In her new cookbook, Petra (Petee) Paredez writes, “Making pie is an inherently generous act, because pie is a dish that is meant to be shared.” Millions of Americans are bracing to slice into a freshly-roasted turkey on Thanksgiving Day, but the real magic happens at the end of the meal. And it involves slicing into freshly baked apple, pecan and pumpkin pies to share.
When the owner of Peete’s Pie Company stopped by Salon Talks to discuss “Pie for Everyone,” which features recipes from one of New York’s top pie shops, I asked her to expand upon the generous act of pie making.
“I think that one of the ways that pies transform a meal is that it’s a dessert that everybody shares, and we kind of want to share dessert. When you’re at a restaurant, dessert is the thing you’re most likely to share,” Paredes said. “And it’s this joyful sort of indulgence. It feels good to share as an experience with somebody.”
“But the other thing about pie is that it has a reputation for being tricky. And there are some tricks to it, but it’s something everybody can learn. If you spend the time to make a pie for somebody, they know that you care about the,” she continued. “If you take a pie to an event that you made yourself, it’s going to really sort of endear people to you, because they know that you took the time to do something special for them.”
But there is a formula that every at-home baker can master, and Paredez is finally sharing her secrets with the world. First, no house is complete without a strong foundation — and that’s a tender and ﬂaky crust when it comes to pie making. Next, the fruits and natural ingredients that ﬁll pies are the true stars of the show.
“My guiding principle is that when it comes to fruit pies, you want to just amplify the flavors that are already there,” she told Salon.
For a master class in pie making, including tips for picking your ingredients, making the perfect crust, and what to bake for Thanksgiving, you can read the Q&A of our conversation below.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
You come from a family of pie makers, so pie making is in your blood, essentially. What was it like growing up in a family with its own business?
Yes, that’s a really good question. I think it’s a pretty unique experience. And no matter what kind of business your parents are in, I think all kids that grew up in a business can relate to some of the same joys and struggles. It’s kind of fun to have your parents — both of your parents — do the same thing. And when somebody asks you, “What do your parents do?” And you can say, “They make pies.” That’s a very simple answer.
That’s a nice thing. It’s something a kid can really wrap their head around. It was also really nice to be able to bring pies to various different events, bring pies to school, bring pies everywhere we went, because it’s just like you’re bringing people happiness everywhere you go. And so you’re always well received. It’s really nice.
In your book you write, “Making pie is an inherently generous act, because pie is a dish that is meant to be shared.” Why are pies happiness? And how can they transform a meal?
I think that one of the ways that pies transform a meal is that it’s a dessert that everybody shares, and we kind of want to share dessert. When you’re at a restaurant, dessert is the thing you’re most likely to share. And it’s this joyful sort of indulgence. It feels good to share as an experience with somebody.
But the other thing about pie is that it has a reputation for being tricky. And there are some tricks to it, but it’s something everybody can learn. If you spend the time to make a pie for somebody, they know that you care about them. If you take a pie to an event that you made yourself, it’s going to really sort of endear people to you, because they know that you took the time to do something special for them.
If a pie’s not homemade, and you pick it up at the store, it may be highly processed. What would you say to someone who says, “Oh, I’m, I don’t think of myself as a pie person.”
I think that the reason a lot of people come to that conclusion is because it’s easier to find mediocre pie than it is to find really good pie. And mediocre pie, as you mentioned, it tends to be pretty over processed. There might be a lot of extra ingredients that you can’t pronounce.
And to me, the best pies are made with the simplest ingredients. And that means that they’re going to be perishable, and they’re not going to be the best thing to have on grocery store shelves. And so I think that we can all be pie people, only you need to expose yourself to some really good pie. And perhaps you need to make it yourself if you don’t live near a really great pie bakery.
Speaking of great pie bakeries, when you are sourcing ingredients, you recommend buying local seasonal or special ingredients. Can you tell us what you mean by that?
In New York City, a lot of wonderful things are grown by local farms that we source our ingredients for. For example, a lot of people don’t know New York is one of the top states for producing sour cherries. Michigan has the reputation for being No. 1. Washington State, people know that they grow cherries. But a lot of people don’t know that New York grows really nice sour cherries. I get as many ingredients as I can get locally.
New York’s great for flour. We can grow wheat up here. We can have beehives up here, so you can get honey up here. You can get maple syrup. There’s such a nice range of things. It’s easy to get things that are local here in New York.
However, I use sugar in all the pies. That’s not something we can get in New York. I try to get the most responsibly produced kind of sugar I can — and the most minimally processed. It’s evaporated cane juice. It’s grown organically. And if it’s not from Florida, I’m trying to make sure that it’s fair trade so that we are doing things in the most responsible way possible.
And then there are some things like vanilla, which we sort of take for granted as a baking ingredient, but it’s really just sort of this miraculous orchid with the beautiful bean pod. But you know, when it’s aged, it has this remarkable aroma. And I think it’s important for people not to take that for granted and to really reflect on, “This is a very special ingredient.”
Same thing with chocolate. Chocolate and vanilla fall into those categories. We take them for granted in baking, but they are in fact really special plants. And we should try to find nice versions of those if we can.
Another ingredient you call attention to is a frozen ingredient. It’s OK to cook with frozen fruit, which actually may be a better purchase than fruit which isn’t sourced locally. Will you teach us why?
In our grocery stores these days, you can find stone fruit year round, even if it’s nowhere near the season. And for that to be the case, it means it has to be shipped in from elsewhere. And, well, sometimes, it can kind of be a crap shoot.
If you have some leftover peaches from a local farm, or if you go to your farmer’s market and ask your farmer, they may have frozen a lot of their summer crop that they couldn’t sell or the second-quality items that got bruised at market. So they couldn’t sell it. They might have processed food. And by processed, I mean just slicing and freezing.
We get those kinds of products from farmers, as well. And to me, they’re almost always better than some breed of fruit that has been chosen for its ability to withstand travel rather than produce the best flavor or the maximum sweetness and tartness — all of these wonderful qualities.
One of the things I loved about reading the book is at the end of the day, you use really simple ingredients which achieve a high-quality product. And I really know, because I’ve been lucky enough to taste your pie already, which is excellent. Sometimes home bakers may think, “Oh, I need to throw all of these spices into my pie.” Or, “I need this and that.” A lot of your ingredient lists are quite short. Are you essentially trying to highlight the wonderful fruits or ingredients with which you’re cooking?
Yes, my guiding principle is that when it comes to fruit pies, you want to just amplify the flavors that are already there. You start with good fruit — and just about any good fruit is going to be both sweet and tart. It’s that balance of sweet and tart that gives it vibrance. You amplify it by adding a modest amount of sugar and enough acidity to maintain that vibrance. If you’ve got sugar and no acid, it’s not going to have the same effect. It’s going to come off simultaneously too sweet and also bland. But when you amplify the sugar and acidity, you really bring out the flavors of the fruit.
I think that, for the most part, a little sugar and lemon juice is what most fruits need. Though there are some tree fruits — apples and pears in particular — that benefit from the addition of spices, because it brings out some warm flavors and it provides an autumnal tone that you would want as the seasons change. And as the weather starts to get a little colder, I don’t think spices go as well with berries, for example, or sort of summery fruits, because I want them to have that fresh sunshiny flavor rather than that warm autumnal flavor.
At the end of the day, you make the case that crust is the foundation of any pie. We’ve had spirited debate among our readers as to which type of crust makes the best pie crust. They get really heated about this, but I agree with you that it’s a butter crust. Can you explain why you prefer a butter crust?
Butter tastes phenomenal. It’s almost as simple as that: Butter tastes so good. And while it can make for a trickier crust, as you’re working with the dough, there’s no comparison for that flavor. Some people don’t eat butter for any variety of reasons, either because they’re a vegan or they have an allergy, and that’s OK. I have some recipes for them, as well.
However, if you don’t have those restrictions or limitations, or if you just want to indulge, I really think that a butter crust is best. Lard can also make a really nicely-textured crust that can be often easier to work with than butter. It’s not vegetarian, though. It has its own lardy animal sort of flavor. For the most versatile crust that can go with sweet ingredients or savory ingredients, butter is definitely the answer
It’s a popular preconception that European butter is better in pies than American butter —
That’s not necessarily true, right?
I’m so glad that you asked that question, because I do think it is a common misconception. What we call European butter at the store often it means that it has a higher butter content, or I mean a higher butterfat content around 82%. Whereas the standard butters — standard grocery store butters — may be the butters that cost a little less at the store. They might have around 80%, and those few percentage points really do make a difference.
However, I use local butter here from New York. I use from two different farmers for the most part, and dairy companies, Ronnybrook and Kriemhild. They range from 84 to 86%, which is pretty phenomenal. I am not sure whether it’s their churning method or just their beginning product, the cream that makes that difference of a few percentage points, but you can absolutely get high butterfat content butter here in the U.S. European butter is pretty much sure shorthand for high fat content, but you can get high fat content here. And it’s nice to not have to travel that many food miles for imported butter.
In addition to the butter to flour ratio, one of the most important things when making a crust is the temperature of the ingredients you’re working with, correct?
Correct. Butter crust has a reputation for being difficult, because butter will just melt in your hands as it melts at a pretty low temperature. And that makes it more difficult to work with. You can buy yourself time by starting with frozen flour or flour that you put in your freezer, because when it comes in contact with the butter, it’s not going to bring its temperature up. That’s a really simple trick. Most people who have been baking pies, they know that you’re supposed to use ice cold water — that’s a common direction — when you’re adding it to the crust or adding it to make the crust dough.
But what people might not always consider is that if your flour is room temperature, it’s going to raise the temperature of the butter. So start with frozen flour, and it makes things a little easier and buys you some time.
And when you’re making your crust, specifically, I know one thing people love about a pre-bought crust at the store is the ease behind it. Can you make your crust ahead of time and freeze it for later to save time on a busy day like Thanksgiving?
You absolutely can. The crust recipe that I have in the book yields a top crust and bottom crust for a fruit pie or two bottom crusts. If you want to make a pie, like pumpkin pie or pecan pie, that only has one bottom crust. And the nice thing about freezing it is that the moisture content from the butter and from the water that you add, when it freezes, it forms ice crystals that sort of expand. And then that will also make the crust a little flakier when you cook it.
People think of freezing maybe as a bad thing or it’s going to be poor quality — not so with crust. It actually makes the crust a higher quality when you actually bake it in the oven.
I wanted to talk about fall because we’re getting into what I think is probably your Superbowl of pie making, right? We have all the holidays coming right in a row.
That’s exactly what we call it, yes.
I’m thinking of apples a lot right now. When I make an apple crisp or something like that, I tend to use a Granny Smith apple, because I like the tart flavor. What are your favorite types of apples to use in a pie?
You know, Granny Smith isn’t that bad. I didn’t mean to malign them in my book when I said that they’re not my favorite despite the fact that they are often recommended texturally. They’re really great. And it just depends on where they’re coming from and whether they were picked ripe or not.
They’re going to just develop more flavor if they’re picked ripe, but sometimes people don’t notice if they’re not picked ripe, because they’re just known for their firmness and tartness. They are a great pie apple, but there’s a lot beyond that. And once you get into apples, it’s so easy to fall in love and want to experiment with all of these different kinds.
One of my favorites is Stayman-Winesap, because they have a deep cidery apple flavor. People describe it as a sort of winey flavor. I don’t get the winey of flavor so much from it. However, they do have a deeply appley — almost fermented appley flavor. And so those are one of my top pie apples, but they do have a tendency to get really juicy. And like my dad says, sometimes when he makes up a batch of apple pies with just Stayman’s, that they explode practically. They will break the crust open. Do be prepared for that, because they have a powerful bubbling ability with all that juice.
One of the ones that is known in England as the best baking apple is a Bramley — those are really good. They have that nice tart and firm quality that Granny Smith does, but they have just more appley flavor. I highly recommend those, but just for good pointers, a lot of farmers have samples of apples out at the farmer’s market right now. In the fall, in general, look for an apple that has a nice firm crunch to it and enough acidity to balance the sweetness — that’s generally going to be a really good pie apple.
You write in your book that some people may be shocked when they read that “classic American pumpkin pie is actually French — and it isn’t made of pumpkin.”
Yes. When we think of Thanksgiving, we think of pumpkin pie. It’s sort of like a big part of that feast. And one thing that I think is wonderful about Thanksgiving being a holiday meal, and pumpkin pie in particular, is it sort of is a marriage of a lot of new world agriculture, like indigenous agriculture, potatoes and pumpkins and all of these things, turkeys even, and old world European culinary techniques.
Pumpkin pie is really the perfect marriage of those things, and the basic custard format is a very French thing. When you think of crème brûlée, or all of these desserts, as a sweetened, dairy and egg concoction that is baked, it has roots in French cuisine. And then the addition of the pumpkin makes it a pumpkin pie.
However, a lot of the product that we take for granted is pumpkin is technically a squash. The Dickinson pumpkin has more in common genetically with other squash varietals, like a butternut squash, for example. That doesn’t make it any less of a pumpkin, as far as I’m concerned, where pie making is concerned.
Instead of using like the canned version of pumpkin, when you do prepare a squash for a pumpkin pie, you cook it in the oven with dairy. And that actually helps you achieve the desired amount of creaminess?
Yes, I experimented with this method of making pumpkin pie, because I like using fresh pumpkins. I roasted them and strained them. I’ve roasted them with minimal amounts of water, hoping that the water would come up out and evaporate in the oven. And then I thought, “Why am I not just cooking them in the dairy so that I get the whole pumpkin without having to mess with any extra steps of straining and pureeing?”
I gave it a shot, and it made me wonder if this was something that had been done before. That’s what kind of sent me down this rabbit hole of pumpkin pie origin stories and finding that a lot of the prototypical pumpkin pies — where it came from French recipes once they got their hands on those new world pumpkins. I find that it works really nicely, because there’s a little bit of evaporation that happens on the stove, so you don’t have excess liquid from the pumpkin. And when you cook the pumpkin in the cream and milk, it softens the skin of the pumpkin so that you can blend that right into the pie.
That means you have less waste. You’re not scooping pumpkin flesh out of a dried shell of a pumpkin — it’s a different process. It’s not super quick, but to me, it’s more convenient. It’s a more convenient way of making pumpkin pie with fresh pumpkin.
Pumpkin pie and apple pie tend to be the stars of the show, but what other recipes would you recommend from your book to try making for Thanksgiving or Christmas or whatever holiday you’re celebrating?
At Thanksgiving, our top three are probably very unsurprising in terms of what we make at Petee’s to sell. This year, we will likely make between 8,000 and 9,000 pies. No. 1 will be all versions of apple combined: apple, apple crumb and a vegan apple pie. And then pumpkin. And then the third one for us is honey pecan or a brown butter honey pecan.
I think that pecan pie can be such a lovely and beautiful dessert to have if you just make a few tweaks in the flavor. If you brown the butter instead of using just regular melted butter, it adds a lot more depth and nuttiness. And instead of using corn syrup, which is a really weird sort of invented food — if you use a natural sweetener like honey, you could also use maple syrup. It gives the pie a lot more character, a lot more depth and a lot more interest.
Is cheesecake a pie?
Yes, I do believe that cheesecake is a pie. It has a crust, and it has a custard filling essentially with the addition of cheese. It has a custard filling baked in a crust. So to me, it is a pie. But beyond those parameters, I just want it to be part of the pie family, because I love cheesecake. I love a really good cheesecake.
I wanted ask you about your journey. Even though you grew up in the family business, you didn’t join the family business. You took a different approach, and you worked in education first before opening your own bakery. Now, your book is out. What has this journey been like for you?
I sort of grew up in my family’s business with some sort of underlying idea that I would participate in the business as an adult, as well. I went to college, and I was an art major in college. And then I started reading about education, and that made me want to be a teacher. And I was a teacher for four years. I thought that was going to be my career. But when I started dating my husband, he asked if I ever thought about opening a pie shop in New York City. And I thought, “Oh, yes. I daydream about it all the time.” I know that we could do a really good job. I don’t see that many pie shops. And I think that it would be quite a draw. I said, “Why? Do you want to open one with me?” And he said, “Yes.”
And it’s a conversation we didn’t have to take seriously, but we really did. And I thought maybe I sort of have my hand in it a little bit but continue teaching. That’s not really something you can do when you’re running your own business, and I came to the conclusion that that is really where I felt comfortable. Indeed, when we started making pies together, this was after we had already been married. I had recently retired from teaching. Robert said he felt like he didn’t really know me until we started making pies together and selling them at a market.
He had never really fully seen me in my element until we were in the kitchen together, and I was delegating responsibilities and showing him how to do things. That was when he really saw sort of my confidence and my competence as a person was when I was in that role. And I thought, “That’s really funny. He’s only known me as a teacher for these past four years, and now he really, really knows me.” I’m quite in my element this way.
And I’m glad we did it. It’s been a really wonderful experience to own and operate this business with my husband and also to raise our now three kids in our family business.
I think that speaks to food in general, whether you cook or bake, what you’re making says so much about you. And that takes us to my closing question, which I love to ask everyone on the show. Why do you cook? Or in your case, why do you bake? I cook a lot of Mexican food at home. My grandmother is an immigrant from the south of Mexico, and it connects me to my culture, my family and my childhood. At the end of the day, I know you’ve been around pies for forever, but why do you bake?
That’s a really wonderful question. And I think that for all of us, no matter the differences in our answer, it’s probably comes down to the same heart. It’s a really simple way to connect with people and to show some sort of caring for somebody, even though we’re often baking for strangers at Petee’s to be part of somebody’s Thanksgiving celebration is a tremendous honor.
And I love to be able to make people food with the same very well-considered food choices that I make for myself. Sourcing food from local farmers and turning it into a pie for somebody, even if they’re a stranger, I think is an act of love and connection.