A match made in bakeware
Atlanta couple find fun and success in cakes and pies
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.
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.
A maple blueberry pie made with the award-winning recipe of Paul Arguin.