It is the crust, not the filling, that is the most important part of a pie, one Port Townsend chef insists.
“You get some who just eat the filling and leave the crust behind,” said Tim Roth, owner of Hillbottom Pie. “That always kind of gets me riled a little bit.”
Others will eat everything except the outer edge, he said, which he considers to be the most delicious part.
“It is a little bit darker than the rest of the crust. It has got that caramelization going on.”
Roth takes his crust crafting seriously, making the dough from scratch for each pie he serves.
“The crust is made one crust at a time as opposed to a big batch, so we have a lot of control over the tenderness of the crust and everything,” he said. “I tend to roll my pastry a little thicker than most people because I feel you need a certain amount of pastry to contrast the amount of fruit in there. The pastry is the best part.”
He’s not the only Peninsula chef making that argument. Best-selling “Art of the Pie” author Kate McDermott, who lives a little west of us, has built a cult of sorts around her crusts, gathering the faithful at “Pie Camps” to learn the discipline of not-too-mixed.
Roth said he has learned not to mix the butter into the flour too much so it remains crumbly.
When the dough bakes it melts and separates as it is rising, making it flaky, he said.
Roth also uses a little bit of sugar on the crust.
“I like my crust to be super edible and super delicious,” he said.
Roth and his staff bake about seven pies each day the restaurant is open. Fillings include apple, cherry, marionberry, strawberry rhubarb, peach and blueberry.
Roth said he has a sweet tooth for blueberries, although pecan is a close runner up.
“Blueberry has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid. We lived near a blueberry patch and used to pick ‘em and make all kinds of things out of ‘em.”
Fruit important, too
Although Roth concentrates much of his attention on the crust, that doesn’t mean he neglects the filling.
The fruit he uses is individually quick frozen, he said, which provides consistency and availability year round.
While fresh berries are nice to work with, their consistency is highly variable, he said.
“You would have to tinker with your recipes a lot.”
Frozen fruit is nearly as good as fresh, and sometimes better because it is frozen at the height of freshness, Roth said. Overripened fruit has a tendency to get mushy when cooked, but frozen fruit is picked when it is less ripe.
To prepare the filling for each pie, Roth mixes it up according to his own tried and true recipes and cooks it on the stove before it is put in the pie crust. This provides consistency, he said.
“Once it goes into the pie crust, you don’t have to worry about the filling cooking on the inside, because it is already cooked,” he said. “You just have to worry about getting the crust browned to where you like it. Sometimes when you bake pie, those two don’t match.”
This method also leads to the pies being more presentable, Roth said.
“When you cut it into it, it just has a good look to it.”
In high demand
The pies are made in small batches, and generally sell out each day before the close of business, Roth said.
“I try to make just the right amount, which isn’t easy all the time,” he said. “Sometimes we run out, but I prefer that to having a bunch of leftovers at the end of the night.”
Michele Zabransky, who has been a waitress at Hillbottom Pie for the past five years, said there are customers who make sojourns to the restaurant from all points of the compass just for a piece of pie.
“I am sure it is our crust,” she said. “It is so flaky. People comment on that all the time.”
Since the pie is finite and in high demand, customers tend to jockey for it, Zabransky said.
Roth said customers are ready for pie as early as 11 a.m., when the restaurant opens for business.
Most days, pie is available until about 7 p.m. before it runs out, he said. On other days, it is gone by 3 or 4 p.m.
And, once its gone, its gone.
“It is hard to scramble and make another one at that point because it takes a while to bake. It takes almost an hour and a half in the oven and it has to cool. It is a three-hour process.”
American as apple pie?
While apple pie is a byword for “American favorite,” that variety is actually Roth’s lowest-selling item.
“That is really weird,” he said. “I spent a lot of time coming up with it, so it is good. The apples have to be cooked just right - soft but maybe a little crunch left in them, and juicy.”
And the shelf life for apple pies is shorter than other varieties, he said.
Once an apple pie is cut into, the exposure to oxygen means the pies don’t look as appealing. Otherwise the taste and quality is unaffected, he said.
“It is something I like to sell pretty quick, and sometimes it doesn’t move as fast as the other ones. I don’t know why that is.”
Whatever the variety, Roth said the best pairing with pie is ice cream and coffee.
Zabransky said whipped cream and a latte are also great, and that some customers prefer their slice of pie with a mug of beer.
Hillbottom Pie is located at 215 Tyler St. in Port Townsend. For more information, call 360-385-1306.