Cook's Illustrated: How to Make a Pie
Reviewed by Pableaux Johnson, Fri., Feb. 4, 2000
Cook's Illustrated Master Class: How to Make a PieChristopher Kimball
Central Market Cooking School
"I'll let you in on the dirty little secret about cooking and cookbooks," Christopher Kimball said as he stood behind the cooktop at Central Market's cooking school and smirked at the crowd. "Recipes don't work."
Now, that would pass as a pretty bold statement for most people, but coming from Kimball, editor and publisher of Cook's Illustrated magazine, such a sweeping generalization has a bit more credibility. In the course of his daily work, Kimball and his staff at CI subject everyday recipes to a meticulous research process that seems more at home in a graduate chemistry lab than a home kitchen. When Kimball talks about "researching apple pies," he's referring to six solid months of mixing, rolling, and baking -- each time changing a single variable in the recipe and blind taste-testing the results. This kind of obsessive experimentation has become Kimball's trademark at Cook's Illustrated, which publishes road-tested recipes on everything from salmon cakes to chocolate pudding to short ribs. So when he makes offhanded remarks like "I've tried everything," you can be pretty sure he isn't joking.
Kimball came to Austin to kick off an educational partnership between Central Market and his magazine, to support his recently published Cook's Illustrated book The Best Recipe (Boston Commons Press, $29.95) and to talk about pie.
During his two-hour demonstration, Kimball talked about the different processes that went into a perfect pie and gave the audience the benefit of his exhaustive experimental experience. He discussed the seemingly simple dessert from crust to filling, addressing every possible aspect of the process, from differences in flour composition to the advantages of different fats (butter vs. shortening vs. lard) in the crust. As he moved through the different stages of the pie-making process, Kimball deftly fielded audience questions about pressing non-pie questions -- everything from electric mixers to crème brûlée topping to ceramic knives without missing a beat. As he rolled out a crust in a perfect circle, Kimball discussed a few of the many reasons why written recipes don't work, from inaccurate oven temperatures to differences in measurement technique. At the end of the night, he had covered the waterfront in terms of common pie types (apple, mixed berry, custard, and lemon meringue) and demonstrated what he liked about each recipe.
For someone who constantly traffics in superlatives, Kimball managed to present his findings matter-of-factly, sometimes backed up with simple kitchen chemistry and other times by personal taste. When asked why he adds sugar to his pie crust, he replied easily, "I just like the way it tastes" -- a graceful nod to the art and the science of the cooktop.
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