A match made in bake­ware

At­lanta cou­ple find fun and suc­cess in cakes and pies

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - KIM SEVERSON

Some mar­ried cou­ples may va­ca­tion in Japan or hike the Ap­palachian Trail. Chris Tay­lor and Paul Ar­guin’s idea of a dream trip in­volves a rented condo with a good oven and a nearby pie com­pe­ti­tion.

This year, it was a very good va­ca­tion, in­deed. Tay­lor walked away with $5,000 for best in show in the am­a­teur di­vi­sion at the Amer­i­can Pie Coun­cil’s cham­pi­onship in June in Or­lando, Florida. His win­ner, which beat 205 other en­tries, was a deep-dish checker­board peanut but­ter pie with crunchy bits of pret­zel, in­spired in part by a Take5 candy bar, one of his favourites.

Tay­lor sus­pects that what put him over the top was the hand-laid choco­late and peanut but­ter grid on the top, cou­pled with the checker­board fill­ing of peanut but­ter and choco­late cream cheese that re­vealed it­self when the pie was cut.

“That was the real wow fac­tor,” he said. (The recipe may be too com­pli­cated for most home cooks, but the truly in­trepid can find it on­line at piecoun­cil.org.)

When their jobs al­low, the men hit the com­pet­i­tive am­a­teur bak­ing cir­cuit, where they have be­come some­thing of a phe­nom­e­non with their de­li­cious, tech­ni­cally pre­cise of­fer­ings. Even their meet-cute story cen­tres on bak­ing. Tay­lor was fin­ish­ing a doc­tor­ate in epi­demi­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh, and Ar­guin was fo­cus­ing on malaria pre­ven­tion at the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion in At­lanta when a mu­tual friend in­tro­duced them.

Their first date was over the tele­phone. Since they both loved to bake, they thought it might be fun to cook to­gether, each in his own kitchen.

Both had copies of “The Cake Bi­ble” by Rose Levy Ber­an­baum, so Ar­guin sug­gested that they try the Scar­let Em­press, in which a bowl is lined with slices of jelly roll and filled with vanilla Bavar­ian cream be­fore a top layer of cake is added and the whole thing is flipped over and un­moulded.

This was in 2009, be­fore such a date might have been streamed live.

“We were on the phone for hours,” Tay­lor re­called.

They mar­ried in 2014 and are now think­ing about open­ing a com­mer­cial bak­ery in the base­ment of their fivebed­room house in Sag­amore Hills, a well-es­tab­lished At­lanta neigh­bour­hood near the CDC.

With the ex­cep­tion of the dec­o­ra­tive Nordic Ware on the shelves in their great room and a paint­ing of two cakes over the fire­place, you’d never know that bak­ing fa­nat­ics live there.

Un­less, per­haps, you wan­der into the cookie stu­dio. Or go down­stairs to “the vault,” as they call it, where most of their bak­ing equip­ment is stored. It’s easy to find.

Just look for the hall­way lined with dozens of award rib­bons, all neatly ar­ranged in frames.

“We have very an­a­lyt­i­cal jobs,” Tay­lor ex­plained on a re­cent af­ter­noon.

Both work for the CDC, Tay­lor in the Alzheimer’s dis­ease di­vi­sion and Ar­guin as a malaria spe­cial­ist.

“We use our sci­en­tific knowl­edge to work on the recipes,” Tay­lor added, “but it’s re­ally about find­ing a cre­ative, artsy out­let.”

The men are care­ful not to en­ter the same cat­e­gories when they com­pete. Tay­lor, 34, the guy at work who al­ways brings the birth­day cake, usu­ally bakes the cream pies.

Ar­guin, 49, is the savoury man, and a master of yeast breads, muffins and rus­tic desserts. He makes the fruit pies.

In the June con­test, they each en­tered seven pies. Ar­guin picked up one of the more chal­leng­ing cat­e­gories.

“I took gluten-free for the team,” he said.

The se­cret to his Orange Sun­rise Pie, which won its di­vi­sion, is the crust. Ar­guin hit on the idea when he re­mem­bered that Chee­rios, their favourite ce­real, is gluten free. He ground the honey-nut ver­sion to­gether with al­monds. Since he was al­ready think­ing about breakfast, orange juice seemed like a nat­u­ral to flavour the fill­ing.

Ar­guin also won the blue­berry di­vi­sion with a maple-scented cre­ation piled high with blue­ber­ries that he cooks in a sous-vide ma­chine.

“It’s about pre­ci­sion,” he said. “For a com­pe­ti­tion pie, I want it per­fectly tooth­some and not fall­ing apart, and tast­ing fresh.”

The win­ning touch was the lat­tice, made with four wide strips of dough pressed into a sil­i­cone mat with a wood-grain tex­ture that is favoured by those who work with fon­dant. The ef­fect was like lac­quered wood.

Both men grew up with work­ing par­ents who re­quired that they cook as part of their chores. But cook­ing as a hobby came later. Tay­lor didn’t get his first stand mixer un­til he was work­ing on his doc­toral de­gree.

They cut their teeth on com­pet­i­tive bak­ing at smaller fairs in Ge­or­gia. Now, most of their vic­to­ries come at the Ge­or­gia Na­tional Fair in Oc­to­ber. Tay­lor has won the sweep­stakes — that’s the award for es­sen­tially tak­ing the most awards — five times.

At last year’s fair, they en­tered 58 pies, breads, cakes, cook­ies and can­dies. To pre­pare, they tracked recipes in a data­base. Bak­ing sched­ules were co-or­di­nated on a spread­sheet so they could make ef­fi­cient use of their three ovens, in­clud­ing a table­top con­vec­tion model Ar­guin’s mother gave them as a Christ­mas present.

They mea­sured and marked the dry in­gre­di­ents well in ad­vance. The day of the fair, as soon as the last batch of bis­cuits came out of the oven, they packed their en­tries into their Mazda hatch­back and drove two hours south to Perry, Ge­or­gia. At the fair, they are wel­comed — at least as much as two mar­ried men from the city with a car­load of baked goods likely to wipe out the com­pe­ti­tion can be.

“They’ve never been any­thing but nice,” Ar­guin said.

“Of course,” Tay­lor added, “you never know if they’re bless­ing our hearts be­hind our backs.”

Rhonda Hitch, the fair’s culi­nary chair, has noth­ing but praise for the men.

“We all look for­ward to them com­ing,” she said. “They work hard. You can tell. Their pie crust is amaz­ing.”

Only a few peo­ple com­pete against them in the top di­vi­sion. Although they usu­ally win most of the rib­bons, they do have some com­pe­ti­tion from Kati Thorn­ton, a lo­cal baker.

“She doesn’t do the quan­tity,” Hitch said, “but pie to pie and cake to cake, she can give them a run for their money.”

The men have not al­ways been win­ners. They were shut out the first time they en­tered the na­tional pie com­pe­ti­tion five years ago. They had de­signed their pies for flavour.

But when they saw their of­fer­ings among the hand-sten­ciled fruit pie top­pings and the tricked­out cream pies, they re­al­ized that sim­ply mak­ing a de­li­cious blue­berry pie wasn’t go­ing to cut it.

“We got pretty quickly that this was all about dec­o­rat­ing,” Tay­lor said.

They have learned a few tricks over the years, like putting a glob of pip­ing gel in the whipped cream to help it hold its shape. And they work on their names. Names are very im­por­tant.

“It can’t just be a sweet potato pie,” Tay­lor said. “It has to be Aunt Pam’s sweet potato pie. I started mak­ing up rel­a­tives a few years ago.”

The men are loyal mem­bers of Weight Watch­ers, split­ting one piece of pie at din­ner when they are test­ing. The rest goes to work or home with vis­it­ing re­porters.

But it’s not re­ally about the pie. Or even win­ning.

“It’s just what we like to do to­gether,” Tay­lor said.

Award-Win­ning Maple Blue­berry Pie MAKES 8 SERV­INGS

For the crust: 2¾ cups all-pur­pose flour 1/8 tea­spoon cin­na­mon 1 ta­ble­spoon maple su­gar 1 tsp salt ¼ tsp bak­ing pow­der 4 tbsp cold short­en­ing 12 tbsp cold un­salted but­ter, cut into cubes 2 tsp cider vine­gar 6 tbsp cold wa­ter For the fill­ing: 6 cups blue­ber­ries 1 Granny Smith ap­ple 2 heap­ing tbsp minute tapi­oca (a lit­tle less if you pre­fer a softer fill­ing) 1/8 tsp salt 1/8 tsp cin­na­mon ½ cup su­gar 1/3 cup maple syrup ¾ tsp maple ex­tract 1 tbsp lemon juice 1 egg yolk 1 tbsp heavy cream

Time: 2½ hours, plus chill­ing 1. Make the dough: In the bowl of a food pro­ces­sor, mix the flour, cin­na­mon, maple su­gar, salt and bak­ing pow­der. Add the short­en­ing and process un­til well in­cor­po­rated. Add the but­ter and pulse un­til pea-size nuggets of but­ter re­main. Add the vine­gar and wa­ter, and pulse un­til dough is just hold­ing to­gether. Di­vide into two disks. Wrap in plas­tic and chill in re­frig­er­a­tor overnight.

2. Make the fill­ing: If us­ing a sous-vide ma­chine, place the blue­ber­ries into a vacuum-seal­able bag. (If not, see Step 4.) Peel and core the ap­ple and grate with a box grater. Squeeze the grated ap­ple to re­move the juice. Dis­perse the grated ap­ple among the blue­ber­ries in the bag.

3. In the bowl of a food pro­ces­sor, grind the tapi­oca, salt, cin­na­mon and su­gar un­til the tapi­oca is fine. Then add to the bag. Stir the maple syrup, maple ex­tract and lemon juice to­gether and pour into the bag. Seal the vacuum bag. Cook in wa­ter bath at 150 F for 1 hour. Re­move and cool on the coun­ter­top for five min­utes.

4. If us­ing a stove­top, pre­pare the in­gre­di­ents in the same way as the sous-vide method, but place all the in­gre­di­ents in a saucepan with a lid, and stir well to com­bine. Cook over medium-low heat, stir­ring gen­tly and oc­ca­sion­ally, just un­til the berries soften and be­gin to give off their juice, about 20 min­utes. Re­move and cool on the coun­ter­top for five min­utes.

5. As­sem­ble the pie: Roll out one of the dough disks on a lightly floured sur­face to make a top crust, and cut into four large strips. Press the dough into a wood-grain impression sil­i­cone mat and freeze for about 15 min­utes. Or, sim­ply place the four strips on a bak­ing sheet lined with parch­ment and freeze.

6. Roll out the sec­ond dough disk and place in a 9-inch pie plate. Pour maple blue­berry fill­ing into it. Place four crust strips on top of pie, slip­ping one end un­der an­other to form an at­trac­tive pat­tern. Trim and crimp edges.

7. Chill pie in the freezer while heat­ing oven to 425 F. Stir the egg yolk and heavy cream to­gether and brush over the top-crust strips. Place the pie in the oven on the bot­tom rack and im­me­di­ately re­duce heat to 400 F. Af­ter 15 min­utes, ro­tate pie and cover edge with a pie ring or strips of foil to pre­vent the edges from over­brown­ing. Bake for an ad­di­tional 40 min­utes. Let pie cool slightly.

They work hard. You can tell. Their pie crust is amaz­ing. RHONDA HITCH GE­OR­GIA NA­TIONAL FAIR

Paul Ar­guin, left, and Chris Tay­lor, who have been com­pet­ing on the am­a­teur bak­ing cir­cuit for sev­eral years, in the kitchen of their At­lanta home.

Chris Tay­lor cre­ates the choco­late squares atop one of his award-win­ning checker­board peanut but­ter pies.

A col­lec­tion of win­ning rib­bons and a sym­bolic cheque for $5,000 at the home of Chris Tay­lor and Paul Ar­guin.

Chris Tay­lor serves up his award-win­ning checker­board peanut but­ter pie.

KEVIN D. LILES, NYT

A col­lec­tion of cake pans in the liv­ing room of Chris Tay­lor and Paul Ar­guin, who have been com­pet­ing on the am­a­teur bak­ing cir­cuit for sev­eral years.

RIKKI SNY­DER, NYT

A maple blue­berry pie made with the award-win­ning recipe of Paul Ar­guin.

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