Editor’s note: This story was updated April 8 to include information about the virtual Good Food Pie Contest on Instagram.
“Pie is a lot like life,” says Evan Kleiman ’75, M.B.A. ’80, host of KCRW’s Good Food. “You learn humility. You go through this craft-like process of repetition. There’s a lot of complexity hidden in something very simple.” In 2009, Kleiman was looking for a summer project when she turned to America’s iconic baked good: “I just picked pie, and it turned out to be the greatest thing.”
The L.A. native baked a pie daily for 65 days, sharing the fruits of her labor with colleagues and friends. Her weekly show became a “pie-cast,” as Kleiman interviewed experts and inspired listeners to bake their own pies. “It took on a life of its own,” she says. “It was the beginning of social media, and it was an incredibly rich way to build community — unlike anything I’ve seen.”
Kleiman majored in Italian at UCLA and then operated several restaurants, including the beloved Angeli Caffe for 27 years. She also found time to write seven cookbooks. But that was not enough: In 2009, she decided to hold a pie contest to share her listeners’ enthusiasm. The first contest received 125 entries; last year, the number of pies topped off at 500. Each entrant makes two pies: one for the judges (chefs and expert bakers) and one for lucky members of the public to share.
UCLA has hosted the pie contest at Royce Quad for six years, with judging held on the Barbara and Joseph Goldenberg Terrace at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. Categories include fruit, cooked custard and pies of the 1920s, which coincides with the university’s centennial.
Last year’s contest had a Levantine category, an homage to the Fowler’s exhibition Dressed With Distinction: Garments From Ottoman Syria. Dashiell Nathanson’s rose baklava pie won second place in that category.
The event also will feature baking demos, cookbook swaps, an artisan marketplace and kids activities. “People get introduced to [UCLA] and enjoy themselves, particularly children,” Kleiman says. “I find that very meaningful.”
For Kleiman, whose apple pie recipe was featured in a 2018 episode of The Simpsons, returning to campus brings back memories. “You walk through life, and you acquire all these different threads of knowledge,” she says. “And if you’re lucky, you get to braid them together and share them. That’s what this iteration of my interaction with UCLA is.”
Originally scheduled to be at UCLA’s Royce Quad on April 19, KCRW’s Good Food Pie Contest will now be held virtually from April 12 to 17. Renamed the Good Food Instagram Pie Pageant, people can post photos of their pie on Instagram and share their personal pie story. For more information, visit: pie.kcrw.com.
Rose Baklava Pie
The rose baklava pie was my take on the most baklava I could muster. The pie is baked in a round pan instead of the traditional baklava square. I have always loved lemon meringue pie (thanks, Mama!), and for this pie, I adapted the classic Chez Panisse recipe. A last-minute idea was to top it with a tiara ... aka a sugar cage. A winning pie deserves a crown, after all. — Dashiell Nathanson
150 grams (about 1¼ cups) shelled pistachio nuts
150 grams (about 1¼ cups) walnuts
100 grams (about ¾ cup) seeded and chopped medjool dates
4 sticks (about 2 cups) unsalted butter
1 pound phyllo dough, defrosted overnight in the refrigerator
600 grams (about 3 cups) sugar
½ cup honey
Juice of half a lemon, more to taste
SUGAR CAGE INGREDIENTS
1¼ cups sugar
1/3 cup corn syrup
¼ cup water
Vegetable oil cooking spray
3 egg whites, at warm room temperature
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
6 tablespoons superfine sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ tablespoon rosewater
Pinch of safflower (or saffron)
Toast the pistachio nuts slowly in a 300-degree oven until fragrant but not burnt. Rotate the tray every 10 minutes and taste as you go to find that magic point.
In a food processor, pulse the nuts until coarsely ground. Don’t blend for too long.
Melt the butter over low heat, and cook until the foam rises to the top and the milk solids fall to the bottom of the pan. Take your time and don’t burn the butter; the process takes around 10 minutes.
Skim the foam and strain the butter through a sieve lined with cheesecloth or a paper towel. The mixture in the bowl is now clarified butter. Discard the cheesecloth or paper towel.
Heat the oven to 400 degrees and brush the inside of a 9.5-inch pie pan with a little of the clarified butter.
Place 1 piece of the defrosted phyllo dough in the pie pan and brush lightly with clarified butter. Layer phyllo sheets, brushing each sheet with butter as you go, until about a third of the phyllo is used.
Place one-third of the chopped nuts and dates on the phyllo in an even layer, then layer with another third of the phyllo, brushing each sheet with butter as you go (rewarm butter, if necessary). Continue the process until all of the nuts, dates and phyllo have been used.
Next, use kitchen shears to trim the extra dough off the sides, but maintain some overhang. Fold the extra dough on top of the pie to create the “petal.” Pour any remaining butter evenly over the pie.
With a skewer, puncture 10 holes all the way through the pie. Don’t worry about how these look because the meringue will cover the holes, which allow the syrup to flow into the baklava after baking.
Bake the baklava until the top is golden brown and the lower phyllo layers beneath the nut and date mix are thoroughly cooked. Start checking after 40 minutes, but it could take longer.
While your pie is baking, prepare the syrup: In a medium pot, combine sugar with ½ cup of water and the honey. Boil until the sugar crystals have melted, then mix in the lemon juice.
When the pie is fully baked, slowly pour the hot syrup over the pastry. It will bubble up and some may overflow. Let the pie cool on a wire rack.
While the pie is still warm, prepare and complete the meringue stage. It is important that the pie isn’t cold when adding the meringue.
MERINGUE INSTRUCTIONS (adapted from Chez Panisse’s Lemon Meringue Pie)
Beat the egg whites until frothy, add the cream of tartar and continue beating until rounded peaks form. Beat in the sugar, vanilla and rosewater.
Spread the meringue over the filling, making sure it meets the edges of the crust to make a seal. Swirl in a design with a knife or spatula and bake for about 10 minutes, or until the meringue is lightly browned.
Sprinkle a hefty pinch of safflower threads on top of the meringue (or, if you are feeling fancy, use saffron).
JACQUES’ SUGAR CAGE INSTRUCTIONS
Note: Recipe makes 2 cages, in case you prefer the look of one to the other.
Place the sugar, corn syrup and ½ cup water in a 2-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat.
Insert a candy thermometer, and cook the sugar mixture until it reaches 310 degrees to 320 degrees. This is known as the “hard-crack” stage.
Remove the pan from the heat and carefully pour the mixture into a medium-size microwaveable glass bowl. (If you leave the sugar in the pan, it will continue to cook and will turn dark brown.) The sugar will stay liquid enough to work with easily for about 10 minutes; after that it will start to thicken. If this happens before you are finished, put the bowl in the microwave for 3 to 5 minutes, until the sugar is liquid enough to work with once again.
Wash and dry a clean bowl that has the same diameter as your pie (or just slightly smaller) and is deep enough to rise above the meringue. Lightly but thoroughly spray the bowl with the cooking spray.
Dip the tines of a fork into the hot sugar. Carefully but quickly wave the fork over the inside of the bowl, allowing the sugar to drip off the fork in long, thin strands. Try to distribute the strands evenly on the side and bottom of the bowl, making sure the sugar reaches all the way to the rim of the bowl. When finished, you should still be able to see the bowl through the sugar.
Use a sharp chef’s knife to trim the edge of the cage clean by scraping the blade of the knife along the rim of the bowl. Set aside to cool for about 5 minutes.
To unmold the cage, place your thumbs on the outside of the bowl and your fingers on the inside of the sugar cage. Gently pull the cage loose from the side and bottom of the bowl.
Once the cage has been released from the bowl, carefully lift it out and place it on top of the pie so that it encases the meringue and twinkles in the light. If the sugar is still too warm, the cage may begin to collapse.
At this stage, the cages can be stored, right side up, in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for 1 to 2 days.
To clean the utensils and container, which are now likely hard with sugar, boil some water and let the candied items soak until the sugar is melted.
With the first slice, the beauty of the cage will be lost, but don’t hold back. Wet a knife with warm water and shake it off. Be confident and slice through the many layers. You may need to use a sawing motion to make sure the bottom layer is cut through. Make sure each plate gets the full pie with meringue and some of the candied cage. Enjoy!