the pie’s the limit

“So many wrong things were done to pie today.”

Sometimes you overhear parts of conversations.

I have to start by saying that I agree. Gluttony aside, underseasoning, overbaking, lofty-ambition and questionable combinations killed some bakers’ dreams for a brighter tomorrow. Luckily, whether heralded above or thrown asunder, each pie baked will help thrust inspiration on some child somewhere. And that was the point of the whole weekend–not winning or losing, but supporting arts education.

That said, I totally took home the grand prize at this weekend’s 4th Annual Pie-Off.

photo courtesy of Kymberlee Fajardo

A coconut-infused pastry with coconut custard, coconut meringue and topped with roasted, salted coconut shavings, the judges were, at first, frightened by my inclusion of Malibu Rum. As well they should be–if you drink Malibu Rum, you drink gross things. As a flavor enhancer, however–it’s totally ok. I then won them over with my “wonderfully creamy” custard, “fluffy” meringue, flakey crust and texture enhancing coconut chips.

To make my recipe my own, I simply adapted recipes that I know and love. I started with the crust–by riffing on America’s Test Kitchen’s Fool-Proof Pie Dough in combination with my mother’s dough, tips and techniques I was able to develop a wonderfully flakey crust with a buttery depth and a salty kick–a great counterpart to the sweetness within. By grinding flaked coconut right along with the flour, subbing ATK’s vodka for coconut rum and tap water for coconut water, the pie’s foundation was the first layer in ultimate coconut domination.

What I generally hate about coconut cream pie is the filling. I don’t want bits of coconut in my custard. So, I eliminated them. My custard began with coconut milk. I don’t know why this is a revelation and I don’t know why it’s not done more often–but most coconut cream pies are made with a typical milk custard, sweetened, flaked coconut and imitation coconut extract–and if you want suntan lotion pie, you can totally go that route. Otherwise, find some good coconut milk.

Good coconut milk, however does not mean the most expensive. For the test pie I made the week before, I used Thai Kitchen Organic Coconut Milk. It’s totally the most expensive and it is also totally not good. Basically, it tastes like the can. A bit of research revealed that guar gum, often included as a thickener in canned coconut milk, can yield an ‘off’ flavor. Thai Kitchen uses guar gum. So, scour your Asian and Latin isles and check the labels: avoid both guar gum and water. However, if your only contenders all contain water, choose the one with the most fat per serving (that means they used less). My winner: Goya. Also, if you’re avoiding dairy, you could totally use all coconut milk, though I cut mine with just a bit of half and half for a little extra richness.

For the topping of my test pie I made a Swiss meringue. Upon a guinea pig’s suggestion that perhaps the meringue could be coconuttier; and, upon a lightbulb appearing over my head, I decided I’d attempt an Italian meringue instead. The reason: Swiss meringue is made by combining all ingredients in a double boiler, cooking til the sugar is dissolved and whipping til it’s cool. Italian meringue is made by preparing a simple syrup and then drizzling, hot, into whipped egg whites. By subbing coconut water for tap in the syrup, I could easily impart greater coconut flavor into my meringue.

For a garnish, I could have made salted coconut chips. But I didn’t. I bought them. And they were actually the impetus for this pie. These are amazing on their own, but ever since the first time I tried them, I’ve wanted to use them as a pie topper. Salty/sweet isn’t just for caramel anymore. Seriously. Buy them now. As judge Johnny Iuzzini (of Top Chef: Just Desserts & Jean Georges) said, “They make ‘the pie’ something special.”

And now, you too can make an award-winning coconut cream pie, just by following my very simple recipe! I know I don’t do a lot of recipes here; but, for your benefit, I’ll make this exception…tomorrow.



  1. OH MY GOD JOE, CONGRATULATIONS!!! You deserve it! I wish you could have ups’d me a nibble. LOVE PIE!!! This is the start sir. I want you to be the smug baker that takes this award every year!!! 🙂

  2. Congratulations again, Joe! While my allergies made it impossible for me to actually TASTE your pie, my eyes got an awesome dose of pie-loving! And I am now a subscriber to your blog and look forward to exploring it more!

  3. Joe your mom was telling me about your recipe and I knew I would have to try it. It sounds wonderful and it is beautiful to look at. Congratulation and best wishes!!

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