When you get really into baking like I have, you take notice of certain chefs who constantly get brought up. They become pretty iconic either through their recipes or their personalities or some combination of the two. One name that always gets thrown into the mix is Stella Parks, a pastry wizard who’s book Bravetart has been deemed nothing short of brilliant. I first heard about Stella through her work at Serious Eats where she’s become this baking fairy-godmother of sorts. In buying and trying out recipes from Bravetart, I can tell you for sure that this woman knows her stuff. Bravetart works to create some iconic American desserts that are sure to be mainstays in your kitchen. So I grabbed my copy and got to work on her recipe for Dark Chocolate Cream Pie. It’s admittedly simple in concept, but there’s something about Stella’s recipes that takes these familiar flavors and techniques and turns them up a notch.
If you’re looking to make this pie, strap in and get comfy because this one takes a while. Admittedly, there’s not much active work but it does require a whole lot of cooking and oven time. We start off by making Stella’s buttery pie crust which was the whole reason why I wanted to make this pie. Everyone raves about it- including the folks over at Food52 . The pie dough is made with equal parts butter and flour in which the butter is smashed in between your hands- no food processor or pastry cutter needed. It then calls for a set amount of water- an oddity for pie crust which usually instructs the baker to “add only as much water as needed for the dough to come together.” Stella apparently doesn’t roll like that- and I respect her for it. After a quick knead, the dough came together and rolled out like a breeze. I then placed it into my pie pan, gave it some flutes and covered it with aluminum foil. Now comes the next nugget of wisdom: Stella doesn’t bake with traditional pie weights, rather she uses granulated sugar to weigh it down. Given the size of the granules, the sugar helps get into every nook and cranny and ends up toasting while in the oven. The toasted sugar has a nice caramel flavor and is less sweet than regular sugar- perfect for a one to one swap for a more complex dish. The pie then bakes for an hour at 350- again a major detour from other recipes that call for a high temp and short bake time. The long stint in the oven apparently helps the crust keep its shape- which is key after the required 2 hours spent in the fridge. The resulting crust wasn’t quite what I expected, as it did slump down along the sides and was perhaps on the thin side. Still, I pressed on with the rest of the pie.
With the crust out of the way, the next two components come together quite quickly. The first is a chocolate custard which basically involves getting all of the ingredients (sans chocolate) cooked on a stovetop until thick. Stella indicates that the mixture has a boil for at least 90 seconds in order to stabilize this enzyme within eggs that messes with the cornstarch’s ability to thicken. The whole nitty gritty is pretty scientific and frankly I barely understand it myself. Just note that it works and to keep that in mind for all your cornstarch thickening needs. The custard is then run through a sieve and mixed together with the chopped chocolate and vanilla before being set aside. Next comes the meringue topping which is no more than a Swiss Meringue. You literally take all the ingredients- egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar and salt- and set them over a double boiler to cook so that the egg whites are safe to eat. They then get whipped until stiff and glossy after which we’re able to assemble our pie. The chocolate custard is scraped into the cooled crust, followed by heaping servings of the meringue. Then I went in with a spoon to give it some nice swoops (swoops is a technical term) and set it to bake for about 20 minutes to get the meringue firm. The pie then chills for about 4 hours before being ready to eat. I honestly lost count of how much time I’d spent on it at this point.
So what was the verdict? In terms of flavor, the pie was outstanding. There’s a rich and deep chocolate flavor within the custard that set up nice and firm, giving me clean cuts. The meringue was a welcomed addition too- providing relief from the rich custard and giving it a soft, pillowy mouth-feel. The only downer here was the crust– arguably the whole reason why I made the pie in the first place. The finished edges of the crust were crisp- almost like tasty crackers- while the bottom was tough and bordering on rubbery.It also did slump into the pie pan- which wasn’t too big of a deal, but a bit of a bummer after all that work. I spent a lot of time wondering where I went wrong and could only deduce it to a couple of reasons. Perhaps I used a flour that had a higher protein content than intended (as some reviewers have noted) or maybe I did in fact overwork the dough somehow. Another reason would be that I rolled it too thin, so much so that it absorbed the moisture from that custard. I still have the remaining half of the dough in the fridge, so maybe I’ll do a test to satiate my curiosity. For now, I’d still recommend this recipe as it was the best chocolate cream pie I’ve had. Maybe not as dreamy as I imagined, but hey, we all gotta wake up sometime.
Full Recipe | Method by Stella Parks in her book Bravetart
Recipe posted with permission on Serious Eats