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Pie to the Nth Power

Local pastry pushers dish about the all-American dessert

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I hate to be the one to break it to you, but autumn is just around the corner. You can feel it in the newly chilly nights and the - gasp - Halloween displays in stores. But along with the inexorable approach of winter, cooler weather brings a few things to look forward to, particularly if you're a foodie. Think mounds of pumpkin and acorn squashes and gallons of freshly pressed sweet and tart cider. Piles of locally grown Paula Reds and green-and-red-streaked Gravensteins started appearing in stores just last week.

One of the best things about fall is the renewed desire to cook and bake. When your home is already as hot as an oven, turning the thing on seems unthinkable. But when the temperature falls sharply at dusk, whipping up a crisp crumble or buttery buckle is a grand way to spend an evening. And if you're really into baking, you can always find an excuse to make America's favorite dessert.

In America, we love pie so much that we sing songs and make movies about it. (Though one might argue that neither Don McLean's "American Pie" nor the movie American Pie is actually about, well, pie.) But while people love the crisp/gooey combo of crust and filling, you hardly ever see it on the menu at a classy restaurant.

Why? "If I want a really nice pie, I might go and have my grandmother's pie," muses Ian Huizenga, executive chef at the Storm Café in Middlebury. "When I go to a restaurant, I'm not looking for pie."

Pastry Chef Roberta Blake of Gourmet Provence and Café Provence in Brandon echoes his sentiments. "It's more of a comfort food," she suggests. "When you go to a diner, you think pie. But when you're getting filet mignon you don't think of pie; you think of a triple-chocolate whatever."

The Storm Café does run a "glorified" banana cream pie, complete with fresh bananas, caramel sauce and whipped cream. But patrons don't rush to order the more standard versions. "If I have a chocolate decadence next to pie, the pie's not gonna sell," Huizenga explains.

Most bakers agree that the hardest part of making a good pie is creating the crust. But according to Amy Bell, owner of Foothills Bakery in Fairfax, the flaky stuff isn't actually that difficult. "The trick is just not to overwork it," she elucidates. Another tip: Use a metal scraper to lift the dough off the rolling board. "You just use a little flour . . . Once you roll it out, you put [the scraper] under the crust and flip it. Those things are really inexpensive."

For her part, Blake stresses the importance of pre-baking, also known as "blind baking," the bottom crust. One common method is to cover the pie shell in foil and weigh it down with rice or dried beans, which keep bubbles from forming. After a few minutes of baking, the foil is removed so the crust can brown. Though the extra step may seem like a hassle, it prevents the shell from getting soggy after the filling is added.

Where do the experts disagree? On the age-old "butter versus shortening" question. Bell opts for butter, but will occasionally include a bit of shortening. Blake is more of a purist: "I definitely make an all-butter crust . . . I have one recipe that took me years to find and I don't deviate from it." Did the former NECI instructor's recipe come from some fancy-schmancy pastry manual? Nope: It's "from a 30-year-old Good Housekeeping book," she admits.

Other bakers fall into the Crisco camp. Lisa Rock was hired this year to organize the Champlain Valley Fair's many culinary competitions. She thinks the hydrogenated-vegetable-oil product gives pies a cleaner taste: "Sometimes I like that buttery flavor, but I don't want it to overpower the filling." Sandi Niquette, who won her first Champlain Valley Fair Best in Show award for baking at the tender age of 14, is a shortening gal from way back. "Sometimes I'll throw butter in there, but mostly it's just Crisco," the Colchester resident says.

Niquette, whose cherry pie took home the gold in the fair's "David Grimm Cherry Pie Baking Competition" this year, has another tip for those who cringe at the prospect of making crust. "There's a trick that I actually learned a while ago of using either self-rising flour or adding a teaspoon of vinegar to your water, and that helps make the crust light."

Whatever she does, it works. In addition to her cherry coup, Niquette won the berry category a few years back with a blueberry-custard confection (see below). This year alone, she took home 15 ribbons for her cooking, including a "best in show" for her braided white bread. Another noteworthy accomplishment: second place in the "Fry It at the Fair" contest. Her winning entry consisted of balls of deep-fried mac 'n' cheese.

With a full-time job at Comcast, why does Niquette put in so much oven time? "To me, baking is love . . . that's how you show people you care for them, by baking them things," she says. But altruistic as the urge may be, she admits the adulation doesn't hurt: "You spend a while in the kitchen and you come out and you get immediate approval." Want some approval for yourself? Try one of the recipes to the left.

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