I first learned about First Prize Pies when watching PBS's Food Curated one lazy Sunday. Not only was I happy to hear about another NYC bakery but seeing a friendly face talk animatedly and lovingly about her passion for pie made me excited to try her creations. Then I had the pleasure of meeting founder Allison Kave at Jackie's Pie Party Live last October.
Allison was super-friendly and very generous in her pie knowledge when I asked her about crust techniques (me being super insecure about my own attempts). And I got a first taste of my new obsession in one of her trademark pies. I went on to purchase several pies from Allison's shop. And I'm telling you now I intend on trying many more.
Allison was kind enough to answer some questions and provide great pictures! I am super-excited about her revelation of creating a cookbook. It's on my mental 'must have' list.
First Prize Pies is a relatively new company. And I see that food runs in your family. Did you find it difficult to start up First Prize Pies? Or did you find it easier to start a new business with culinary arts running in the family coupled with how much the Internet and social media have become?
Running a small business is always a difficult proposition, but having my mother and brother to consult with for advice was definitely an enormous help. I bake out of my mom's shop, Roni-Sue's Chocolates, and that also saved me a lot in terms of the start-up costs of renting a kitchen. My first big piece of press was an article in DailyCandy, and that definitely launched me into a new level in terms of sales and recognition—I can't overstate the impact that the web and social media have had on my business.
It’s great that you offer in-home instruction on pie making. After having a pie themed party some of my friends actually made pie for the first time, which was great. But many seemed intimidated by pie making in general let alone baking. Did you find that when you made pies initially there was a learning curve or did you really delve into it?
I've been baking since I was a kid, so my learning curve was really gradual. It was something I always enjoyed doing, and starting as a young novice, I didn't feel much intimidation because I wasn't expecting much of myself! I just embraced it for the experience and the pride I felt in my results. As the years went on, I got more serious and took baking classes and pushed my technique. Pie baking has always been an outlet for my creativity, and a meditative practice as well. I try to encourage my students to let go of their inhibitions and insecurities about achieving the perfect crust, so they can focus on actually enjoying the experience.
What do you think is the most important part of a pie? Is it the crust, the filling, or how both work together? Have there been pies that you have created, or tasted, that didn’t work because filling and crust weren’t gelling together?
Pies are all about the relationship between the crust, filling, and topping (if you're using one). I don't think any one element is more important than the other, and I'm very passionate about finding the most complementary flavors and textures possible. With cream and custard pies, sometimes a cookie crumb or graham cracker crust is best, other times a pate brisée is better. It's all about tasting and testing to achieve that perfect harmony.
Speaking of elements of a pie, I notice you sell your pie dough online. Not to ask any hard-fast secrets but do you have a preference in regards to lard, butter, Crisco, or a mixture in making pie crusts? There seems to be a key balance in capturing the right texture and taste, especially for old-school fruit pies.
My standard, go-to pie dough (the one I sell, and the one I teach) is a pretty classic pate brisée, made with high-quality, high butterfat European-style butter. I used to use a combination of butter and leaf lard (the very fine, lighter lard from around the kidneys of a pig), but once I started making a larger volume of pies I simplified things to work for a larger group of consumers. All-butter crusts require slightly more care to achieve that perfectly flaky, light texture, but it is definitely possible and I think my pies prove that! It's all about keeping things cold, using quality ingredients, and having a very gentle hand when making the dough.
One of my favorite pies of yours is Jay’s Apple Cider Cream Pie, as well as the S’mores Pie. You created the Samoa pie based on the popular Girl Scout Cookie. Now that spring is rolling around, or has kind of arrived, what will you be working on with the new crop of items in-season? Do you tend to create new pies by season or try to offer a good amount year-round?
Sadly, spring has definitely not arrived yet! It feels like it has as we're in February and not even wearing hats, but it will be awhile before I have a new crop of good local fruits to work with. The first ingredient of spring is always rhubarb, which is one of my favorite flavors in the world. As it takes awhile for strawberries to come into season to hang out with the rhubarb, I always roll out my Rhubarb Frangipane as the first springtime flavor. The warmth of the toasted almonds, sweetness of vanilla, and bite of orange zest really enhance the rhubarb's natural tartness. I get soooo excited when I first see those pink stalks show up at the market! As for seasonality, I have some flavors that I offer year-round, but many that are season-specific and only available for a short window of time.
Do you think you’ll have a storefront for First Prize Pies in the near future or do you prefer to have it available online with the delivery/pick up option?
I like the flexibility of things as they are now, but I would love to have my own shop one day. It's all a matter of finding the right space, and the financial backing to make it happen.
Beyond Twitter, Facebook, and your website are there other social networking sites (like Tumblr or Food Blogger Network) where people can get more information or connect with First Prize Pies and where you may appear in regards to markets, food festivals, and such?
Twitter, Facebook, and firstprizepies.com are the best places to find out what I'm up to right now. I'm in the process of building a blog that will be available through my website, which I'm really excited about. I'm currently working on my first cookbook, and I plan to use the blog to track my progress, get my friends and customers involved in the recipe-testing process, and host some short instructional videos for home bakers. I can't wait!
Thanks so much, Allison for agreeing to an interview, sharing your knowledge of pies, and providing great web-ready pics! I'll be preparing my credit card for the rhubarb frangipane as well as the First Prize Pies blog.