After three months of baking a smattering of pies, the Food Network called Matt Zagorski and asked him to be on the air.
"I hung up because I thought it was a joke," he recalls.
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Even though Zagorski graduated in 2004 with a culinary degree from Kendall College in Chicago, he was the clear newbie on a Food Network Challenge for pie baking in 2008.
"I completely got my butt kicked," he said. "Every bad thing that could have happened happened to me. It was a very, very humbling experience."
But he didn't quit trying to make pies, now dubbing himself the "Rudy of pie making," referencing the 1993 movie starring Sean Astin and Jon Favreau about a boy who dreams of playing football for Notre Dame.
In April, his fifth year competing, Zagorski won the professional cherry pie division at the American Pie Council/Crisco National Pie Championship. It was just one of the eight pies he entered in the competition.
Zagorski, 47, works as a manufacturing representative in the culinary industry and culinary classes teacher. He lives with his wife, two sons and dog in Arlington Heights.
When and why did you start to bake pies? I started making pies in the late fall of 2007. Prior to that I had never made a pie before. I started making pies after I saw a pie making competition on the Food Network and thought "Hey, I can do that!" I never imagined that I would become a featured chef on that same program in 2008, or that pie making would be so challenging.
What was your experience being on Food Network like? Humbling. When I appeared on Food Network Challenge I had only been making pies for about three months. In the world of competitive pie making, that made me a newborn baby. The other competitors were not only previous National Champions, but most of them had been on the show before and knew what to expect. So, while I showed up with a gym bag with some tools, a rolling pin and some groceries, they all had speed racks full of prepped food and multiple chef assistants. The worst part for me was that during the filming, everything that could go wrong did: one of my pie crusts shrank to almost nothing, my piping bag clogged up multiple times, equipment failures and more. I am naturally pretty high strung, and when I get stressed, I tend to wear that emotion on my face. So when they told me I was good for reality TV, I was not sure if that was a compliment or not!
Of course I did not win anything that year. Once I got back home, I decided I was not going to let that show be my pie making legacy and completely changed my approach to pie making. The next year I won my first ribbons.
How did it feel to win the professional cherry pie division at the American Pie Council/Crisco National Pie Championship? Rewarding and surreal. Rewarding in that 90 percent of the chefs I am competing against either own a pie shop, have a cookbook or are trained pastry chefs. With pie-making, I am self-taught, so when you compete against credentials like that, you feel really blessed when you do win something. The rules for the competition categorize anyone with culinary training as "professional," but all of my culinary education is on the savory side.
The surreal aspect is that cherry and apple are the most competitive divisions. If you think about it, these are probably the two most classic "American" pies and thus the ones competitors most want to win. I feel very blessed to have won and did not expect it.
What tips can you offer beginning pie bakers? Be patient; making pie crust can be really challenging and frustrating. Make a pie filling that you would really enjoy eating. That way, if the crust does not come out, you can at least enjoy eating the filling. And always keep a frozen pie crust in the freezer as a back up.
On the technical side, do not underestimate the importance of letting the dough rest, and do not go crazy mixing the water into the dry ingredients. Once the flour starts to ball up and feel damp to the touch, you are done. Over-mixing the dough creates a tough pie crust. Another really important tip is to start out baking your pies on the floor or lowest rack in your oven for at least 15 minutes. The heat is the highest on the bottom of the oven, which helps set and completely cook the bottom of the pie crust. After 15 or so minutes, move the pie to the middle of the oven to finish baking.
What's your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? Cherries. I like to use cherries because I find their flavor complex as they are both tart and sweet.
What three ingredients should every home cook have? No. 1 is kosher salt. If used judicially, salt, in most cases, enhances the flavor of foods. No. 2 is butter. Fats add flavor and brings them together like nothing else. No 3., if you like to bake, is frozen pie crusts. Most of them taste all right, and they turn pie making from a big project into a small one. And if you are practicing or trying to perfect a recipe, frozen pie crusts allow you to focus on the filling and create several pies in a short period of time.
What are some foolproof block party/cookout pleasers? I love to grill double thick hamburgers and beer brats. For sides, I make a great coleslaw and enjoy grilling every vegetable I can find. As you might imagine, most of my cookouts end with pie.
What do you do in your free time? I spend as much of my free time with my kids and family as I can. I am active with scouting and coaching soccer. When I get some time to myself, I like to play my guitar.
Do you have a favorite cookbook or cookbook author? My two favorite cookbooks are "The Joy of Cooking" and "Contemporary Italian" by Robert Helstrom. "The Joy of Cooking" is classic, and the recipes are really good. "Contemporary Italian" was my first cookbook, and it helped me realize I could make a meal that tasted good. It's one of the few cookbooks that I have made every recipe in the book. My favorite cookbook authors are Alton Brown and the folks at America's Test Kitchen.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years? I see myself still making pies. I hope I have won the coveted "Best In Show" prize at the National Pie Championships. Also, I have a lot of original pie recipes, so I have always wanted to write a pie-themed cookbook. I also see myself branching out into other food competitions like barbecuing. I would really love to try that.
Tell us about this recipe. Life is a Pie Full of Cherries. I am very proud of this pie. This sounds insane to folks who don't bake, but it took me three years to develop. I got inspired for this recipe on a business trip I was on in Traverse City, Mich., the cherry capital of the world. I went to a local pie shop there and ate the most amazing cherry pie ever. It was tart and sweet with a wonderful topping for texture. After I devoured my slice of pie, I asked the head baker what his secret was, and he told me it was Montmorency cherries. I now order them by the case.
The topping for the pie came from a friend of mine and is really versatile. It adds great texture. Finally, the pie crust is a "labor of love" that took years to get down. It's a lot of work, but if executed correctly, it is really worth the effort. The secret ingredient is the sour cream.
The key to getting this pie correct is to add just enough sugar to enhance the natural flavor of the cherries. Too much sugar takes away the tartness and complexity of the cherries. Also, I am careful to add only a small amount of almond extract ... too much makes the end result too sweet.
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