Pie Interview: Shelley Handler on Spit Cups, Flaky Crust, and Drunken Cream

Shelley Handler

Shelley Handler is a three-decade veteran of the food business. The inaugural chef of the Chez Panisse Café, she cooked in restaurants in San Francisco and Italy, including the three-star Gualtiero Marchesi. She has taught throughout her career, serving for a decade as a chef-instructor at the California Culinary Academy, and as a chef in numerous Bay Area elementary-age after-school programs. She’s put her English degree to work since 1993 writing for food websites, magazines, catalogs, and the back of packages. She also lends her brain to food product development for large food corporations, and looks to put these skills to work on healthful, sustainable, earth-loving food and education for school kids.

I first met Shelley in 1974, when I was nine, and my mom and I moved into a commune in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district that was largely populated by members of Anna Halprin’s Dancers’ Workshop. Shelley was then living in the basement next to the primal scream room.  Coincidentally, my husband Dave met her not long after that, when he was playing in a New Wave band with his brothers called No Sisters. Shelley’s sister (whom Dave just told me starred in Devo’s Whip It video…now that’s some kind of claim to fame) dated the drummer (who was the only non-brother in the band). Shelley’s floated in and out of our lives ever since and remains a loyal friend to my mom. I’ve always admired her flair, smarts, and creativity.


Gina: Why do you love pie?

Shelley: I love it because what you see is what you get. And I love the flavor of a well-made, flaky crust, especially the toasty part around the rim.

Gina: What is your fondest pie memory?

Shelley: I can’t remember where it was eaten, but a deep-dish boysenberry pie–individual sized, single crust, hot, with vanilla ice cream, a la mode.

Gina: What is your favorite kind of pie?

Shelley: Any pie with a delicate, flaky crust and tart fruit. I’m particularly fond of boysenberry or strawberry rhubarb.

Gina: What is the oddest pie you’ve made, seen, or heard of?

Shelley: A timballo, a traditional Italian confection–deep, drum-like with a cornucopia of ingredients including pasta and sauce. It’s the central character of the iconic food movie Big Night.

Gina: Have you ever judged a pie contest? Any tips?

Shelley: I have not. That said, being a regular taster/judge of less lovely ingredients for the San Francisco Chronicle‘s product tasting and rating panel since 1999, I would suggest small bites, take time to breathe with your mouth closed to taste the nuances, and have a spit cup at hand for when you can’t swallow any more or run into a nasty sample.

Gina: What criteria should pie judges consider?

Shelley: The synthesis of crust and filling–the taste and texture of that place where crust and filling meet. The texture of the crust–is it tender and flaky, but still substantial enough to contain the fruit? Take a bite of the crust, a bite of filling, and then a combined bite–to take in the flavor and texture of each on its own and then the flavor/texture of the two in a combined bite.

Gina: What is the secret to a perfect crust?

Shelley: Ice water and mix gingerly–just till the ingredients come together.

Gina: What makes the difference between a good pie and a transcendent one?

Shelley: The quality of the ingredients and intensity of the flavor of the filling. The more distinct and nuanced the filling the better the pie.

Gina: Do you think great bakers are born rather than made?

Shelley: Due to the chemistry/science aspect of baking–accurate measurements and definite order of business, I think bakers are made. Perhaps inspired bakers are born, but I think anyone can learn to be a good one. I think kindness and thoughtfulness are good pie-making traits.

Gina: Is there a way to use alcohol in pie without having the kick burn off?

Shelley: The best thing for making pies with a kick is to use a baked crust and a cold filling, such as a mousse or pudding. Think drunken cream pie.

Gina: Why does pie matter today?

Shelley: Because of its honesty and simplicity, it seems like the pastry antidote to information overload. It is such an historic dish, and it links us to our baking predecessors. It’s also a perfect food for difficult times–inexpensive to make, comforting in process and flavor, and meant to share.

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