John Phillip Carroll has authored or co-authored more than a dozen books on food and cooking, including California the Beautiful Cookbook and The Bakers’ Dozen Cookbook, and numerous volumes in the Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library. His articles have appeared in several publications, including Gourmet, Cook’s Illustrated, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also serves on the panel for the Taster’s Choice column, which appears weekly in the Chronicle Food section. In addition, he writes copy and recipes for catalogues and commodity boards. He is a past president of the San Francisco Professional Food Society, and served on the board of directors of the Bakers Dozen. His book, Pie Pie Pie, was published by Chronicle Books.
Gina: Why do you love pie?
John: Pie has a unique allure. The aromas—sweet, toasty, fruity—are tempting, and they draw people into the kitchen—the place that can be the center of life, of the home, where family and friends get to know one another. If that sounds like a lot to expect from a pie, just try it sometime. Pie, like homemade bread, is a symbol of many good things.
Gina: What is your fondest pie memory?
John: Mastering a basic pie crust, when I was about fourteen. I learned a lot about baking from my grandmother, and I’d make a few pies, but my crusts weren’t like hers. She used to plunge right into the fat and flour and mix with her fingers. She didn’t use a pastry blender. Her favorite fat for pie crust was lard, but it’s hard to find good tasting lard now, so I use vegetable shortening. And I still blend the dough with my fingers. James Beard used to say that our hands are the best tools for mixing, because you develop a real feel for what you are doing. He was right.
Gina: What is your favorite kind of pie?
John: Summer fruit pies. You just can’t top the combination of a crisp, flaky crust and a sweet, tender fruit filling.
John: James Beard, despite his girth, didn’t have much of what you’d call a “sweet tooth” for pie. He liked simple tarts, and not-too-sweet pastries. I don’t recall ever making a pie with him, though we sometimes made fruit tarts at home and in his summer cooking classes on the Oregon coast.
Gina: What is the oddest pie you’ve made, seen, or heard about?
John: Mock Apple Pie. It’s made with soda crackers, but the recipe used to be on the Ritz Cracker box as well. I’ve made it a couple times, and you’d be surprised, the filling really does resemble apple slices. It’s a very old recipe, and before produce was shipped around the country, cooks had to made do with what they had.
Gina: Have you ever participated in or judged a pie contest?
John: I’ve judged many pie-baking contests, but never entered one.
Gina: Do you have any competition tips for contestants or judges?
John: For the contestants, keep it simple. In every cooking contest, no matter how many entries, one or two of them will stand out. And they are usually straightforward, undemanding recipes. Whatever you are making, remember that when combining ingredients, and adding flavorings and spices, less is more. A good pie judge is impartial, without bias, and tries not to be influenced by any predetermined notions of how he or she thinks should be.
Gina: What criteria should pie judges consider?
John: Taste and texture matter the most. Appearance is secondary. A homemade pie will never have the look of a pie cranked out in the mechanical world.
Gina: Is there a proper technique to tasting pie?
John: Texture, meaning tenderness, smoothness, flakiness—those are probably a pie’s greatest attributes. Beyond that, tasting is not something deeply cerebral, although some palates are more refined, or educated, than others. And when judging something, you must keep an open mind.
Gina: What is the secret to a perfect crust?
John: There really are no secrets, just some good advice. Don’t be afraid, just get right into the dough, and use your fingers for blending. Vegetable shortening (I use Crisco) is the fat I recommend for producing a crisp, tender American pie crust. It keeps at room temperature, it blends easily with the flour, and it is generally very forgiving of a little too much handling. Practice a few times, and you will get the hang of it. Butter makes a good tart crust, but that is something different.
Gina: What personality traits make for the best pie bakers?
John: Patience and perseverance, and consoling yourself with the knowledge that if your pie didn’t turn out just the way you want it right off the bat, that it will probably be better next time. Forget what scares you about making pies, and start fresh.
Gina: What’s the story of your pie tattoo?
John: I wanted a tattoo, and I wanted it unique. I’d thumbed through catalogues of tattoos at a neighborhood studio (in San Francisco’s North Beach), but I wanted something nobody else had. I took a photograph of a pie from a major food magazine to one of the artists at the studio. His name was Marcus. He’d recently moved to San Francisco from New York, after college, and he had a background in art. He redrew the pie so it would “read” better in tattoo form, and of course shrunk it, to about the diameter of a tennis ball. It’s a two-crust pie, in a blue enamel pie plate, with hearts in the top crust. I’ve been very happy with it. I even went back later, so he could photograph it for his portfolio.
Gina: Why does pie matter today?
John: Because pie, whether you are baking one or eating one, is rarely a solitary occurrence. Sharing it with friends is a tradition cloaked in nostalgia. It is also a social experience, a way to bring people together. Pie is rarely eaten alone, except maybe for breakfast the next day.