops with pie tasting including this twist on an old favorite — Turtle Pecan Pie. This caramel- and chocolate-laced dessert is a sweet treat any time, but it could be a perfect match for another upcoming holiday — Valentine’s Day.