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Gotta Love Pie

The apple pie Evan made, with insight from Alton Brown. (Evan Kleiman)

Make close to 60 different pies (practically one every day) and you can learn a thing or two. Apparently this applies even to a veteran chef-restaurateur-cookbook author like Evan Kleiman, who has owned Angeli Caffe in Los Angeles for 25 years.

She conducted her Pie-a-Day Project at home last summer, where her own mom didn’t get to sample nearly as much as she wanted to, daughter Kleiman says, because the baking would happen late at night and be whisked away by morning for colleagues to sample.

Kleiman also hosts a radio show called “Good Food” on KCRW (Saturdays at 11 a.m. PST), so the audience base and media focus were almost guaranteed. Her blogged pie chronicles got bursts of attention from ace baker Dorie Greenspan, Serious Eats and lots of L.A. news online.

Evan Kleiman describes herself as a "witchy" cook (big pots of soups and braises). But she's learned a thing or two about pie.

Not that anyone would need to stack the deck when it comes to savory or sweet filings with crust all around. I found out about the project too late to suggest recipes, but I heartily endorsed Kleiman’s effort. To my mind, it was a smack-myself-in-the-head, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that kind of idea. Fun with food.

And educational. “It’s fascinating the tiny little differences that go into a signature pie recipe,” she told me last week.

Even after all that summer piemaking, Kleiman was astounded to learn she could still muck things up. “I recently made pies at Angeli, for people who had pledged [money] to my show,” she says. “I did three different pies. The apple one, which they never got to eat due to time, was just horrible.”

And an apple pie she made at home with Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and Fuji fruit had tasted flat.

So she interviewed Alton Brown, whose tips proved her point about the magic of tiny tweaks. She used a basic crust recipe that called for flour, butter, water, a little salt and sugar; cold butter cut into dry ingredients. Lots of people roll this way.

Not AB. The food-science guru told her he adds the butter in three ways: softened butter is pulsed with a mixture of flour and cornmeal in a food processor to coat them with the fat; then chilled butter is added in pea-size pieces and larger bits to create the flakiest crust. The cornmeal adds color and a toothsome quality. He substitutes apple juice concentrate for half the water. “This really lifts the apple flavor,” Kleiman says.

But wait: There’s more. Brown sprays the liquid onto the dough's dry ingredients instead of pouring and stirring it in. “That way, he uses a minimal amount and avoids any clumping up,” Kleiman says. It’s maniacally genius. The water is evenly distributed, too. I added a little more salt to the apples than I normally would, yet they didn’t read as salty when I was done. I made a better apple pie.”

“I’ve been cooking a long time,” she says, “and I’ve found that people are afraid to ask questions. You never get good unless you keep baking over and over, and that includes making mistakes.”

Other Kleiman lessons learned:
* “I’ve never had a ‘production’ pie that was as good as homemade. There’s something about professional methods that changes the nature of pie. Maybe pie is not supposed to be perfect.”

* Try substituting the juice of rangpur limes in your key lime pie recipe. The flavor is incredible, she says.

* Don’t opt for store-bought pie dough. (Boy, she's right about that. Our Food staff just completed a taste test of those doughs, fresh and frozen, for our Thanksgiving editions on Nov. 18 and Nov. 22.) “Crust is the best part of making pie,” Kleiman says. “You will feel so accomplished when you finally get it right. That can take at least 20 times to do. And that’s nothing in a lifetime.”

Another round of Kleiman-inspired pies will happen Nov. 14, when she hosts the first “Good Food” pie contest at Westfield Topanga mall in L.A. More than 100 entries are expected, with celebrity judges listed here. If you’re so inclined and ready to fly with pie, you’ve got till Sunday to enter.

-- Bonnie Benwick

By The Food Section  |  November 4, 2009; 12:30 PM ET
 | Tags: Bonnie Benwick, pie  
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