A hands-on journey to learn about pie crust artistry
Last month my daughter-in-law Rachael and I spent a weekend in Vermont. Unfortunately, most of the leaves had already fallen to the ground, but that didn't matter to us, because we were there to take a fall pie class at Sugar Glider Kitchen, a baking school owned and run by the Food Network's, "Baked In Vermont" host, Gesine Prado.
Gesine (pronounced Ga-zee-na) Prado is a self-taught Master Baker and former owner of Gesine's Confectionery in Montpelier, Vermont, but she is so much more than a baker.
Author of several cookbooks, including the recently released "Fantastical Cakes," she also wrote "Confections of a Closet Master Baker: One Woman's Sweet Journey From Unhappy Hollywood Executive to a Contented Country Baker." In the last, she writes of always having had a passion for sweets and her belief that food connects us to our loved ones and memories of the past, noting the influence of both her mother and grandmother on her baking.
While in college and grad school Prado found baking to be an excellent way to relieve stress. She would bake intricate gingerbread villages and other confections during finals and while waiting to take the bar exam.
Prado would eventually run Fortis Films, alongside her sister Sandra Bullock, where she baked carrot cakes to relieve stress. But, as the book title implies, she was not happy and left the glitz and glamour behind. Most recently, she has now opened the Sugar Glider Kitchen, a baking school attached to her historic home near picturesque Woodstock, Vermont where she also films her television show.
I was thrilled when we were able to secure our seats in Prado's Fall Pies class. Classes usually sell out within minutes of being posted, and now I know why; there were only eight people in our class resulting in an intimate environment and a feeling we were guests in her home.
With Prado's favorite 70s disco music playing in the background, we spent most of our time making the pie crust, not the filling, and it was worth every minute.
I know pie crust is supposed to be flaky, have made the traditional version many times, and have experimented with different twists from vodka to adding an egg, but I had never made a crust as flaky as we would make with Gesine.
For those of us who are "Great British Baking Show" fans, we have heard this referred to as "rough puff" or quick puff pastry. The goal is to have many flaky layers, or "Jazz hands," as Prado would refer to them during our class, similar to puff pastry.
We used our hands to coat chilled chunks of butter with flour, and then with a lobster claw like movement, flatten the butter chunks between the tips of our fingers and thumbs, making sure not to warm the butter in the palms of our hands. After adding ice water, we used our Fairy Fingers, another Prado term, to more evenly distribute the moisture throughout the flour mixture.
Rolling, folding and chilling came next, but the pièce de résistance was her technique for making a lattice crust. Instead of building the lattice on top of the pie filling, you build it on a sheet of floured parchment sitting atop an upside-down cookie sheet. From there, it's simple to transfer the top onto the pie once the filling is complete, a maneuver that keeps the top lattice from becoming wet from the fruit mixture.
Prado prepared an apple filling before we arrived, noting we could add other fruit to our filling if desired, as she had combined some thinly sliced plums to ours. She explained cooking the apples briefly before baking allows them to release some moisture, eliminating the large gap between the top crust and filling so many of us have experienced.
As we anxiously waited for our pies to come out of the oven Prado showed us how we could stack our remaining pastry dough like a deck of cards, think folds, roll it out again, but this time she made us homemade cheese straws by adding a layer of parmesan cheese between one of the folds. The dough was then cut into strips, and we took turns placing twists of pastry onto the parchment lined baking sheets before baking and eating them fresh out of the oven.
Our pies turned out beautiful, made it home safely in the overhead bin of the plane, and tasted great.
I was fortunate to be able to spend a few minutes following our class talking with Prado who describes herself as a stay-at-home person that thinks about baking 100 percent of the time.
In her book, Prado writes about how she loved Oreos as a child, but wasn't allowed to eat them often, so I asked her if she had a guilty pleasure now and she quickly replied: "You shouldn't feel guilty about any pleasure." Just in case you're curious; she is still loyal to the original Oreo, not the new flavors.
Prado ended up closing her bakery after a few years because running the business got in the way of her baking.
"Life is too short not to do what you love," Prado says.
Wise words. Happy Thanksgiving.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge.