Carolyn Berke dishes it up at Niles Pie
Story and photos By Katie Yen
How do you run a successful bakery without a storefront and without a commercial kitchen of your own? For Carolyn Berke, who lives in the Niles District of Fremont, the answer is as easy as, well . . .
. . . email, which she uses to blast forth the latest menu for her web-based bakery, Niles Pie Company https://www.nilespie.com/ .
All manner of enticing pies, coffee cakes, buns, bites, and breads appear on the e-newsletter, which may compel hungry e-customers to drop everything and visit nilespie.com immediately to place their orders. But those who can delay gratification long enough to continue reading will be rewarded by Carolyn’s amusing culinary adventures. Her repressed inner English major emerges as she recounts the incredible feat of reviving a hopeless eight-year-old sourdough starter, or describes watching in dismay as her new German shepherd pup terrifies her flock of egg-laying hens. She muses about lying awake all night haunted by visions of seasonal produce: “I’m trying out flavor and texture combinations in my imagination.”
But come morning, Carolyn is up and ready for action. She downloads the orders and heads to GourMade Cookery (www.gourmadecookery.com ), a shared commercial kitchen in Pleasanton where she rents space. Once the pies are baked, she personally delivers them to the stores in Fremont and Pleasanton that have kindly agreed to serve as pickup points for Niles Pie customers. The list continues to grow, but thus far, patrons can collect their goodies at the GourMade Cookery in Pleasanton, as well as three Fremont locations—J. E. Perry Farms (www.perryfarmsorganic.com ), Mr. Mikey’s Country Store (www.mrmikeys.com ), and Mission Coffee (www.fremontcoffee.com ). People who have joined the CSA program at Terra Bella Farms of Sunol/Pleasanton (www.terrabellafamilyfarm.com ) have the opportunity to choose Niles Pie items (some made with Terra Bella produce) as part of their weekly share.
It was a little over a year ago that Carolyn officially launched Niles Pie Co., but when I visit her at the GourMade Cookery, it’s clear that this isn’t her first spin around the kitchen. I watch as she preps a batch of whole-wheat puff pastry dough and explains how the same dough can complement pies both sweet and savory. Today’s batch, she says, will become the base for her Asparagus Asiago tarts.
She measures the ingredients deftly, scooping cups of Giusto’s flour into a large metal mixing bowl and then cutting in blocks of butter. The moment her hands touch the raw ingredients, a bright smile breaks across her face and never leaves. Slowly adding the ice water to the mixture, she surmises that “there’s something very Zen to chopping and rolling . . . it’s hard to be tense when you’re doing that.”
Carolyn started baking during college, when she landed a part-time job in a small Connecticut bakery café. The work involved everything from baking bread at dawn to picking the feathers from freshly butchered chickens. After graduating, her yen for cookery led her to various positions around New England, and she eventually opened her own business, Silver Birch Bakery. The growth of her bakery gave way to the growth of her family, and only after she “couldn’t see [her] toes anymore” did she give in to impending motherhood.
Years later, the siren call of the kitchen and the power of the local food movement have lured Carolyn to dust off her apron. The bounty of year-round regional edibles has her cranking out classic pies like cherry and pumpkin, and the kid-friendly apple “pop tarts,” made with a dash of Vietnamese cinnamon. Seasonal vegetables might land inside a free-form veggie galette. She sources most of her produce from her favorite growers at the local farmers markets, but when friends chase her down with armloads of rhubarb or she stumbles over boxes of persimmons left surreptitiously on the doorstep, it requires thinking outside the box, she says, such as melding the persimmons with a gingersnap pie crust and the rhubarb with some Warren pears inside a butter pastry.
Contemplating her pie philosophy, Carolyn reflects, “I love food, I love to bake, and I love my neighborhood. Here, I get to put it all together. It’s a Niles Pie!”
Writer Katie Rose Yen chronicles the passion of local food producers and purveyors at her blog, https://fee dmefremont.blogspot.com/
Apples and Almonds: SWEET AND SAVORY
Carolyn sees pies as extremely versatile: They can go either sweet or savory while starring the same main ingredients. Here, a single recipe for her whole-wheat puff pastry serves as a base for both dessert and the main course. For the apples, she recommends the organic Mutsu from Prevedelli Farms in Watsonville. Her favorite organic almond grower is Inzana Ranch, which is located near Modesto.
Quick Whole-Wheat Puff Pastry
This quick puff pastry has a great butter flavor, and the whole wheat lends its own flaky, nutty quality. It won’t puff up as high as regular puff pastry, but that’s just as well for these recipes.
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 pound very cold unsalted butter (preferably “European-style,” which is high in butterfat), cut into small chunks (do this ahead if you can and refrigerate so it’s cold.)
1 cup very cold water (Either put the measuring cup in the fridge at least 30 minutes before you start, or pop in some ice cubes a few minutes ahead.)
Put flours and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to mix. Add the butter all at once and pulse about 15 times until the butter is the size of baby peas or smaller. Dump the flour-butter mix into a very large mixing bowl and add the water. Using a plastic scraper, mix the dough gently but thoroughly. If you need more water, add by the tablespoon, until dough comes together and is not crumbly. Pat into a neat square, wrap in waxed paper, and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, make a nice clean space on your counter and sprinkle with flour. Roll the dough out into a 12- by 18-inch rectangle that’s about 2 inches thick. Fold in thirds like a letter. Then turn the dough 90 degrees and fold again. Repeat this 3 times. If it gets too warm in the kitchen and it seems like the butter is getting greasy, put the dough in the fridge for 20 minutes. After you’ve completed the 4 turns, refrigerate the dough for at least 1 hour.
Apple Almond Free-Form Tart
1 cup whole almonds
½ cup sugar
¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
½ teaspoon almond extract
2 large apples
½ recipe whole-wheat puff pastry (see above)
½ cup sliced natural almonds
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into tiny chunks
1 egg mixed with a pinch of salt and 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash
Whirl the almonds in a food processor with the sugar until they are very finely ground. Add the butter and whirl until mixed, scraping the bowl once. Whirl in the egg and the almond extract, and if needed, add a tablespoon of water to get a thick batter-like consistency.
Roll the dough out on a floured surface to make a 10-inch circle about ¼-inch thick. Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment and spread on the almond filling, leaving a 2-inch border. Peel, core, and slice the apples and arrange over the filling in an attractive pattern. Fold the border of the pastry up around the filling, crimping as you go. Place the whole thing in the fridge for at least ½ hour.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375º. When the tart has rested at least ½ hour, sprinkle the butter chunks on top of the apples, brush the edges of the pastry with the egg wash, and sprinkle with sliced almonds. Bake for about 40 minutes, checking after 25 minutes. If the apples are getting too brown, cover the top with foil for the remainder of the time.
Chicken Apple Almond Tart
Carolyn says, “I use Mary’s air-chilled organic chicken. It has a very nice flavor, but I’ve found it does dry out more quickly than conventional chicken, so take care when cooking. I cut it up into pieces and poach it with herbs and a carrot or two. After cooling and shredding the meat, I return the bones to the pot, adding an onion (skins and all), another carrot, some celery, and some parsley stems to make the stock. If you do this the day before, you’re set.”
1 whole chicken, cooked and shredded
½–1 cup chicken stock
½ cup dry white wine (optional)
2 Mutsu apples, peeled, cored, and thickly diced
1 cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted
1 onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon honey
About 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, washed and chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil, for sautéing
½ recipe whole-wheat puff pastry (see above)
Egg wash, as above
½ cup sliced almonds to garnish
Roll out puff pastry to a 10-inch circle (as above) and refrigerate while you make the filling.
Sauté the onion in olive oil until softened. Add apples, cinnamon, garlic, and ¼ teaspoon salt. Sauté about 5 minutes or until just golden. Add the chicken, ½ cup stock, wine (if using), and honey. Sauté another 5 to 10 minutes to combine. Cool and add the almonds and parsley. Adjust seasonings, adding pepper and more salt to taste. If the filling seems dry, add another ½ cup stock. You want it moist, but not soupy. Allow filling to cool completely before continuing.
Mound filling on the middle of the pastry, leaving at a least 2 inches of border. Fold the pastry up around the filling, crimping the edges. Refrigerate ½ hour, while preheating the oven to 375º. Brush the outside of the pastry with egg wash, sprinkle with the sliced almonds, and bake approximately 30 to 35 minutes. Watch the filling. If it looks dry, cover with foil for the remainder of baking.