Words by Rebecca Powers, The Washington Post
Karin Pfeiff-Boschek makes three pies each week, posts pictures of them on Instagram and then gives most of them away to friends and charities. Her online pastry portfolio routinely garners thousands of “like” clicks and fan comments. That’s no surprise, given the stunning appeal of her dough decorations. Her creations, which she says must look good both pre- and post-baked, are embellished with intricate patterns of cutouts and edible appliqués.
The result is a culinary theater-in-the-round, starring a butter-pastry cascade of rosettes, hearts, leaves, vines, berries, braids, stars, paisley, perforations, diamonds and dots.
She also produces square and rectangular slab pies, a concept partly spurred by Pi Day (in March, when the date 3/14 matches the mathematical ratio) and the formula Pi r squared.
Her kitchen repertoire, like that of most households, reflects family traditions. The photogenic pastries are a marital merger combining Pfeiff-Boschek’s background in textile design with a bit of apple-pie influence from the American Midwest. Her husband, northern Indiana native Bruce Boschek, moved to Germany in the 1960s to study for his PhD. He brought with him lessons in making pie from his mother, who was an award-winning baker.
“I always liked his apple, rhubarb, pumpkin or blueberry pies,” Pfeiff-Boschek writes in English via email. “At some point, I thought the top crust would offer a good canvas for artistic creation.”
She, herself, learned to bake from her mother and grandmothers when she was a girl at home in central Germany. Now at the age of “60+,” Pfeiff-Boschek recalls that “cakes were not so interesting because there are many fantastic cake decorators” in her country, whereas pie decoration was “virtually unknown.” Both cakes and pies have their place, Pfeiff-Boschek says. “I prefer cake with coffee or tea in the afternoon.”
These days, she and her husband both make good use of the generous kitchen in the former abbey where they live in Antrifttal, northeast of Frankfurt. Her pleasure in the pies is less about the fillings than it is about developing a pleasing design: “I treat the dough as a sculptor treats the marble – perhaps not quite as violently.”
Pfeiff-Boschek’s first serious decorative effort was in September 2016. A year later, she attracted high-profile Instagram praise from Martha Stewart, who said she had “turned pie-crust decorating into an art form.”
Like Stewart, Pfeiff-Boschek is a perfectionist.
“To do anything as well as possible is labor-intensive, and my aim in life is to do whatever I do as well as I can,” she says. Her sweet obsession occupies most of her personal time, meaning when she’s not working full-time as secretary to a department head at a German university.
With her husband, she also tends the large gardens around their home. Botanical influences – as well as some offbeat slices of life – find their way onto the tops of her pies. She once modeled a pie after a manhole cover.
“I find inspiration in nature, in all kinds of objects,” she says. “I do also look at graphic patterns, historical, Persian, Moorish, and find inspiration in many of those designs. The possibilities are limitless.”
At times, Pfeiff-Boschek uses the fruit filling to create the pattern, as she did with a ropelike design made from green and red apples slices left in their skins for color. (A light brushing with lemon juice keeps the fruit from yellowing, she says.) She also has experimented with color by incorporating powder made from freeze-dried blueberries to create a dramatic purple pastry.
Producing her vision is a task of almost surgical precision. Her toolbox includes 100-plus cookie cutters (some antique, others purchased on Amazon, eBay and at her local kitchen shop) and a sharp knife for freehand work.
“I use scalpels with replaceable blades because they are very sharp and thin and cut dough very smoothly and cleanly,” she says. “One could use so-called hobby knives, like the X-Acto knives used by model builders, too. The only important thing is that they are sharp and thin.”
Working atop a beechwood kitchen island, she prepares her pâte brisée pastry using a dowel-like wood rolling pin.
As she meticulously cuts and arranges, the setting is typically quiet, with her husband and their aging German shepherd mix, Andor, as companions. Occasionally, classical music plays in the background. Most often, she says, it’s “just silence, or Bruce and I discuss the decoration.”
If the top crust is relatively simple, Pfeiff-Boschek decorates it on a flat, metal disk, then cools it and slides it onto the pie.
“I often place it on the disk in the freezer for 10 or 15 minutes to make certain it’s firm enough to slide,” she says. “If it’s more complex, I put the crust on the pie and then add the decorations. It really depends on the design.”
Mixing the basic dough takes about 30 minutes, which is followed by two hours of refrigeration, Pfeiff-Boschek says. Decorating is typically a two-hour task. It can take longer, however, for more complex designs.
The top crust of a pie she titled Geometric Violet and White Waves, which involved creating a paper template and hand cutting the waves, took nearly eight hours to make – not including the time to make the dough and bake. (She filled the pie with a mix of raspberries, blackberries and blueberries.)
With time and patience, a pie can be turned into a work of art that will stun your guests when you put it on the table, she says. Presenting a sweet centerpiece is part of what she describes as her life’s emphasis on “creating beautiful surroundings, both in our home and in cooking and baking.”
That domestic devotion has included the couple’s personal labors, doing hands-on plastering and woodworking in their century-old home, where they have renovated 21 of the 22 rooms. One would think the calories burned in their various efforts would earn them a piece of pie. They don’t indulge too often.
“After some time, one actually has eaten enough pie,” she says. But when they do crave a slice, what to select from among her panoply of pastry?
“We always eat chocolate pies. But they are not my favorite to decorate.
Image: Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post
Flaky Pâte Brisée Pie Crust
2 servings pie crusts or 1 double crust for a 9-inch pie
True to its name, this is about the flakiest pie crust we have tested. Its tensile strength makes it especially good for the kind of intricate designs produced by its author, German baker and pie artist Karin Pfeiff-Boschek.
For her extremely detailed designs, she will make an extra half of this recipe, or she will double it. She prefers using a food processor, but offers a hand-blending method as well; see the VARIATION, below.
She says the amounts of flour and water listed here may need to be adjusted, because every flour brand has a different protein content and degree of hydration. However, a very small amount of water – which is carbonated in this recipe! – can make a very big difference in the consistency. Practice will get you to the right place.
MAKE AHEAD: The wrapped dough needs to be refrigerated for at least 1 hour and up to 18 hours in advance, and frozen for up to 2 weeks.
2 1/4 cups flour, or more as needed
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
7 tablespoons (1 stick minus 1 tablespoon) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 medium egg, lightly beaten
5 tablespoons ice-cold carbonated mineral water, or more as needed (may substitute non-carbonated mineral water mixed with 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar; see headnote and directions)
Few drops distilled white vinegar
Combine the flour, salt and sugar in a food processor; process until well blended.
Add the cubed butter; pulse a few times, until the butter is in pea-size pieces; better too little pulsing than too much.
Use a fork to lightly beat the egg in a liquid measuring cup, then add the cold carbonated water and vinegar and mix. (If you are using non-carbonated water, now’s the time to stir in the cream of tartar.) With the motor running, add the egg-water mixture to the food processor just until incorporated, then turn off the motor.
Carefully pinch some dough between your fingers. If it’s too dry, add a bit more water and pulse; if it’s too sticky, add a little flour. (When you’ve done this a few times, you will know how long to mix.) The process goes quickly; do not over-mix. Divide the dough in half, then wrap each portion in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, and up to 18 hours.
To blind-bake a single crust, preheat the oven to 430 degrees. Unwrap one portion of dough and roll it out between sheets of parchment paper to the desired thickness and size. Fit the dough into your pie plate, trimming as needed (scraps can be rerolled). Use the tines of a fork to dock the floor of the dough in several places.
Cover that surface with a piece of aluminum foil or parchment and fill with pie weights or dry rice. Bake on a baking sheet (middle rack) for 15 to 20 minutes, then remove the paper and rice/weights. Return to the oven and bake for 5 to 7 minutes until golden brown, or longer to the desired degree of doneness. Let cool on a wire rack before filling.
VARIATION: To form this pie crust dough using a pastry cutter, knives or your fingertips, whisk together the flour, salt and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add the cubed butter, cutting/blending it in until it forms pea-size pieces.
Use a fork to lightly beat the egg in a liquid measuring cup, then add the cold water and vinegar. (If you are using non-carbonated water, now’s the time to stir in the cream of tartar.) Use a fork to stir that egg-water mixture into the bowl, until just incorporated. Do not overwork or knead.
Feel the dough between your fingers. If it’s too dry, add a bit more water and mix; if it’s too sticky add a little flour. (Once you’ve done this a few times you’ll know how long to mix and the exact proportions for your flour.) Do not over-mix. Divide, wrap and store the dough as directed above.
Image: Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post
8 to 10 servings (makes one single-crust 9-inch pie)
Rich and easy to assemble, this pie features an easy filling and works well with either a flaky pie crust or a pressed-in crumb crust.
MAKE AHEAD: There may be some filling mixture left over. which can be poured into individual cups and served as pudding. The pie needs to set before serving; this can take up to 4 hours.
Adapted from German baker and pie artist Karin Pfeiff-Boschek.
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups whole milk
4 large egg yolks
6 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
One 9-inch single pie crust, baked and cooled (see related recipe; may substitute a chocolate-wafer or graham-cracker crumb crust)
Whipped cream, for serving
Whisk together the sugar, cornstarch and salt in a medium saucepan. Pour in the milk and egg yolks, whisking until well incorporated. Cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly until the mixture becomes thick, puddinglike and smooth. Remove from the heat. This can take 8 to 10 minutes; when large bubbles form on the surface, it should be at the right consistency.
Whisk in the chocolate, vanilla extract and butter, until smooth. Pour into the prepared pie crust; cool to room temperature until the pie sets; this can happen within an hour, then refrigerate (uncovered) until chilled.
Serve, or decorate with, whipped cream.
Features Image: Karin Pfeiff-Boschek