Pies: Tips from the experts
Brandied apple and apricot. Winter pears with raspberries and walnut praline. Banana and salted caramel. Chicken, cranberry and camembert. Salmon, scallops and crab with leeks.
When commercial pie-makers from around New Zealand sent in their entries for the Bakels Supreme Pie Awards each July, they are pushing their most exciting concoctions to catch the judges' eyes.
"But the fancier combinations are not indicative of what ends up winning," says Duncan Looney, chairman of Bakels, known as the country’s premier Pie Man and judge for the past 17 years. "It still comes down to the combination of the flavor and the texture, the quality of the overall taste."
The Pie Awards judges certainly eat with their eyes – a necessity when over 4000 pies are entered. Duncan explains that many pies do not make it into the oven, as the first round of judging checks each pie for the quality and colour of the baked bottom and top, the look of the filling when it is cut open. Only when it achieves a minimum score is a second, matching pie heated and tasted.
Pastry-making is one of those baking crafts that make beginners nervous. But most of us adore pies. Duncan and Bakels general manager Brent Kersel (still calling himself 'a beginner' after a mere 10 years of judging) have some handy tips for the home baker:
- A good pie has two different pastries: a flaky on top and a shorter pastry base. That way you get a good firm hold for the filling, but a lovely buttery flake texture in the first mouthfuls.
- Traditionally the bottom pastry has around 30 percent fat (one part fat to two parts flour), while the flaky top used to be a more lavish 50 percent (equal parts fat and flour). These days, in the interests of health, that is more likely to be only 40 percent.
- When making your flaky pastry be sure that the butter (or marg or shortening) you are layering is the same texture/softness as the pastry, so that it sheets evenly and doesn’t squish out. Bakers take pride in their flaky, the off-cut scraps can be re-used in the base pastry.
- Always chill and rest the pastry for at least one hour, even overnight. A top that shrinks away from the sides means the pastry hasn’t rested long enough.
- Make sure that you have 'tucked' the pastry right into the corners of your pie dish. A rounded edge will not cook as well as the flat base of the pie and may even taste raw.
- A cooked filling avoids the dreaded ‘soggy bottom': the pros don’t bake blind, but do make sure the filling is well cooked and thickened so it doesn’t affect the finish of the pie base. When you are using an uncooked filling (for example, an egg/milk mix poured over a bacon and egg pie) be careful that the base of the pie cooks a little longer so you don't get a raw pastry flavor.
- A classic roux is most pros' favourite for non-gravy based pies – vegetable and seafood for example. Some bakers enrich with eggs or cream, but the master trick is to get a filling that distributes the other ingredients nicely through thepie (nothing sinking or clumping, please).
And how to get the master flavours in your fillings?
- Brent and Duncan prefer a mince and cheese or steak and cheese pie where the cheese is spread through the pie, not just on top. Fill half way with meat mix, add a layer of cheese (sliced or grated), then top up with meat mix. Heaven.
- The quality of bacon makes or breaks a bacon and egg pie. Our experts insist on a thin layer of tomato just under the pastry top for moisture but cannot bear peas (too sweet). Look for a smoky bacon ("clean, lean and trimmed") for the best flavour.
- Think about successful cuisines that can be translated into a kiwi pie. Duncan is thinking vegetarian pies with some Indian spices ("they are the experts at vegetarian"), Brent liked the lift of brandy in the winning fruit pie.
- Sweet combos we’d like to play with: Cointreau, masala or whisky with pear, apple or peach (and a touch of ginger); various berries with the almond notes of frangipane; rum, raisin and apple; caramel or butterscotch with pears or apples (which makes us think of tarte tatin).
- Savoury pies that enticed the judges included pork, apple and sage; steak and blue vein cheese; venison mushroom and bacon; salmon, scallops, crab with leeks; scallops and prawn in a ginger, chilli mornay.
Pie heaven, at home or on the road
If you want to try the best, Champion Bakery in Wellsford is the mince champion, Whanganui's Buchart's took home the steak gold and Better Quality Pies of Rotorua the chicken. The ultimate bacon and egg? That's Kidds Cake and Bakery in Christchurch. Mince and cheese champs are Greenlands in Auckland's Botany, while for steak and cheese head to Pak n Save Petone in the capital.
Wherever you are, you can look for Dad's pies, who are this year's winner for wholesale bakeries.