Are you thinking of entering a pie in one of the 2012 DC State Fair competitions? Well, I hope you got started last September, because that’s when last year’s pie-making contender, Ninette Dean, began planning her comeback. She walked home with everything but 1st place and “Best Apple Pie,” but she’s practicing hard to claim both titles this year, something that her husband, family, and friends—the main beneficiaries of Ninette’s baking prowess—must be enjoying.
Ninette Dean loves a good cookbook and is a professed disciple of Martha Stewart. “I think I’m channeling a ’50s housewife,” she says. And for those interests, Ninette has the ideal day-job at the Smithsonian Libraries, which house a goldmine of cookbooks cleverly named the CHOW Collection, which was donated by the Culinary Historians of Washington. They even blog about their best finds. You could call the pictures in cookbooks her muse, since they are the starting point for some of her best recipes. Ninette also adapts some other pastries she has eaten into new pie ideas. One of her favorites is a cherry pistachio pie, which was inspired by a tart she ate at Pierre Hermé in Paris. (We’re hoping to see that one at the Fair this year.)
There are two “secrets” to Ninette’s pie prowess, although only one is truly a secret: her pie crust recipe. The crust, as Ninette attests, “makes or breaks a pie.” The non-secret secret to a great pie is finding the best ingredients for your filling: Those canned cherries on your grocery store shelf will not do. Ninette often goes out to hand pick fresh fruit for her fillings, and for other needs she usually has a long-term relationship with a particular local farmer.
It seems like Ninette has a lot of fun in her kitchen, which she mentioned can be a bit of an obstacle course at times. “According to my husband, the pies aren’t good unless I’m swearing,” she says. Her fun does not come without a little turmoil. But never fret, Ninette has one strong piece of advice for new bakers: “Don’t be so afraid of it.” Admittedly, that is some hard advice to swallow from the pie maven of Washington, DC.