Getting under the crust with Gesine Bullock-Prado's new cookbook
Gesine Bullock-Prado and I have two things in common: We both like living in Vermont and we both write. But there the similarity ends. She’s a well-known baker and pastry chef and has a movie-star sister. I make pie just once a year — Thanksgiving pumpkin — and hence still pretty much fail at crust. And I have no sister at all. If I did, I’d want her to be like either of the Bullock girls.
I can tell I would like Gesine, as a sister or a BFF, because of the way she writes her cookbooks. She’s warm, down-to-earth, funny and passionate about what she does. Which is make the most gorgeous, delicious things out of flour, sugar and butter — oh, so much butter — and sometimes more exotic ingredients. Bullock-Prado is even more charming in person, as I learned when I went to a candy-making demo she did to promote her second book, Sugar Baby, just last year. To be honest, I had no intention of making candy — even though she reassuringly signed my copy “Hot sugar is your friend.” It’s way too much trouble, I thought. I just liked looking at the fabulous food porn by photographer Tina Rupp.
Pie It Forward , Bullock-Prado and Rupp’s new book, was another story. That is, though the pictures were equally addicting, I actually wanted to make some of the things itemized in the subtitle: Pies, Tarts, Tortes, Galettes & Other Pastries Reinvented. And I believed that, with a little more practice, I could turn out a crust that didn’t look like a kindergartener’s clay project.
So I bought the book, skimmed through it and chose my recipes — though not before reading Bullock-Prado’s funny intro, structured as a Q&A between the reader and an anthropomorphized pie with a sassy personality. Over this past week, I spent many hours in the kitchen, made one dumb mistake and several enormous messes, and in the end turned out not-so-bad versions of San’s Apple Crumble (yes, named for sister Sandra), A Quiche for All Seasons and German Apple Custard Tart.
I started with the crumble because, well, the very word sounded nonthreatening. Like, how many times have I made apple crisp, right? Wasn’t it roughly the same thing? Plus, I had all the ingredients on hand.
But I was wrong; this turned out to be the most labor intensive of my three projects. That’s because it contains the misleadingly named Quick Puff Pastry on the bottom, an apple mixture as the filling and a butter-sugar-flour concoction as the topping. Trying to keep track of three parallel processes, I made a teensy error: After dutifully freezing my crust for 20 minutes, I forgot to prebake it before dumping in the apples. OK, so the bottom was a little soggy. Still, when I took it to the Seven Days office, the whole thing disappeared within an hour, and I’m pretty sure no one dumped it in the trash.
Despite my misstep — and the fact that this dish took me three hours and change to make — I was delighted with the quality of the puff-pastry dough. It was smooth and elastic like it’s supposed to be, and when I rolled it out, it didn’t cling to the rolling pin for dear life. It didn’t break apart when I gently settled it on the pie plate. It was perfect. And did I mention the butter? Oh, my.
As it turned out, there was way too much of the dough — and too much crumble mixture, as well — so I think the measurements may be off on this recipe.
On the plus side, both components can be repurposed. I found that Bullock-Prado’s recipe for quiche — the book has a good-size section devoted to savory pies and tarts, even pizza — called for that same puff pastry, so I went for it. (I also rolled some into cinnamon rolls like my mom used to do with excess pie dough.)
Bullock-Prado’s quiche filling is über-simple, just dairy, eggs and lardon. I didn’t have lardon, so I cooked up some bacon and broke it into bits. I added sautéed spinach, minced shallot and red pepper. The nice thing about quiche is that you can throw pretty much anything into it.
Bullock-Prado warns that the puff pastry shrinks, and she isn’t kidding. I lined my pie plate and cut it off around the edges, crimping it like a regular dough. After it baked, the crust was almost an inch below the edge of the dish. So I suppose one should build the dough up an inch or so higher than the plate. Or, as Bullock-Prado suggests, do the prebake upside down, over a second pie plate, to hold the shape.
I’m going to experiment with these methods, because the quiche, too, was a lovely thing, never mind the irregular edges. Oh, and, as my dinner guest confirmed, it was delicious.
My pièce de résistance for the week was the German Apple Custard Tart. I made it in a round tart pan, rather than a square one as Bullock-Prado recommends, because I don’t have a square one. But no matter. Custard is one of my to-die-for foods, and, now that I’ve come to grips with the ingredients, I see why. As a bonus, this recipe has a bit of rum in it — though I don’t know what’s so German about that.
Given the quantity of cream, sugar, eggs, apples and vanilla — and a layer of apricot compote — I decided to skip the confectioners-sugar glaze at the end. That’s presumably what gives a tart that professional-bakery sheen, but it just seemed like too much of a good thing. And I was right. The German Apple Custard Tart is a winner: lusciously smooth and creamy, with a nicely granular, cookie-like crust. By the way, Bullock-Prado recommends not even bothering to roll this one out; accept that you will have to press it into the pan with your hands, she writes, and just do it.
The proportions were almost right for this one — I had a bit of dough left over, as well as most of the sweetened-condensed-milk substitute I concocted with the help of Mr. Google. (Note to self: Always double-check the ingredients list before starting.) I think the key with these recipes is to find a second one that calls for the same stuff, just in case. Because it would be a shame to waste all that butter.
Pie It Forward is entertaining — at least for the tribe that enjoys reading cookbooks — and most of the recipes seem doable by normal people. Bullock-Prado includes helpful hints throughout in sidebars titled “A Note From the Sweetie Pie.” That said, her pantry definitely contains some fancy ingredients, such as pistachio flour, that mine does not. I also lack some of the tools of this trade, such as a pastry bag, the operation of which still intimidates me, and a springerle rolling pin.
But I’m thinking it’s time to brave a kitchen torch. I am so ready to brûlée.
Pie It Forward: Pies, Tarts, Tortes, Galettes & Other Pastries Reinvented by Gesine Bullock-Prado. Stewart Tabori & Chang, 252 pages. $29.95. pieitforwardcookbook.com 
Gesine Bullock-Prado will be one of three celebrity judges for Vermont Restaurant Week’s Sweet Start Smackdown, a kickoff pastry battle featuring chefs from around Vermont, on Thursday, April 26, at the Higher Ground Ballroom in South Burlington, 5:30-8:30 p.m. $8 advance, $10 day of. Tickets at highergroundmusic.com/event/sweet-start-smackdown . More info at vermontrestaurantweek.com .