If you have ever been to Nancy Rommelmann’s house, you will have had many baked goods pressed into your hands, some of which are the best darn chocolate chip cookies, pies, truffles I’ve had. Her kitchen is like a bakery where the proprietress has plenty of time to chat and offer sage advice with a warm slice of pie. FD
Why You Don’t Want the Pie
I recently walked into a restaurant, where right inside the door was a farmhouse table, on which there sat a fruit crumble, and a pie. The crumble was in an oblong ironstone dish; there was a good deal of purple fruit beneath, and on top, a pebbly streusel. It was the sort of homey dessert that, at its best, is pulled hot from the oven with sticky juice over-spilling the sides and bubbling through the crumbs, a warm scoop of lusciousness that cries out to be topped with vanilla ice cream until the two melt and meld and become a sweet goopy mess. This was not that crumble. In this crumble, the stolid layer of fruit and pale crumbs were kept as separate as the sexes at Brigham Young University, there would be no commingling, and one suspected any adding of ice cream would be coolly redundant.
People say baking is hard; there’s all that measuring, so much timing. But I suspect that more than this people are put off by the abundance. All that butter, so much sugar, wagons of nuts and schooners of chocolate. Baking is an embarrassment of riches, it makes us feel excessive; we tell ourselves we don’t really need it; that we are more virtuous if we do without.
To which I say, have a cookie, and offer this: at my husband Din’s new coffee roastery and café, the coffee drinks are served with a tiny shortbread cookie, half of which is dipped in good dark chocolate. We named these tiny treats, which come gratis, Winnie’s Pennies, after Din’s great aunt whose recipe I use, and because of their size. The reactions these cookies elicit are astonishing; grown men gaze upon them as if they were the face of their newborns, women pick them up and giddily say, “Oh, look… a cookie!” And never, ever do the cookies go uneaten, my theory being that one some corporeal level, even a diehard dieter understands that the gift of a cookie can never be bad.
That is, if it’s the right cookie, which it often is not. I also bake the chocolate chip cookies for the café, and while doing so the other day, I mused on the huge multinational corporation that might offer to buy out Din, and the first thing they’d want is to cut costs, whereupon some moneymen would hover over my shoulder asking, “Why not margarine instead of butter?” and “So much vanilla?” and then, when I would not desist from tossing in handfuls of chips and walnuts rather than measuring, would bar me altogether from the kitchen, until I was forced to stand in front of our ever-diminishing-in-goodness café and shout, “Those are not my cookies!”
But back to why you don’t want that restaurant pie: It was one of my favorites, pecan, but right away I knew it was inferior. Why? Because the nuts on top had been chopped. This meant that many pecan bits would have sunk, making the filling opaque and stiff. Unlike a crumble, where you want some mixing of the layers, the pecans of a pecan pie should form a brittle roof over the glistening, translucent goo of a filling. Also, I could tell from the pie’s wan color, that white sugar had been used instead of dark brown, and that there was not enough if any butter…
“But let’s order it anyway,” my friend insisted, after an utterly lackluster dinner of a pork chop so dry he said he felt all his saliva had been leeched, and a steak au poivre so overly encrusted with black pepper Din suggested it be scoured with a Brillo pad before eating. [Yes, Nancy knows what this dish should taste like. FD]
Alas, the pie was stiff, and cold, and tasted of vending machine candy. I closed my eyes, and imagined an invisible me grabbing the baker’s wrist and making him add a double-shot of vanilla, an extra knob of butter; of whispering in his ear the pie should be pulled from the oven ten minutes earlier, and that when it comes to dessert, judiciousness is no virtue.
This was Ken’s Place, correct? If so, I disagree on the quality of the desserts, though I think it’s his weak point. But I’ve had both that you mention.
Doesn’t he refer to them as a tart and a cobbler, not a pie and a crumble? Tarts generally have more nuts and less custard and cobblers a topping of biscuit rather than something like a crisp or crumble that mixes in with the filling? If it was Ken’s you’re talking about (why not mention it?), it seems it may have been false expectations, not quality that was the issue.
Personally, I like both desserts pretty well, but don’t love them. I think the cobbler was blackberry last time I had it. (Two weeks ago.)
Sounds like Ken’s Place to me, too. I’ve only been there once, but was please with everything, even the crumbly dessert. But, then, as long as it tastes good, I’m happy!
From Wikipedia: “A tart is a pastry dessert, similar to a pie, but different in that the top is open and not covered with pastry.”
But anyway, you’re saying that, had I thought I was eating a tart rather than a pie, it would have tasted different (and perhaps better) to me.
You’re kidding, right?
Luckily dictionaries follow, not lead, the way words are used. I was mentioning how the terms are usually applied to pecan pies and tarts and that does matter. Expectations matter. If I go to a movie expecting a comedy and get a tragedy, I may very well be disappointed. It’s pretty damn common and taste is often relative to what people expect, grew up with, and have been trained to like. If a New Yorker has Chicago style pizza they may very well not like it just because it’s not pizza to them.
You say that you knew it was inferior just by looking because, “the nuts on top had been chopped. This meant that many pecan bits would have sunk, making the filling opaque and stiff.” That assumes that it was a traditional pecan pie, like LOW BBQ was serving up. In a traditional pecan pie, it has a thick layer of custard topped by pecans. But Gordon, probably on purpose, calls it a tart in order to reduce that problem. Personally, I prefer more nuts to custard. Others, like my wife, prefer more custard to nuts.
As for the taste, I don’t know what you’re referring to as “vending machine candy”. I think most pecan pies are awfully sweet. I liked LOW’s because it was less sweet than most. But because Ken’s was more nuts than custard, I found it even less sweet, which I enjoyed.
I also found the comment about the steak au poivre odd. I’ve had the steak and liked it pretty well, especially for a sub-$20 steak. You guys complained about the pepper. The menu I have says that it’s, “coated with pepper.” I don’t know if he was doing so the night you guys went, but I think he usually offers choice of two styles with the steak, essentially peppered or not.
MSG, you’re getting caught up in semantics and overlooking the greater point – the pie|tart|cobbler|whatever wasn’t good. And it wouldn’t have been good if it were a cobbler instead of a crumble, or vice-versa. In Nancy’s opinion, anyway…(and mine as well, given her description.)
Food Dude says
Thank you Betsy. I don’t think her post was meant to attack anyone, just talking about a food experience. Is it really necessary to put a name to the place? I just enjoy her writing.
Maybe a bit. But a huge part of taste is expectation. Except for two comments (dry pork and candy-tasting pie), I think most of the opinion was based on expectations, possibly false ones or misguided ones.
But it did attack someone and I think most people who’ve had a couple dinners at Ken’s would have probably guessed which place it was. Perhaps it was on purpose to keep us from questioning the veracity of her experience? A McGuffin. Afterall, Ken’s seems like a bad choice for a post about “judiciousness” in cooking. If there’s anyone who probably should be more judicious, stick to recipes, and who is, if anything, too-inclined to add another knob of butter and double-shot of Vanilla, it’s Ken. His version of LOW BBQ has showed that so far. Where I would probably try to reproduce exactly what Rodney and Kyle had done before I started experimenting, he’s jumped right in, trying to do, I would say, too much too quick.
Knife Diva says
I thoroughly enjoyed Nancy’s writing and did not find it necessary for her to identify where she viewed and sampled the desserts in question. The essay to me was about the idea of baking in general and the author’s opinions about how a dessert should be made, not to recommend or dissuade one from visiting a particular place.
Nick, why don’t you play on your own website (or Chowhound which you dominate) and leave something for the rest of us who prefer our writing without any MSG?
Jeeeez MSG…take a friggin breath! We’re talking about pie here, not the theory of relativity.
Food Dude says
MSG, unfortunately I have had several recent meals at Ken’s as part of my policy to update reviews. I wouldn’t rate a single dish as more then average to poor. Full review upcoming.
Never did I say a pie was candy-sweet. I said it tasted of vending machine candy. Those who read for pleasure and discovery can take it from there. Me, I see the dusty old vending machines in the subway beneath the Williamsburg Savings Bank in Brooklyn, and the Sky Bars I used to buy for a dime, the wrappers of which were always covered in grime. But for literalists, the phrase apparently just says “candy.”
Clearly, there are camps here, including those who understand food can be a vehicle for the transmission of ideas, and MSG’s outpost, where expectations are strapped-down; opinions are shot at dawn; and a dry pork chop or less-than-wonderful pie simply does not exist unless he says it does. This strikes me as Stalinistic, but more, it’s dull, as there can rarely be an exchange of fruitful ideas, only lectures for those who do not hew the party line.
Perhaps your liberal use of first names is effecting your perception of Nancys piece MSG.
Whatever, Nancy. I’m not the one telling people to go “play” elsewhere. Apparently you can’t take a challenge to your opinion without resorting to hyperbolic name-calling. Stalinist? Oh, brother.
I’ll be interested to see what you have to say. Considering the meals I’ve had there in the last couple months, I doubt I’ll agree, though. I don’t consider it among the very best restaurants in town, but I do think it’s one of the better values and one of the more under-appreciated restaurants in town.
MSG, how can you say with a straight face that her review of the place was based on expectations? The pie (or tart), from her observation, was made from white sugar (which detracted from the dish), didn’t use enough butter or vanilla, was stiff (overbaked), etc. etc. etc. Seems like plenty of detail to me as to why the pie(tart) fell short – far beyond what you’ll get in most reviews.
Food Dude says
The sad thing is, this was not even a review, MSG. You just made it into one. This could have been a nice essay that most people would have enjoyed, but your undying need to comment, brought extra (negative) publicity to Ken’s. Most people wouldn’t have even known where Nancy was talking about. In the end, it will hurt Ken, and achieve nothing.
Good to have another baker participating Betsy!
Marshall Manning says
I thought Nancy wrote a nice column, and the point wasn’t to single out any particular restaurant, only to show it as an example of what she feels is a disturbing trend in baking.
While my wife is a very good cook, she feels that baking is too strict as she likes to take an idea from a recipe and apply her personal touch to it. Apparently that’s harder to do with baking than it is with other dishes. Plus, we get plenty of butter (as well as bacon and duck fat) in other dishes ;-).
Nancy also made me want to try those little cookies!
It disturbs me that MSG has to comment on every Portland food website out there and always have the last word. I think Nick missed his calling as a lawyer. This was a fun essay that was apparently not meant as a review. I don’t see why you have to turn everything into a stage that you can talk down to people from. Nancy, I tend to agree about baked goods and pastries at many local restaurants. One thing I can’t stand is the cult of sugar. I seem to order the desserts that somebody has dumped way too much in. Sweetness does not hide imperfection. The most consistant luck I have had has been Park Kitchen. That is one good pastry chef.
Nick’s prolificness doesn’t bug me. I often disagree with him, sometimes strongly. But suggesting he not post here? Really. That’s the sort of inhospitable attitude we should reserve for true internet assholes.
But maybe this site wants to draw the line differently?
A few comments-
I enjoyed Nancy’s piece(as I usually do) and never having eaten at Ken’s, I never would have known where she ate said pie. That being said, I never read it as a review, but as a food essay, more in the line of Elizabeth David than Ruth Reichl.
Secondly, I don’t always agree with MSG, but his is an educated opinion usually and I am at least interested in knowing it. I also appreciate that he and Food Dude spend the money I don’t have on food and “throw grenades on bad food to save me”. To suggest his comments aren’t welcome is rude and definitely doesn’t speak for me.
Lastly, someone that knows code AND food needs to help me edit Wikipedia’s cooking section. It’s gotten a little better since I last checked, but man, is it organized poorly.
Yes, Wikipedia is crappy (though not as crappy as Mapquest!), but I did not have my Larousse Gastronomique at hand.
As for MSG and commenting: I would never want him not to post. Though I don’t always trust his palate (which is fine; he doesn’t trust mine, either), I like his breadth of information and his enthusiasm. And the fact that we never, ever agree is part of the spice of life.
Food Dude says
“But maybe this site wants to draw the line differently?”
If I didn’t want MSG around, I would have talked to him a long time ago. While we may not always agree, we have always had a cordial relationship and I’m sure he would respect my feelings.
This is the last I’ll write on this subject. Annoyingly, as usual, the topic turned to me rather than what I was saying….
FOOD DUDE, ET AL:
I read it as both a review and a food narrative piece. If the name of the place had been used, would anyone have thought otherwise? If she had just stuck with the baked goods I probably wouldn’t have given it much thought.
Let me note: I like Nancy’s writing as well. It’s probably a character flaw of mine that I react very directly to what I thought was wrong about the piece, rather than prefacing it with something like: “I totally agree about the butter and flour….Love the imagery.” I’ve never denied that I can be an asshole.
Also note, however, that rarely, if ever, do I make these things personal or call names. But I don’t hold back on aggressively challenging an opinion. If this were a political discussion, we’d expect the opinion to be vigorously challenged. I don’t know why food is different. I was attacking Nancy’s opinion about Ken’s food, not Nancy, and not her writing. Just because I like her writing do I have to agree with her as well? I love my mom, but she’s often quite wrong. (And I’m sure she thinks the same of me.) The couple times I’ve eaten with Nancy and gotten a chance to talk with her, I enjoyed myself and liked her as a person. Yes, I am this much of a dickhead with my friends, too.
BETSY: You’re right. The comments about the tart/pie were mostly about the quality, although I do think expectations played a part (nut to custard ratio, nature of filling). The comments about the pork chop were clearly based on quality. No way to misinterpret a pork chop leeching the saliva from your mouth. I do think both the steak and cobbler, however, — from the description — were 99% expectation.
VAPID: I’ve spent nearly as much face-to-face time BS-ing with Nancy as I have with Rodney, Kyle, or Ken. I really don’t get around that much. I don’t generally like to talk to chefs or owners. I just want to eat. I’m sure someone like Marshall who shares wine with the staff at restaurants knows a hell of a lot more people in the industry than I do.
Some relatively MSG-free message boards. HTH:
Dave J. says
Ok, this was fun, but can we get back to answering the real question: where the hell in Portland can you find a good slice of pecan PIE? I love my own personal recipe (well, the recipe I use that I stole from a cookbook), but it is murder on my diet to have an entire pecan pie lying around the house. I think I’ve noticed most of the sins Nancy mentions in restaurant pies, be it granulated sugar instead of brown (a sin), not enough butter (also a sin), poor pecan:goo ratio, etc.
Anyone have suggestions?
p.s. By the way, FoodDude, on the “preview” function for comments, the comments are center justified, but then when you look at the comments beneath the posts, they are left justified. Just thought I’d mention that. (I’m using Safari, OS X.4, FYI)
Dave – I made a pecan pie on Saturday, brought it to my husband’s cafe and stuck it in the bakery case… where it sat, unsold and uncut, until one of the baristas had a slice. We moved it to a back fridge and are eating it ourselves now, with whipped cream. I will bake more pies if people want them, and plan sell them whole over the holidays, or whenever.
Also, I am not parsimonious with recipes. Anyone who wants it, gets it.
Dave J. says
Nancy–I will try to make it to Din’s place as soon as possible–and if I don’t see it in the case, I’ll request it from the barista.
I don’t know what it is about pecan pie–people regard it as weird and kind of traditional in the bad sense of the word. I worked at a coffeehouse in college, and had a similar experience to the one you mention–I convinced the lovely owners to let me bake a pecan pie and sell it, and they did, and it sat on the counter and nobody ordered it. People were literally moving it aside to get their pick of the three-day-old rice krispy squares. And my heart broke. And then I offered it to some of the regulars, once it seemed past the point where I could honestly ask someone to buy it, and THEY ALL LOVED IT.
And they all said almost the exact same thing–“oh yeah. I forgot how much I love this stuff.” I think it’s the fact that it has nuts, and nuts Don’t Belong in Pies. Fruit pie? Yes. Nut pie? No, ugh, weird, ohmygod that tastes good.
Food Dude says
Dave J: Thanks for mentioning the comment preview. I took a look at it and realized the colors are totally messed up too. Since that function is just a plugin and I didn’t write the code, it may take a bit for me to figure it out and fix the problem. I never use the function myself so didn’t realize.
You know, I think it’s the fact that it’s a slice of pie rather than a small square or morsel of pie that’s the issue, not the fact that it’s a *pecan* pie.
I could be wrong, but I think people want baked goods they can eat with their hands and/or on the run at a coffee shop, or something that’s a bit more on the petite side. So a pecan tartlet, or pecan shortbread bar cut into diamonds might be more approachable than a slice of pie, perhaps?
I’m just tossing out my own half-baked (groan) theory here…
I can see it now: Betsy’s Pecan Pie in a Tube. ;-) When you’re rich, don’t forget us lowly bloggers.
I think you are exactly right, Betsy. But I can’t do it: because squares have little or no side-crust, they will not hold enough goo; nor will a tartlet. (I am also too impatient to make tiny pies.)
But pecan shortnbread bars can be truly great. I had a fabulolus one two years ago at Coffee People on Hawthorne. Hmmm, I am feeling the need for research.
Food Dude says
Coffee People now has their pastries made by Marsee I think.
Kai Jones says
I have a grudge against Ken’s, which has twice fooled me (and my husband) into a regular habit of buying take-out and then suddenly closed, only to re-open as some other form of food dispensary. First when it turned into the kitchen-only part of the ballpark spot, then when that didn’t work out he went back to having take-out for a while, but then yanked the rug out from under us after we’d re-established the habit by turning into a sit-down only place.
I cannot possibly think of any food product that would be improved by serving it ‘in a tube.’
Except for those orange sherbet-esque pushups, which rule.
…speaking of Betsy/food that rules: I cobbled
together a few pecan shortbread recipes, changed them
some more, and… holy moly but they’re good. They’ll
be on sale at the shop tomorrow. Introduce yourselves
if you stop by. I’ll be the one with the butter stains
on her blouse.
Holy moly, they ARE good!
Stopped by and had one this morning. Run, don’t walk, and get yourself one before they’re gone…
(And I’m not just saying that ’cause I’m the proud godmother of those bars. Honest…)
Wow! Such pie-inspired passion. I like my own blackberry, btw. Pecan pie always tastes teeth-chatteringly sweet to me. I still like it. But I prefer to use a lot of whipped cream to cut the sugar screech.
My major constructive comment on the pie piece:
I couldn’t get past “separate as the sexes at Brigham Young University.”
Similes can be a challenge. The best ones are simple, clear and undeniable. Ruth Reichl’s tend to be brilliant. You don’t suppose there might be a little emulsification going on in Provo do you, if you know what I mean? A mere quibble of course.
OK, back to the pie toss.
I graduated from BYU. Entire buildings at the dorms are separate sex. Even in off-campus housing single students of opposite sex are not allowed to live in the same house, nor are students allowed to have the opposite sex in their bedrooms at any time. You sign a contract not to have premarital sex. (This includes the staff and is actually a contract to remain “chaste,” I believe, which is much more restrictive than just sex.) They’re consistently rated the most “stone cold sober” school in the nation for good reason.
Now, whether those who don’t marry a Mormon “get it”, I can’t say. But it was definitely on the money.
(Though I bet the school has one of the higher ratio of married students and there were a lot of “kissing games” — you know, the pass the orange sort of lame things that normally middle schoolers fool around with.)
MSG, I understand you much better now;)
Yes, but I also attended its opposite, UC Santa Cruz.
The ‘party school’? Oh I am so confused.
It’s not that confusing. I was an astrophysics major at the time and got a full scholarship. It was between them and University of Arizona (both have observatories) and between living in a desert and living on the Monterrey Bay among the redwoods it was easy. Changed schools to marry my wife. (Actually, had planned on transferring to UCLA once I decided astrophysics wasn’t for me, but…)
Marshall Manning says
I’m the one who went to the real “party school”…CSU, Chico. At the time (1987-88), according to Playboy, it was the #1 party school in the country. After my roommate and I left it dropped to 4th or 5th ;-). The mind boggles…
That is a party school. I have family that lives in Chico and two of their kids went there. Everyone knew about Chico State and Santa Barbara for the parties.
But at UCSC, our RA told us the first day that, “if you’re gonna smoke pot, make sure you put a towell under the door…” Every year during Kresge Days there was a nude parade. During the first rain there was a tradition of streaking. There were naked pagan bonfire dances at the equinox. I can go on, and on, and on….
No fraternities allowed, though. So our parties were more like Woodstock every day of the year.
Marshall Manning says
The other thing that’s funny is that my wife went to Bob Jones University, which makes BYU look like “Animal House”.
Marshall, this is a public board. Please keep your “bing moggling” to yourself!
Hi…I’m Ken Gordon of Ken’s Place. I don’t know who you are, Nancy, and you may be the world’s best baker, as you seem to imply. But you don’t know diddly about analyzing other people’s products. First, there is a huge difference between a pecan pie and pecan tart, mine being of the second category. A pecan pie is, as you say, a layer of usually pecan halves sitting on top of a usually goopy sweet corn syrupy filling. Usually about 3/4 or more filling to 1/4 nuts. A nut tart has a much higher percentage of nuts to goop, thus the desirability of chopped nuts as opposed to halves, and the filling tends to be more homogenous and always shallower, or not as high as a pie. I wouldn’t believe that anyone calling themselves a “baker” wouldn’t know the difference between a pie and a tart.
Second, and I invite you personally to come by sometime to verify my recipe and ingredients, I use half brown sugar and half white sugar in the recipe, and 1/4 lb of whole butter, besides the 1/4 lb. that’s in the crust. Plus, a full 3/4 lb., or a bit more of pecans.
The crumble you referred to was, in fact, a cobbler, another distinction that I would thing a baker would realize. I even called it that on the menu. I think it’s a pretty classic version, which you might have determined had you decided to try it before disparaging it.
There also seems to be a bit of a cnflict of interest here – your bad-mouthing of someone’s baked goods while pimping yours at your husband’s establishment. Pretty classless, if you ask me.
If you don’t like a lot of peppercorns on your steak “smothered in peppercorns,” as it says on the menu and as literally all of my customers who order it, as well as 3 local publications who rave about it, prefer the dish, I suggest you order something else, or order it light on the pepper, as occasionally someone does. But please don’t criticize as bad a dish that you simply don’t care for that way, especially one that has developped such a cult follwing as this one.
Ken is correct: it was a cobbler, not a crumble.
John J. Goddard says
May I ask what all of this trifling is intended to accomplish?
As a chef, I know all too well that no amount of attention to detail or adherence to pecan pie norms and mores will bring joy and satisfaction to a person who does not wish to be happy. And I know that a pecan pie with chopped nuts as the top crust will be slightly more aromatic if served warm. Also, I am keenly aware that there’s more than one singular, “correct” way to crack an egg, grill a fish or bind a sauce, and that those who attempt to foist the belief on the general public that there is only one right way to do anything are likely some type of critic or academician, and they have no business meddling in the spheres of art and creativity of any sort.
This is America. There is more than one way to make a damn pecan pie.