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A Crust Upper: Baking Pie With 'Good Food' Guru Evan Kleiman

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Evan Kleiman's love of pie began when she was a little girl. A native Angeleno, the Angeli Caffe Chef/Owner and KCRW Good Food host grew up in Silver Lake, and remembers her family getting their baked treats from Sarno's bakery. It was a family tradition to get one of the bakery's rum cakes to celebrate a birthday, however Kleiman soon yearned to branch out. "At some point in my early childhood I started requesting a pie for my birthday," she explains. "And in spite of the fact that my birthday is in July I requested an apple pie." Her request soon led to her having hands-on kitchen time and a long-running tradition: "I went from requesting them to making them," she adds. "Now I still have a birthday pie every summer but I have berry or peach."

This love, or curiosity, about pie is what inspired Kleiman's recent endeavor upon which she embarked this summer. Called the Pie-a-Day project and chronicled online via the Good Food blog, the goal was for Kleiman to bake a different pie every single day for the duration of the season. She explained the genesis of and reasoning behind the project as she assembled the ingredients for two pies in her home kitchen one recent evening. "It was one of those things—I just decided to do. I wanted to have a summer project—sort of to mark the summer, to make it different." By announcing her intent publicly on the Good Food Blog she thought it would hold her accountable, but it wasn't long before she sensed the project "got this life of its own."

Soon the pie-making (and story telling and picture posting) created a sort of community. Kleiman's "Good Food" producer suggested that readers and fans participate by sending in pictures of their own pies that they'd just made and/or eaten. The responses created a lively back-and-forth between the project and the blog followers, which in part inspired Kleiman to extend the project through the fall, though she admits these days she doesn't make a pie every single day. "By the end of August I’d done 55 pies," she tallied. That kind of routine can get to be a habit. "Now when I don’t make pie for a week or more it feels weird."

One of the reasons Kleiman is still making pies--aside from the basic fact of life that pies are delicious!--is that on November 14th she is hosting a Pie Contest open to anyone who thinks they have what it takes to dazzle a panel of well-known judges, including Chefs Stefan Richter, Eric Greenspan, and Mark Peel; LA Times Food Editor Russ Parsons; Cake Monkey's Elizabeth Belkind; LA Weekly Food writer Amy Scattergood; and blogger Eddie Lin. Contestants have been entering their pies--not tarts, mind you!--into four categories: Fruit & Nut, Savory, Cream, and Interpretive. The response so far has exceeded Kleiman's expectations, as has the response to her Pie-a-Day Project.

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So while it's no longer summer, Kleiman still stands at her kitchen counter almost every day to make a pie or two; it's not so much that she's looking to conquer the art of pie-making, but rather explore and puzzle out small branches of curiosity. On the stove she simmered cream for a coconut pie filling, explaining that the appeal of cream pies had always alluded her a bit, but she was determined to keep making them.

Another pursuit was for the perfect crust, which is an undeniably important factor in the world of pie. "For me the great pleasure for me of making the pie is making the crust," she admits. But of course, there's eating it, too, and perhaps after a summer of pie she began to think her palate had changed a bit--the crust of her last apple pie was a bit of a let down. The crust tasted a bit flat, and so she went in search of a crust recipe that would give the crust a more "toothsome quality." That search led her to the Food Network's Alton Brown, whose kitchen science mind offers a crust that uses cornmeal, apple juice, and a spray bottle. [Hear Brown and Kleiman talking crust recently here]

Up for the challenge, Kleiman worked the ingredients while we talked about pies of days gone by. After many years of baking apple pies, her approach--until this stab at Brown's recipe, which was glinting on the screen of her laptop just inches from the counter-top workspace--was to use a simple crust and a mix of apples.

She explains the evolution of her crust: "When I first started when I was younger I would always use Crisco. I really do like a lard crust—half lard half butter." And the filling: "The thing about my pies is that they’re just a ton of apples. There have been times when I’ve had 15 apples in a pie. I use just a little bit of sugar and just a bit of cinnamon."

What confuses many novice pie-bakers sometimes is just what apples to use. There are the omnipresent gleaming orbs of red, yellow, and green piled on the supermarket displays or the come-and-go seasonal varietals offered up by beloved farmers' market vendors. What has always worked for Kleiman, though, is "Granny Smith for firmness, Golden Delicious for their almost applesauce-y quality, Fuji for in-between. You end up with different levels of sweetness: tart and tangy and sweet," adding "I like to have a little bit of tartness in the pie." But not all apples bake and eat alike: "I’ve never really found Red Delicious much good for anything," she jokes. However, the local varieties grown by SoCal's Windrose farm have proven amazing in pies, though not so much for just plain eating.

But the thing about pie seems to be that there's a pie--and a pie recipe--for everyone, no matter how centuries old or basic a kind of pie can be. "Everybody feels they have to put their own stamp on a pie," observes Kleiman, describing one pie recipe she recently encountered that made use of Red Hot candies in the filling. And particularly in response to her pie project, she's found that pie enthusiasts tend to fall into distinct camps: "You have two kinds of people. You have the people who just want to share [their recipes] with everybody. And then you have people who [say] 'No, I don’t want to give you my recipe, I just want it to be excellent.'"

If there's anything people do get a bit territorial about, even in sharing, it's probably the crust. "Do you use Crisco, do you not use Crisco? Do you use coconut oil? I just think it’s hilarious that the home cooks are really territorial about recipes," Kleiman remarks.

Kleiman is not, in fact, territorial, if the blog can serve as an example. Every pie has been chronicled, including the total flops, like the one dubbed the "Little Shop of Horrors Pie." It started with a penchant to make a Strawberry Glaze pie of the likes of Marie Callender's--a favorite of Kleiman's mother. She got the strawberry's from Harry's Berries, a local grower known for their delicious but delicate fruit. When the stiff glaze met the fragile Harry's Berries "it looked literally like a horror show." Nonplussed, the pie went up on the blog and she had to laugh. "I think that part of the success of the project is that I have a really good sense of humor."

It might not call for a sense of humor, but a recipe of the likes of a Pie-a-Day project does call for tenacity, and the hopes that all that pie doesn't mean belts will be worn looser come winter. But really, when you get right down to it, "the butter’s like the only thing in the fruit pie [that will make you gain weight]," pointing out, with a bit of a wink, perhaps, the fact that her beloved breakfast of a cold slice of pie is probably two servings of fruit from the USDA's food pyramid.

As the pie-making continued, the cream for the coconut filling came off the stove ("It’s just pudding," she remarks after taking a swipe of the spoon with her finger and tasting it. "But people are very serious about it!") and went into its crust for cooling. The apples were sliced and spiced and nestled into their Alton Brown crust bed-and-blankets, and sent to hibernate in the oven.

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When the apple pie emerged, the golden-brown juices were peeking eagerly from the vents and crevices, and the unmistakably familiar aroma filled the kitchen. We stared appreciatively at its bubbling butter-sheen dome, and wondered just how long we would wait to dig in. The answer: Not very! Piping hot with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it was pie heaven. The tart-sweet of the apples were right at home in the slightly grittier--toothier, indeed--crust. The crust seemed to have solved the mystery for Kleiman, too, since the companion blog entry simply declared: "Thank you Alton! This was the best Apple Pie I ever made."

With the approaching pie-centric Thanksgiving holiday, and the Good Food Pie Contest, pie is still a priority for Kleiman, although there will come a day when she's not making quite so many. That's not so many, though--not none.

From her childhood of birthday pie to her summer's endeavor, there's always room for pie in Kleiman's kitchen. In fact, her relationship pie seems to have only deepened, thanks to the Pie-a-Day Project: "I will always make more pie than I ever did before."

See Kleiman among the pies at the 1st Annual KCRW Good Food Pie Contest November 14th from 2-4 p.m. at the Westfield Topanga Shopping Center. If you're feeling brave, you still have time to enter a pie--the deadline is November 8th. You can also purchase pies for the holidays at Angeli Caffe. To keep up-to-date, fan Evan Kleiman on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.