Allison Kave–First Prize Pies

Staci Strauss

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Editor’s Note: We learned about Allison Kave through her brother, Corwin Kave. We met Corwin through his work with Zak Pelaccio and the Fatty Crew. When we heard Allison had put her pie knowledge into a book, we were excited.

Here’s some of what she had to say about her brand new book, First Prize Pies.

Tell us about your journey into the pie business.

Allison Kave: In my very food-centric family, pie had always been my “thing”. I can’t even remember when I baked my first pie, but I started getting really into it in my early teens.

I would bake one for every Thanksgiving, and over the years with more and more practice I started to develop my own recipes. I had made my career in the art world, as a gallery director and curator, and pie became a weekly refuge from the stress of work.

I would take the time out every week to roll some dough, which I found really meditative and soothing. I finally reached a point where I knew that I wanted to move into the food biz, but it would take a couple of years before I found my way out.

Is there a story behind the name of your business, First Prize Pies?

AK: The name “First Prize Pies” was dreamed up by my boyfriend Jay (he really has a knack for naming), and was inspired by the root of my business. In 2009 I entered the Brooklyn Pie Bake-Off on a whim, and my Bourbon Ginger Pecan pie took first prize. I started selling pies by the slice every weekend at my mom’s shop, Roni-Sue’s Chocolates, and thus began my pie business!

Of course, I want it to taste delicious, and from a creative standpoint, pie is a virtually boundless format.

Your family is all about good things to eat–your mom makes tremendous chocolates and your brother cooks circles around most folks. What was it like growing up with flavors and tastes and techniques all around you? How does all that figure into your pie-making talent?

AK: I’ve been hugely influenced and inspired by my mom and my brother. For the first three years of my business I was baking out of my mom’s shop, so she was supportive in every single way, both materially and conceptually. Her approach to flavor is so nuanced and all about layering and building, which I’ve definitely absorbed and translated into my pie recipes. 

When we were kids growing up, my mother was basically teaching herself to cook and make candies. We were the very willing and happy recipients of her experiments, and her global approach to food was majorly influential.

My brother’s style of cooking is incredibly precise, and he manages to marry boldness and subtlety of flavor in a way that is so balanced and seemingly effortless. I definitely try to emulate that. He’s also so knowledgeable about what’s happening in food, I love it when we get together to eat and talk shop.

Why are you so into pies, as opposed to say, cakes?

AK: For me, the allure of pie is not really the end result; it’s the process of getting there. To be completely cliché: It’s the journey, not the destination. I love how hands-on it is, how directly you relate to it, in the handling of the dough, the hand mixing of fillings and toppings. You’re forced to take your time, focus on just one thing, and I really appreciate a process that insists that I slow down.

Of course, I want it to taste delicious, and from a creative standpoint, pie is a virtually boundless format. Crust, filling, topping: These three components can be adapted and combined in so many different ways for so many different results. And unlike (most) cakes, pie can also be a fantastic savory dish as well.

Your book is out now. Tell us about it. What made you decide to write a book? What was it like to tackle such a big project?

AK: When I first received an advance copy of my book, and held it in my hands, I came pretty close to crying! I don’t think many realize how long it takes from start to finish. I first signed my deal with Stewart Tabori & Chang in early 2012, and my book, First Prize Pies, just came out. Before I even signed there was the proposal-writing process, so it’s been about 3 years of planning to get to this stage.

It was a huge project, but I am so glad I did it. It really pushed me creatively, and made me think about why I do what I do, why I love the flavors I love. It also has a lot of personal anecdotes and really tells the story of my personal and professional evolution.

What do you want your readers to get from your book?

AK: I wanted to create a book that would inspire both home bakers and professional cooks to be playful and uninhibited in their approach to pies. My recipes are often quirky, with little twists that make them a bit outside the norm. By really getting into the techniques (crust is always the big fear factor for most home bakers), I strive to make people comfortable enough to start experimenting and playing around with flavor. 

Talk a little bit about how you source your ingredients. How does availability affect what kinds of pies you produce?

AK: My book is structured seasonally, which was essential to me. I don’t bake berry pies in January. Peaches taste like potatoes if you’re trying to bake with them in March. Frozen fruit is fine for some things, but there’s just an anachronistic feeling about eating such blatantly out-of-season produce, that I avoid it in general. In terms of other ingredients, I try to be as ethical as possible: we use local cage-free eggs, local organic milk and cream, unbleached flour, etc. We work with a local farm all year for our fruit and whatever they have, we use. It’s more exciting that way as well–it’s fun not knowing exactly what you’ll get each week, and keeps you on your toes creatively.

Michael Laiskonis said this about your Shoo-Fly pie: “It’s probably the one that most reminds me of something homemade.” He should know, he’s pretty good at the sweet stuff. What did that mean to you when such an expert praised your work?

AK: I’ve been judged by some pretty inspiring people, but I can’t remember ever feeling quite as nervous as I did that day. He came by my mom’s shop and tried the pie in front of me. Let me just say that he would probably kill it at the poker table, because he was totally inscrutable. I had no idea what he thought of it! 

He asked me a few questions about the history of Shoo-Fly pie (which is actually really interesting), and I think I babbled for awhile about the etymology of the name, and then he left. I was so relieved to read that he enjoyed it, and his use of the word homemade really put me over the moon. That’s what I strive for: pies that look and taste like someone made them by hand, with love.

Can you explain how you add a new pie to your list? Tell us about your process of developing new stuff for First Prize Pies.

AK: Well, nowadays the process is much more collaborative, as I’ve got a new business called Butter & Scotch, which I founded with Keavy Blueher from Kumquat Cupcakery. It’s now the new home of First Prize Pies. We’re working on opening a dessert & cocktail bar in Brooklyn and will have all of my pies, her cupcakes, and a whole range of other desserts on offer as well. 

By far the most fun part of our business is brainstorming new desserts, which happens all the time, anywhere we go. Nearly anything can be the seed of an idea: A dish we try at a restaurant, nostalgia for a long-ago childhood treat, a cool cocktail that could definitely be translated into pie form, pretty much everything is up for grabs. Having a partner has expanded my creativity and approach to baking even further, and it’s great to have someone with a palate I trust to experiment with.

What did we miss? Anything we weren’t clever enough to ask about your awesome pies?

AK: I can’t think of anything! These have been great questions that inspired a lot of reflection, and for that I thank you. 

Well, Allison, thank you for taking the time and good luck with your new book.

AK: Thanks and come by for a slice of pie sometime!

Do pies make you swoon? Are you a pie-a-holic? What is your favorite pie to make?

Photo credit: Craig McCord