Category Archives: missed

Pie Interview: Author Debra Ginsberg on the Role of Pie in Her New Novel, the Inferiority of Cake, and the Revelation of Fresh Strawberry Pie

Debra Ginsberg

Debra Ginsberg is the author of the memoirs, Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress (HarperCollins, 2000), Raising Blaze: A Mother and Son’s Long, Strange Journey Into Autism (HarperCollins, 2002), and About My Sisters (HarperCollins, 2004) and the novels Blind Submission (Shaye Areheart Books, 2006) and The Grift (Shaye Areheart Books, 2008). A graduate of Reed College, she has contributed to NPR’s All Things Considered, is a regular reviewer for Shelf Awareness, and works as a freelance editor. She lives in Southern California.

Debra and I share a dear mutual friend and we used to be represented by the same literary agent. We didn’t know each other until recently, though, when Facebook closed the circle. The other day she posted  the below photo of a star-topped blueberry pie that she’d baked. I could tell she was passionate about pie and she gamely agreed to an interview on the topic.

Debra's Blueberry Pie


Gina: Has pie played a role in any of your books?

Debra: It does play something of a role in my new novel (The Neighbors Are Watching – November 2010). Here, one of the “neighbors” is always trying to come up with these spectacular desserts, pie among them, but she’s a hopeless baker.

Gina: Why do you love pie?

Debra: What’s not to love??? Flaky crust and fruit–can you beat it? I think not! But if I were to investigate more deeply, I’d say that I’ve never really loved cake (in fact I don’t really like cake) because it’s too sweet, feels too cloying. There is something very fresh about a pie (well, a fruit pie anyway) and something so satisfying about that combination of crust and filling. Plus, I don’t eat eggs (or bake with them) and it’s quite easy to make wonderful pies without them.

Gina: Who taught you to bake?

Debra: Self taught!

Gina: What is your fondest pie memory?

Debra: My sister and I convincing my dad to go buy fresh strawberry pie and then eating it en famille. I was a teenager and we’d just moved to Oregon. We’d never had fresh strawberry pie like that before–it was a revelation.

Gina: What is your favorite kind of pie?

Debra: Cherry, if it’s made with fresh cherries. Cherries are my favorite fruit… But unless you make it yourself, it’s hard to find a fresh cherry pie, so the runner up is going to have to be apple or blueberry. Or peach. Or… you see where I’m going with this…

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

Debra: Any one of those medieval English pies one hears about. Those people would put anything in a piecrust. Hello–four and twenty blackbirds?

Illustration from The Song of Sixpence Picture Book by Walter Crane, 1909

Gina: Have you ever participated in or judged a pie contest?

Debra: I have not, but I think it would be great fun.

Gina: Is there a proper technique to tasting pie?

Debra: I think if you manage to not make a public spectacle of yourself, it’s all good.

Gina: What is the secret to a perfect crust?

Debra: Lots of butter, lots of chilling, lots of patience.

Gina: What personality traits make for the best pie bakers?

Debra: I think it helps to be a perfectionist and to have the desire to make people happy.

Gina: Why does pie matter today?

Debra: Pie is like home. The farther we drift into this disconnected morass of technology, the more we need the simplicity, warmth, and connectedness that pie represents.

Pie Interview: Mollie Cox Bryan on Conditional Pie Love, Mrs. Rowe, Southern Pie, and Pie for Breakfast, along with Expert Pie Judging Tips

Mollie Cox Bryan

Mollie Cox Bryan is the author of Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant Cookbook: A Lifetime of Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley and Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies, which the New York Times named a “Summer Cookbook to Watch” last year. She grew up in the hills of western Pennsylvania and currently lives with her husband and “two wild heathen daughters” in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where she runs, reads, and writes.


Gina: Why do you love pie?

Mollie: First, I should say that I don’t love ALL pie unconditionally, just most of it.  I don’t like mincemeat and am not fond of shoofly. But the rest of dessert pie, I love because it’s delicious. I don’t have complicated reasons for loving pie. But what’s not to like about it—from a purely hedonistic perspective?

Gina: What is your fondest pie memory?

Mollie: That is hard to choose. I made pies for years with my mom and Aunt Mart. Being at home with them making pumpkin pie is my fondest memory of it. But eating it with Mrs. Rowe is right up there with my fondest memories.

Gina: How did you become involved with Mrs. Rowe and what made her such a great baker?

Mollie: I wanted to write her life story (remarkable) so I approached the restaurant about the project, which was a biography that morphed into a narrative cookbook. I mean here was this woman who was raised in the hills with next to nothing and she built this multi-million-dollar restaurant, with very little education. I knew there was a story there.

Mrs. Rowe had an evolved palette and that made her an excellent baker and cook. It also made her tough to work for sometimes because she demanded excellence. She also had A LOT of practice and she herself would tell anybody that was the trick. But there are people who have a kind of “feel” for things like pie, for example. She had this finely tuned feel for piecrust, knew how it should feel against her skin, how it should smell, look, and so on. Of course, she’d been making piecrust since she was a child.

Gina: What is your favorite kind of pie?

Mollie: Pumpkin, which goes back to my memory of baking pies with my mom, who made these incredible thick pumpkin pies.

Gina: What makes Southern pies special?

Mollie: It’s several things—the first is that classic Southern pies are always more sweet than other pies. I’ve discussed this with a lot of people and I’m sure one of the reasons for all the sugar is that it’s a great preservative. And with the Southern warm weather, preservation was an important consideration. I’m not sure if the Southern sweet tooth is anymore prevalent than in other parts of the country, or if that’s just another one of those Southern myths that have developed.

The other thing is that Southern pie reflects its region, just like pies of other regions. And we have this vast region with so many different kinds of crops to choose from when we make pie–think about Florida with its Key limes and eastern Virginia with their peanuts, for example.

Gina: What pies are best to eat for breakfast?

Mollie: I’m told that the Pennsylvania Dutch still eat shoofly pie for breakfast. But I prefer pumpkin. Also, any fruit pie, especially peach.

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

Mollie: I think the watermelon pie in my book is probably the oddest pie I’ve heard about. When the restaurant owner told me he had this recipe for watermelon pie, I was skeptical. But after I saw the ingredients, it made sense and I wondered why it’s not more popular.

Gina: Have you ever participated in or judged a pie contest? Do you have any competition tips for contestants or judges?

Mollie: Yes, I have judged. I think that contestants should keep it simple. The tendency is for people to fancy up a pie so much that judges are wondering what it is they are tasting. It’s difficult enough to make a perfect, competition-worthy pie. The pie that won the competition I judged was a lemon chiffon—deceptively easy, but elegant and refreshing after all the other extremely rich entries. Creativity is a good thing, but it should make sense.

Gina: What criteria should pie judges consider? Is there a proper technique to tasting pie?

Mollie: As far as technique, I’d say to keep it at one bite. It’s also a good idea to keep it in your mouth a little longer than normal. Let it roll around in there and get a good feel for the texture, as well as flavor.


1.     How the pie looks.

2.     The crust needs to hold together, as well as taste good.

3.     The flavor of the pie.

4.     And consider how well the pie represents its category.

Gina: Why does pie matter today?

Mollie: I think that pie often acts as a touchstone from our busy lives to a simpler time. Nothing takes you home like pie does. It seems to me that there’s been a recent resurgence of interest in it. The economy has left many of us reeling and pie answers a call of comfort without breaking the bank. Oh sure, you can get gourmet ingredients and make a wonderful pie, but in times like these, it’s great to know you don’t have to do that. Often you can make it with what you’ve got on hand. Simple, inexpensive, local ingredient-filled pies are a reasonable way to indulge. We all need a bit of that.

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.

Woodward’s Garden Restaurant Chef/Owner Dana Tommasino on Pie

Dana Tommasino has been the Chef/Owner of Woodward’s Garden Restaurant in San Francisco for 18 years now, which has been described by food critic Patricia Unterman as “the perfect Parisian restaurant — a small, unpretentious, neighborhood place run by a couple with instinctively good taste.”  I enjoyed a memorable birthday dinner there years ago and was delighted recently to stumble upon her always intriguing and fun voice on Twitter @figmentspot and her “foodish thoughts” blog, Figments.

Dana holds a BA in American Studies from UC Santa Cruz, a Masters degree in Literature from Mills College, and an AA degree from the California Culinary Academy. She lives in San Francisco with her sweetie, her daughter, and their mad Norwich Terrier, Chickpea.

Dana Tommasino Making Pie

Gina: Why do you love pie?

Dana: According to Janet Clarkson (Pie: A Global History), every food was once first pie, and pies can be traced back to the Neolithic Period (9500 BC!). Now that’s some history. Crust was the original Le Creuset braiser; lunch box; tupperware.  Food encased made it super transportable, cookable, and a cinch to store to boot.  And then there’s all that intense interior juice becoming le Zen “One” with crisp, chewy starch, and the ability of pies to embody both sweet perfume or earthy savory so beautifully. Pies are brilliant, functional, and delicious. No wonder they caught on.  What’s not to love?

Gina: What is your fondest pie memory?

Dana: Tamale Pie.  A woman cooked hot lunch for us daily at my tiny grade school.  Her weekly pie was all peppers, beef, chilies, olives, and cheese fired under a cornmeal crust. Lord it was good. Wednesdays couldn’t whip around fast enough.  And yes, the cheese was doozy-orange; the olives canned con perfect thumb holes, but it so didn’t matter.  When I dug into this obsession as a trained chef, I found that tamale pie was one of the very cool original pies.

Diana Kennedy includes a recipe for a Mayan “tamale pie” called Muk-Bil Pollo in her dazzling Cusines of Mexico.  It was placed in the earth and long-baked for Mukpipoyo, a day that Indians honor their dead. I, of course, had to make it on-the-spot.  A stew of pork, chicken, chiles, onions, tomatoes, herbs, and garlic is encased in a masa dough brought together with water, rendered lard and its cracklings, then baked for 1 -1/2 hours.

My sweetie said she adored it except for the tough “shingle” outer layer. Yet that rough chewy crust was enigmatic to me; what I most loved about it. It is indeed SO sturdy you can turn the whole pie out of its cooking vessel intact, which is how it originally traveled, tied with banana leaf as a handle (!).  Could there be anything more beautiful on earth than one of these babies approaching in a friend’s hand?

Gina: What is your favorite kind of pie?

Dana: Besides Tamale?  I’m generally far more savory than sweet-inclined.  Chicken Pot with Béchamel, Tarragon, Spring Vegetables; Steak & Kidney; Shepherd’s; any Smoked Fish extravaganza. But don’t misunderstand: neon, viscous berry bubbles busting through a top crust will undo me every time.

Dana's Peach-Cherry Crostata

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

Dana: The wacky early “animated” pies, used in court entertainments are pretty captivating.  Bottom crusts were filled with live birds then covered only to burst out and fly away when cut open in front of astonished guests: “When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing. Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the King.”

Gina: Have you ever participated in or judged a pie contest? Please tell me about your experiences. Do you have any competition tips?

Dana: No.  But I’m always free for that sort of thing.

Gina: What criteria should pie judges consider? Is there a proper technique to tasting pie?

Dana: Crust, crust, crust.  Filling, filling, filling.  And attacking said pie is appropriate, but probably not ever “proper.”

Dana's Kabocha-Parmesan Pie

Gina: What is the secret to a perfect crust?

Dana: Lard or butter, I’m not picky.  You can get lovely, crisp crusts from either.  The secret is quick, cool handling.  Shuna Fish Lydon (who is firmly in the butter camp) offers one of the most illuminating pie dough treatise I’ve ever encountered on her lovely blog, Eggbeater.

Gina: Do you think great bakers are born rather than made? Can anybody learn to make pie? What personality traits make for the best pie bakers?

Dana: Anything can be learned!  But baking is perhaps a more exact art than other kinds of cooking, so someone naturally exacting might have an advantage here.

Gina: Why does pie matter today?

Dana: Because it is one of our original foods and it still thrives in spades.

Dana Tommasino Cooking

Dana's Tomato Nicoise Pie Before

Dana's Tomato Nicoise Pie After

Kids' Pie Contest at the Green River Community Center/Boys & Girls Club in Utah

Allene Swan, 23, is an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer at the Green River Community Center/Boys & Girls Club in rural Green River, Utah. Via Twitter, I recently stumbled on photos she took of a pie contest at the center. It looked like fun and she graciously agreed to share her images and answer my questions about the event.

Allene Swan with Pie Contest Contestants


Gina: Why did you decide to host a pie contest? Is it a tradition at the Green River Community Center?

Allene: The Boys and Girls Club after school program (which runs from 3:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. during the school year) wanted to host a pie contest simply because the kids love to bake. I thought it would be a fun experience that combined learning how to bake  and positive competition. It is not a tradition with our organization but I hope it becomes one!

Gina: What were the rules of your pie contest?

Allene: The rules of our pie contest were:

  • As a child you had to work in a group (to encourage teamwork) with an adult as part of the group. Adults were either the staff, our AmeriCorps NCCC volunteers, or parents of the children.
  • Each group came up with their own pie recipe and submitted it before hand so that ingredients could be collected. A small budget was allotted for the pie contest.
  • First and second place prizes were given to two groups, and every participant got a small prize as well.

Gina: Who were the pie judges and what criteria did they use to judge the pies?

Allene: The pie judges were volunteers. The pie judges included volunteer staff, paid staff, and members of the Green River Community. The criteria for judging was simple and based on taste and appearance.

Gina: What pies won and what were the prizes?

Allene: The cherry pie won and the Rocky Road pie. They were both soooo yummy. They trumped the other pies because of excellent taste mostly. The cherry pie had cherry almond filling and a flaky top. The Rocky Road pie was a mix of chocolate, graham crackers, and other good ingredients. The little prizes were just an assortment of candy bars I bought. The big prizes were rolling pins and oven mitts.

Why do you love pie?

I love pie because there are so many different ways to make it. I would rather have pie over cake because of its extra tastiness–my favorite pie is key lime pie. The kids love pie because it is easy to make, and you can be creative with it. They love to put their hands in the dough and work in the kitchen.

Interview with First Prize Pies Founder Allison Kave

Pie Contest Winner Allison Kave

Allison Kave was inspired to start First Prize Pies after winning the Best Overall Pie award at the 1st Annual Brooklyn Pie Bake-Off in 2009.  Her recipes are inventive riffs on classics (bourbon ginger pecan, apple cheddar, shoo-fly) and original creations based on her own favorite flavors (chocolate peanut butter pretzel, root beer cream). For details about her prize-winning bourbon ginger pecan pie, including the recipe, click here.

First Prize Pies are available to order online, by the slice every Saturday in New York City at Roni-Sue’s Chocolates in the Essex Street Market, on the dessert menu at Brooklyn’s Fatty ‘Cue, and starting in late April, every weekend at the Hester Street Fair on the Lower East Side.

First Prize Pies Logo


Gina: Why do you love pie?

Allison: Above all, I love the process of making pie. There is something so meditative about working with dough—you can’t rush it, you have to have the right ingredients and temperatures, and the physicality of it is very soothing and satisfying.  I also appreciate the sense of community that seems to happen around pie—it’s almost magical!

Gina: How many pie contests have you entered? Please tell me about your recent life-changing pie contest experience.

Allison: Just the one!  Last year, my boyfriend Jay heard about the 1st Brooklyn Pie Bake-Off, which was a fundraiser for Bags for the People, and sent me an email that simply said ‘you should enter this—you will win.’  I certainly didn’t have such lofty expectations, but I thought it would be fun.  In the end, I submitted one standby (bourbon ginger pecan) and one wild card (s’mores pie —which I had never made before).  My standby won Best Overall Pie, and that really was the catalyst for my decision to go pro.  Jay also decided to participate with his apple cider cream, and he won Best Sweet Pie!  It was an amazing day.

Allison's 1st Prize-Winning Bourbon Ginger Pecan Pie

Gina: Do you have any tips for aspiring pie contest contestants?

Allison: Don’t get caught up in the competition aspect—just have fun with it!  It’s really an excuse for a community to get together, eat yummy treats, and get to know each other.  In terms of your entry, make something you love, or something you’ve always wanted to try.

Allison's "Wild Card" S'mores Pie

Gina: What criteria should pie judges consider? Is there a proper technique to tasting pie?

Allison: Pie is such a composite dessert—it’s all about the right balance of flavors and textures.  How is the crust? It should be flaky and flavorful, and able to hold up to the filling, which should be juicy, gooey, and delicious, not soggy or runny.  In terms of appearance, I tend to love really homey, rustic-looking pies.  I don’t think a pie should look perfect.

Gina: What is your fondest pie memory?

Allison: It has to be the pie contest—it was just so much fun! My mom, brother, and so many friends came out to support, and it was an incredibly convivial experience.

Gina: What is your favorite kind of pie?

Allison: Right now, probably shoo-fly. I have an uncontrollable weakness for molasses.

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

Allison: I tend to really like “odd” pies—I’ve been reading a lot about vinegar pie lately and I plan to try my hand at a variation on that.

Gina: What is the secret to a perfect crust?

Allison: Quality ingredients, kept cold, with a minimal amount of human intervention.

Gina: Do you think great bakers are born rather than made? Can anybody learn to make pie? What personality traits make for the best pie bakers?

Allison: I think anybody can learn to make pie—it’s about having the right attitude.  Many people seem to be terrified of crust, but it’s not so scary! Just try your hand at it and approach it as a fun, relaxing experience as opposed to something you have to ‘get right.’  The irony here is that I am a total perfectionist, but I have taken a page from the great Julia Child and try not to throw kitchen tantrums anymore.  It’s just dough! I think this post by Choire Sicha about making pie crust is hilarious and reassuring at the same time.

Gina: Why does pie matter today?

Allison: Pie matters today for the same reason it’s always mattered.  It’s a beautiful way to capture seasonal flavors, it’s a dessert that requires its maker to be patient and aware, and it’s a way to bring people together to enjoy each others company over a plate of something sweet.  These are all important qualities, and it makes me so happy to see that more and more people are embracing pie —whether as makers or eaters!

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