Cooking the Books: Pies Before Guys by Kirsten Weiss

Val Harris is a great boss, but even she’s beginning to reconsider her generosity in allowing Abril Rodriguez, one of her employees, to host a poetry slam at their pie shop. The poets are only moderately entertaining, even with the literal saber-rattling antics of the last performer, Abril’s English professor, Michael Starke. In fact, the most entertainment seems to come afterward when a fellow professor accosts Starke with accusations of plagiarism, leading to near-fisticuffs that are only headed off by the spatula-wielding skills of another Pie Town employee, Charlene McCree.

Val is happy to see the backs of the poets until her boyfriend, Police Detective Gordon Carmichael, shows up just a little while later asking after them. Turns out Starke was found dead by his car almost immediately after the slam, having been run through with his own saber.

Charlene pounces on the information and begs Val to join her in investigating. While Val is hardly willing to let her octogenarian friend get into trouble unsupervised, she’s also reluctant to jeopardize her own relationship with Gordon. They’ve been getting along so well that she’s starting to fear that Gordon might be looking at her through rose-colored glasses. Given her past history of rushing into things, she’s afraid that Gordon might “come to his senses” soon and break her heart.

Of course, Charlene thinks this is nonsense. But Charlene might not be the best authority on that kind of thing, given her fervent belief in the paranormal. As the Baker Street Bakers—a nickname they gave themselves—try to discover who killed Professor Starke and what to do about the hordes of people showing up at the store in response to Charlene’s homage to a UFO hoax, Val will also have to struggle with the eternal question of what it means to love and to be loved.

I was familiar with Kirsten Weiss’s work on other series, but this is my first encounter with the Pie Town crew, and I enjoyed every minute! Charlene is a total hoot, and I hope I’m even half as interesting and spry when I’m her age. I also enjoyed the emotional depth this book displayed, not only in Val’s relationship with Gordon but also in her relationship with Doran, her half-brother. I’m really looking forward to seeing where those go as well as diving into this series from the start! I literally went looking for the first book after I finished this one and snapped it up to read, which is one of the highest recommendations I can give to any series.

Pies Before Guys (which is a title both terrific on its own as well as in relation to the contents of this novel) featured recipes for four different baked goods. I decided to try out the first one, lightly edited here for space:

Salted-Caramel Apple Pie

Ingredients

1 pkg (i.e. 2 crusts) refrigerated pre-made piecrust

¼ C all-purpose flour

¼ C sugar

½ tsp ground cinnamon

2 ½ lb baking apples (e.g. Fuji or Granny Smith) peeled, cored, and sliced quarter-inch thick (you should end up with approximately 7 cups)

1 recipe salted-caramel sauce (see below)

Sea salt (optional)

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 T whipping cream

1 T coarse sugar

Instructions

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Unroll one piecrust into a 9-inch pie plate. On a lightly floured surface unroll the remaining crust.

For the filling, combine the flour, sugar, and cinnamon in a small bowl. Place the sliced apples in a large bowl and sprinkle the flour mixture over the apples, tossing to coat.

Spoon about one-third of the mixture in the piecrust-lined pie plate. Drizzle roughly 2T of the salted-caramel sauce over the apples. Repeat with the remaining thirds and salted-caramel sauce two more times. Sprinkle with a pinch or two of sea salt if desired. Set the remaining salted-caramel sauce aside.

Combine the egg and whipping cream in another small bowl.

Lightly brush the edge of piecrust with the egg mixture. Cover the pie with the second crust and pinch the two crusts together. Lightly brush the top of the pie with the remaining egg mixture. Sprinkle with coarse sugar.

To protect the crust’s edge from overbrowning, cover the edges with aluminum foil or pie shields.

Place the pie on the oven’s middle rack. Since there’s a good chance the filling will overflow a bit, to protect your oven (and your sanity), line a baking sheet with foil and place it on the rack beneath the pie to catch any drips.

Bake pie for 30 minutes and remove the foil or pie shield from the crust. Bake for another 20 to 35 minutes or until the top crust is golden.

Remove the pie from the oven and cool on a wire rack. Serve with the remaining salted-caramel sauce. (Note: If the caramel sauce hardens before serving, reheat on high for 30-60 seconds in a microwave-safe bowl covered with wax paper.)

Salted-Caramel Sauce

Ingredients

1 14-oz pkg vanilla caramels, unwrapped

½ C whipping cream

1 tsp sea salt

Instructions

Heat and stir unwrapped caramels, whipping cream, and sea salt in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat until mixture is melted and smooth. Remove from heat.

Gosh, this was so yummy, and that salted caramel was—if you’ll excuse the phrasing—out of this world! My lovely assistant Karin and I couldn’t find vanilla caramels, so we just used a mix of caramel chips and regular soft Werther’s, which were so delicious I don’t know how anything else could possibly be better.

I thought it was a bit odd that the top pie shell kept its dome shape so well throughout the baking process, but I found this was really great for pouring the leftover salted caramel sauce onto later. I’m not a huge fan of caramel apples personally, as I find them difficult to eat and the textures a little weird, but this pie recipe eliminates all those drawbacks while keeping the delicious meld of flavors and adding a delightful pastry element that only serves to elevate the candy staple.

Speaking of candy, next week we head to the East Coast to check out a death at a candy shop while serving finger food perfect for gatherings—or in these times, for enjoying at home. Do join me!

See alsoCooking the Books: Al Dente’s Inferno by Stephanie Cole

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