Eyes on the Pies
This holiday season, with all due respect to Grandma's recipes, we've asked five top pastry chefs to tweak tradition and get creative with our favorite dessert. Change is good. And yum's the word.
Black-Bottom Pumpkin Pie
Four Seasons Resort and Club at Las Colinas, Irving
Like most pastry chefs, Randy Gehman was born with a chocolate gene. “I’m always dreaming up ways to get chocolate into traditional recipes,” says the dessert man for Café on the Green at the Four Seasons Resort and Club at Las Colinas, in Irving. So it’s no surprise that his take on pumpkin pie has a rich and scrumptious chocolate base. And as the TV commercials say, that’s not all: The holiday treat also has an infusion of fresh ginger and a topping of Asian-spiced pecans. No prosaic pumpkin pie this.
Gehman, who is fifty, grew up in Pennsylvania. When he was a kid, his mother always made pumpkin and mincemeat pies for Thanksgiving. He liked the first but couldn’t stand the second. “My dad was the mincemeat person,” he says. When he decided he wanted to be a chef, he went to Europe to study and discovered pastry while working in Germany. “I found my true love and passion,” he says. Twenty years ago he moved to Texas, and he’s been at the Four Seasons for eighteen of them: “I’m a Texas guy now.”
This Thanksgiving, Gehman will spend the holiday as he usually does, serving dessert for a thousand people at the resort. Will pumpkin pie be on the menu? Of course. Also pumpkin crème brûlée and pumpkin ice cream. Too much of a good thing is never enough.
Melrose Hotel, Dallas
“How many recipes for cherry pie are there?” muses Jason Foss, the pastry chef of the Landmark Restaurant, in Dallas’s Melrose Hotel. “There must be hundreds.” Whatever the number, there is now one more: Foss’s recipe for cherry pie spiced with cinnamon.
When asked how he came up with the idea, he claims not to know. “I just started throwing things together,” he says. On further questioning, he admits, “I’ve always like spiced cherries, so I thought, why not put spices in the crust as well as the filling?” He also knew the spices would counteract the really tart cherries you sometimes get. “It’s a way to balance the sourness but not kill it with sugar.” The result is a cherry pie that is traditional without being trite.
Foss, who is 28, probably won’t be going home for Thanksgiving this year—or Christmas, for that matter—since the hotel restaurant is open for both holidays. Last year he managed to get a flight back to South Dakota late Christmas night. “I had almost the whole plane to myself,” he says.
Since Foss’s parents owned a restaurant, he grew up in the food business. He was not enamored of it: The hours were terrible and the work was hard. After high school, he went into the Navy for four years, where he was made—wouldn’t you know it?—a cook. But he found that being on his own was different. He enjoyed the work, and he really took to pastry. It satisfied his innately precise nature and, best of all, provided endless opportunities for creativity. “There’s so much to try that you never get bored,” he says. “That’s what’s fun.”
Backstreet Café, Houston
A few years ago, Houston pastry chef was asked by his boss to come up with a really good pecan pie to serve at the Backstreet Café. He felt a certain amount of pressure, because the boss, Tracy Vaught, is a native Texan (“She says ‘paah,’ the way real Texans do,” he observes). To her, pecan pie is a serious matter. Ortega thought he had the answer when he found a recipe that called for molasses as well as corn syrup. But after making it, he wasn’t crazy about the flavor. Then a lightbulb went on: What about maple syrup instead of molasses?
The pie was a great success. “Backstreet had it on the menu for several years,” says the 31-year-old Ortega, who is also the pastry chef for Hugo’s Mexican Cuisine restaurant. So when we asked him to come up with a new recipe for pecan pie—déjà vu all over again—he was ready. For an extra twist, he added chocolate chunks and also whipped up some orange-blossom-honey ice cream to go with it. The combination is inspired.
This year Ortega will be celebrating a bicultural Thanksgiving, as befits someone who grew up in Mexico City but studied cooking in Houston and has lived there for twelve years—and whose brother and fellow chef Hugo Ortega is married to Tracy Vaught (the couple owns Hugo’s). The Vaught clan contributes turkey, dressing, and cranberry sauce; la familia Ortega does tamales, pozole, and barbacoa. Pie will be on the menu too. “Last year I made a pecan-and-walnut pie for my mom,” says Ruben. The meal sounds like a model for international cooperation.
Spicy Chocolate-Mince Pie
Biga on the Banks, San Antonio
Full disclosure: Lilla Geisler had never made a mincemeat pie in her life before she was given this assignment. “In fact, I had never even tasted a mince pie,” says the pastry chef at San Antonio’s Biga on the Banks, laughing. But mince pie is old-fashioned, and Geisler is young (a mere 28 years old), so it’s easy to understand how she might have missed out on the tradition of earlier generations.
First, Geisler had to learn what a true English mince pie is. “I looked at the Harrods cookbook,” says the longtime Texan, referring to the volume published by the venerable London department store whose food halls are famous worldwide. She also consulted The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, an American classic dating from 1896. In her reading, Geisler found that both books called for fresh apples and several kinds of dried fruit. She discovered, too, that the name “mincemeat” comes from the original practice of including suet and finely chopped beef in the pie. According to The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, “Mincemeat developed as a way of preserving meat without salting or smoking it. Traditionally, the minced beef and suet are combined with fruits, spices, and spirits, packed in jars, and sealed with wax.” Today, mince pies typically have no meat or suet, thank goodness, just fruit.
In coming up with her own variation on the theme, Geisler decided that chocolate would be a splendid addition—nuts too—and she upped the spices. The result is a mince pie with extra zing and a mysterious richness that you can’t quite put your finger on. Then it hits you: Aha! Chocolate. This is mincemeat for a new generation.
Very Lemony Buttermilk Pie
Thanksgiving was definitely pie time when Sarah Stevens was growing up in Corpus Christi. “We would always have pecan pie, pumpkin pie, and something we called ‘baked apples,’ which was more of an apple crisp,” says the 28-year-old, who is now one of two pastry chefs for Lambert’s restaurant, in Austin. But her favorite dessert of all is still her grandmother McKinney’s buttermilk pie.
Stevens likes it so much that when she was looking for a lemon dessert for Lambert’s, she decided to adapt the buttermilk pie. Her version looks classic, but when you bite into it, the flavor of fresh lemon almost bowls you over. She also uses a shortbread crust, “because the restaurant wanted a more refined effect,” she says. “And we bake it in a tart pan, but a pie pan works fine too.”
Stevens never dreamed she would end up cooking for a living: “I wasn’t into that when I was a kid; I didn’t even like to be in the kitchen. My mom laughs about it now.” She majored in journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, intending to work on a magazine or a newspaper. But after school, she took a job in an Austin bakery and— long story short—eventually found herself where she is today.
If Stevens has time to go home for Thanksgiving this year, she says she might take one of her lemon-buttermilk pies with her. Then again, she might not. “I’m not sure I can compete with my grandmother,” she says.