Chef on Call

From Rose, With Love

Master Baker Beranbaum Teaches Tender Lessons

Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of the landmark "Pie and Pastry Bible," gives District resident Sarah Fairbrother a lesson in making pies.
By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 16, 2008; Page F01

"Everything I've done my entire life with pies is wrong!" Sarah Fairbrother declared in my Adams Morgan kitchen a few weeks ago.

She had just watched Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of the landmark "Pie and Pastry Bible," roll out a silken, butter-infused circle of perfect pie crust dough and couldn't fathom how she would be able to make such a thing of beauty.

Fairbrother, a 42-year-old project director for Cultural Tourism DC, also got a lesson in what happens when you ask Chef on Call for piemaking advice.

"I lost my ability to make crust," she had written to us. "It just comes out dry or soggy (there's no in-between) and won't roll out. Can you help me make edible pie again?"

It was a natural lesson for summer's fruit season. Beranbaum, 64, agreed to make a day trip from New York and give Fairbrother a three-hour tutorial, adapting recipes from her cookbook for flaky cream cheese pie crust, a two-crust peach pie, a cherry pie with a lattice top and a pecan pie, which Fairbrother specifically had requested.

Beranbaum's method and appearance were neat, delicate and precise. In a soft, enthusiastic voice, she relayed a constant stream of anecdotes and information, bringing to mind my first favorite teacher.

And she got in a few well-placed, good-natured zingers.

"Could someone clean up some of this mess?" she inquired innocently at one point. "Someone who lives here?"

The only actual demand she made, and understandably so, was that the lesson take place in an air-conditioned kitchen, which disqualified Fairbrother's Petworth home. The most important thing about pastry, Beranbaum stressed, was keeping it cool, because the minute it starts getting warm, butter is absorbed into the flour, and that can diminish the crust's flakiness.

Beranbaum began the lesson at noon by addressing Fairbrother's dilemma. She explained scientifically how the crust's flavor, tenderness and golden-brown crispness depend on achieving the right balance of protein, fat, water and acid, and then maintaining that balance during baking.

Given that she holds bachelor's and master's degrees in food science from New York University, it was not surprising that Beranbaum approached the subject matter in that way. Chemistry cannot be ignored or rushed; therefore, it follows that to make a good pie, no step in Beranbaum's process is expendable.

Let's face it. The reason so many cooks make imperfect pies is that we take shortcuts and then rationalize failure by saying we lack a pastry chef's touch; that's more acceptable than admitting laziness or impatience.

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