JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
If she were writing the Bourjaily Bible for Pie Crust Creation, Marti Bourjaily’s first commandment would be “Thou shall not over mix!”
Then she’d lift her index finger high and proclaim: “Use this.”
That’s the secret for making a flaky pie crust. Once the fat is incorporated into the flour, cold water gets added just one tablespoon at a time. Stir gently with a single finger, she’d say.
Bourjaily, of Durango, knows what it’s like to experience the death of a pie crust at her own hands. That’s why she’ll tell you with confidence to “just keep your hands out of the bowl.”
The heat from your hands is enough to toughen and ruin what could have been a flaky crust, Bourjaily said.
The prize-winning pie baker has earned enough blue ribbons to paper the walls of her kitchen. Bourjaily first made a name for herself at the 1996 La Plata County Fair, where she won first place and reserve champion awards for her cherry pie.
“There was a bumper crop of cherries in Hermosa that year,” she said.
Within three years, she was baking the best of the best in all classes of baked goods and was named a grand champion.
“Everyone should enter the fair,” she said. “Whether you take a first place or a fourth, you’ll have fun.”
And you’ll learn something.
Bourjaily recalls asking a judge what she looks for when determining which pie takes the blue-ribbon. A cleanly cut, attractive slice that doesn’t release a flood of juices is a winner, the judge said.
Knowing how to perfect the flakiness of a pie crust or control the amount of juice flowing on the bottom of the pie pan comes almost naturally to Bourjaily, whether she’s dabbling in apples, lemon meringue or raspberry fillings. Bourjaily bakes “almost every day,” she said.
Her family enjoys the cakes, rolls and cookies, but it’s her pies that have earned her a reputation as a top home pastry chef.
It’s not so much the recipe as the technique, Bourjaily will say, but she admits she doesn’t skimp on ingredients, using a combination of good quality, unsalted butter and Crisco shortening, with 100-percent Gold Medal brand, bleached, all-purpose flour.
“A pie crust would taste pretty flat without salt. It’s important to really incorporate the salt with the flour, before adding your liquid,” Bourjaily said.
Not over-processing is the trick, she said. “The more you handle it, the tougher it gets.”
Bourjaily prefers to mix dough by hand, rather than using a food processor. She combines the flour and salt before cutting the fat into the flour, then adds chilled water one tablespoon at a time until the dough gathers.
“You want to see flakes of butter in the dough. You want a balance between the moistness and the dryness of the dough. Too moist, and the dough feels greasy to the taste; too dry, and it will fall apart as you roll it,” she said.
Bourjaily credits her father, a disabled veteran who owned a diner in Saybrook, Conn., for influencing her in the kitchen.
“People would come from miles around to watch him flip eggs,” she said.
Her father also cooked most of the family’s meals, including hearty helpings of fish, potatoes and corned beef.
Later, when the family moved west, a high school home economics teacher in El Cajon, Calif., taught the budding baker to make cinnamon rolls from scratch. When she discovered that young Marti had “the touch,” she asked the high school sophomore if she’d bake a few dozen of the treats for a weekend teacher in-service.
“So I went to school on a Saturday morning at 7 a.m. and made four big trays of cinnamon rolls. I had to wash all the dishes afterward, too,” Bourjaily said of this early lesson in kitchen responsibility.
“This teacher was very good. She taught all the basics including when you can use your intuition to change spices, herbs and seasonings.
“I think it’s like anything else: once you learn the rules, then you know when you can break them.”
For example, adding a pinch of ginger to her usual apple pie seasonings, “brightened the back flavor” she said, “but flavors still need to complement each other.”
“There have been things that ended up in the trash, but that’s the fun of experimenting,” she said.