Valerie Erwin started cooking at age 8, absorbing Southern traditions from family, especially a mother raised in Charleston, S.C., and a father from Savannah, Ga. And though her culinary repertoire grew in variety and sophistication over the decades, that early Southern influence is with her still.
In 2003, Erwin became owner/chef of Geechee Girl Rice Cafe, originally in Germantown, now in Mount Airy. The name refers to the wildly diverse culture that grew up around West African slaves on rice plantations along the southeastern Atlantic coastline.
Erwin's restaurant, then, specializes in what has evolved into soulful, Low- Country fare, including some dishes she knew as a child - shrimp and grits, pulled pork, black- eyed peas and ham, and lots of rice.
But today, deep in holiday season, we're talking pies.
Q: What kind of pies do you make at Geechee Girl?
Over the year, whatever's in season. Blueberry and peach in midsummer, apricot at the beginning of summer, sour cherry around July 4. Now, we're serving pecan, apple, and sweet potato. We do pecan all year round, but I usually only make sweet potato pie in fall. I just feel like all of those wonderful fruits are around in the summer. Why use a fall pie when you have all that?
What's your most popular pie?
Sweet potato for people ordering pies to take home. People getting dessert in the restaurant? Pecan. Pecan pie is the most popular dessert, period.
You don't do pumpkin?
I never make pumpkin pie because I make sweet potato pie. It fits more with the Southern food concept of the restaurant and, I really have to say, I don't know if I ever had pumpkin pie growing up. The other thing is, it's really easy to make good, consistent sweet potato pies. It's hard to mass-produce pumpkin pie using fresh pumpkin. You never know what you're getting.
What kind of piecrust do you make?
I make one with Crisco - by hand, using a pastry cutter. You don't want to work it too much. You want it to feel like Play-Doh or soft clay. I didn't really grow up making butter crusts and I only make them for things like French tarte Tatin. It's a wonderful crust . . . but it's harder to make by hand. Crisco is more malleable and soft. You can make a butter crust in a food processor, but Crisco gets way too hot in a food processor. I never do it that way.
It sounds tricky. No wonder so many people are afraid of making piecrust.
I don't get that. Almost any recipe will do. If you find one from a cookbook author you trust, it will probably work. A lot of it is in the handling. You want to be gentle . . . and I've never figured out why recipes are so adamant about not adding too much water. You end up with this crumbling mess that you can't roll out.
How do you get that lovely fluted edge?
Again, almost any piecrust recipe will do. Most give you enough to roll for an 8- or 9-inch pie. I roll it out nice and even, using the upside-down pie pan as a gauge . . . You want at least an inch and a half of extra crust. Hang the dough over the outside. Don't stretch it. Then use your fingers and stand it up so it looks like a little wall. That wall is what you crimp with your fingers.
What kind of flour do you use? Ever tried whole-wheat?
I use regular all-purpose white flour. I don't know that I've ever made a whole-wheat piecrust. I just never thought of it.
What pies do you bake at home?
For my family, I kind of don't bake. I'm working, so sometimes I might order something from the restaurant. If I had to make it myself, in my kitchen? My oven door is held on with a stick. [She laughs.] I know. It's sad.
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