It’s no stretch to call Jacques Torres the crème de la crème of pastry chefs. The native Frenchman and one-time Le Cirque pastry chief currently runs his own storied chocolate-manufacturing company and serves as the dean of Pastry Studies at New York’s French Culinary Institute. Torres gets practically religious when extolling the virtues of high-quality pie ingredients. “Products in general, they should be clean label,” he says, meaning they should be all-natural and preservative-free. Or, as he says less delicately, “The less crap going into the product, the better.”
Torres’s flour of choice is King Arthur, a high-quality unbromated and unbleached flour. “No chemicals,” he says.
“I love to work with high-fat butters like Plugrá, which is 82 percent fat,” Torres says. The higher the fat content, he explains, the less water the butter contains. With a high-fat butter, the flavor is a little richer, and, Torres says, “the dough is more workable in the hands.”
According to Torres, fresh eggs are critical. Buy the eggs with the latest sell-by date (as eggs age, they become watery and their flavor fades). Organic brown-shell eggs “are a bonus.”
Torres says plain-old white Domino works just fine. “Raw sugar itself doesn’t have any flavor,” he says. “When you cook your pie, you’re going to have to work on caramelization of the sugar—that’s what’s going to give it flavor.” That said, Monsieur Organic doesn’t see any reason not to buy organic sugar, if you’re willing to pay a little extra.
For apple pie, Torres says the more flavorful the apple, the more flavorful the pie. “You’re going to lose some of the flavor as you cook, so make it flavorful to begin with,” he says. Torres generally uses McIntosh or Honey Crisp, the current It apple.
When Torres first came to the United States, he was asked to make a pumpkin pie. “We don’t use pumpkins in France—that’s an American thing. I didn’t know how!” He improvised by buying a can of pumpkin-pie filling and making the recipe on the back. “Everyone raved about it—‘so delicious,’ ” he says with a laugh. Still, he’s come around to the virtues of fresh pumpkin. Make sure to buy the small baking pumpkins sold at Greenmarkets or gourmet grocers, he says. The flesh of baking pumpkins is firmer and sweeter and will add more flavor to your pie. The large carving pumpkins are grown for their color and strength—their flesh is watery and bland.
Torres recommends using high-quality halved pecans, such as Hemisphere Group brand pecans (the brand Torres uses). With pecans, only one thing matters: They should be fresh. Check the sell-by date. Torres also speaks highly of Bazzini nuts, the brand he used at Le Cirque.
Since chocolate is Torres’s specialty, he’s especially opinionated on the matter. “This is important!” he says. “The label for dark chocolate should say, ‘Around 60 percent cocoa content, cocoa liquor, sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla,’ and nothing else! No essential oil, no artificial flavoring—nothing!” If you use chocolate with chemicals such as vanillin in place of vanilla, he explains, the artificial flavoring will mask the natural flavor of the chocolate. “Mother Nature gives us the most wonderful, flavorful products—don’t mess them up.” Beyond that, Torres says choosing a chocolate is a matter of personal taste. “We all love different things,” he says. “Of course, I recommend my chocolate first, but all the big makers have good chocolate—Scharffen Berger, Valrhona, Callebaut, Belcolade—take your pick.”
Where to Buy
King Arthur flour is available at Whole Foods (various locations, $3.19 per five-pound bag). Plugrá butter is available at Citarella (various locations, $3.99 for an eight-ounce package). Organic brown-shell eggs are available at most gourmet grocers ($3.99 to $5.99 per dozen). Domino sugar is available at local supermarkets ($1.19 per one-pound bag). McIntosh, Honey Crisp, and a wide selection of other apples are available at Whole Foods and Garden of Eden (various locations, about $2 per pound). Paffenroth Gardens and Maxwell’s Farm at Union Square Greenmarket have good selections of fresh baking pumpkins (from 60 cents per pound). Bazzini’s pecans are available at Bazzini’s nuts (339 Greenwich St.; $12.95 per one-pound bag). Jacques Torres’s chocolate is available at Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven (350 Hudson St.; $12 per two-pound bag of 60 percent baking chocolate).
More Holiday-Meal Shopping Advice:
The Fanatic’s Grocery List: How To Tell A Turkey from A Turkey
And See Also:
The Feasts: Holiday Banquets to the Nth Degree