How to make a pie to die for: "Dappled" author Nicole Rucker on building brilliant desserts

The brains behind the "best" lime pie in the world tells all

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published July 25, 2019 6:00PM (EDT)


In the Broadway musical "Waitress," there's a recurring refrain of, "Sugar, butter, flour." But in a world where all three are becoming increasingly vilified, what happens to pie? Nicole Rucker is bringing the sweetness back. The chef and the owner of the Los Angeles restaurant Fiona has a debut cookbook out now called "Dappled: Baking Recipes for Fruit Lovers." She joined us for a "Salon Talks" recently to offer some motivation to save room for dessert.

We are in this moment of "I quit sugar." Anything to do with gluten or your basic fats, your butter is monstrous. At the same time, we never stop losing our love of those things. We never stop losing our love of dessert and that beautiful sweet, elegant thing in the morning or at the end of a meal. What is it about the push and pull, the tension of the forbidden and what's comforting and sweet?

I think, for my customer base and what I've experienced, it's swinging in the other direction now. A lot of those things aren't as forbidden as they were. It swung really hard in the negative direction about five years ago, but the bounce back has been pretty strong. I think that people are making room for it.

Most importantly, people are looking for high-quality versions of those things now. As those become more available and people have an option to eat something that's sweet and well-made and not as processed, they can make room in their lives for it. That's what my customers say to me. They'd rather get something that's wholesome and delicious than a trashy whatever with high processed flour and bad fats in it. But butter is back for sure.

You can have that little cookie at the end of the meal or that little scone at the beginning of the day and it's not the end of the world.

If you have a good bakery and a chef or owners who are reputable for making high-quality stuff, a lot of people do one-day cheat day. When they cheat, they cheat with something that's really good. I have friends who do Paleo and keto throughout the week, or vegan in the day and then at night they'll have something that's not vegan. My husband is pretty health conscious and he does like to have two cheat days a week, but the rest of the time he pays attention to what he eats.

Let's talk about you a little bit. You did not start out in this world of baking. You have this origin story of spending your last two dollars on a peach. That was a transformative moment for you. That really speaks to the power of baking and of the fruits that you love.

That was a good memory. I always loved baking and food and I had an interest in it. But when I was a child and when I was in high school, going to culinary school wasn't really an option, especially for women. It wasn't really a thing yet.

I was just before at that age group where people were being funneled into more creative professions like cooking and culinary school. I chose the other thing that was available, which was art school, and it got me pretty far. So I'm happy I made that decision.

We've been having this conversation about, "Have a bakery that you really trust in your neighborhood  where you know that the baked goods are going to be really good and they're going to be high quality." But this is a book for those of us who also want to bring some of that into our own kitchens and our own homes. 

Even for people who feel comfortable in the kitchen, the idea of baking and especially working with fruit feels very fussy and intimidating and hard. What's a good conduit if you want to get into this book and be someone who would have pies and buckles and scones in their life? 

You should start with appreciating fruit and learning what's ripe and eating it and trying it first. You can start with the introduction, where we talk about what ripe fruit is and how it happens. The mystery around baking and cooking with fruit is sometimes based in it's not ready yet, and so you get a lackluster result. Or it's too ripe and then you get a crappy results.

Start there. Then I think from there there are a lot of really simple recipes in the book that are easy impact on your wallet — because a lot of fruit recipes can be very expensive, especially nowadays. Good fruit is very expensive.

You talk about the fruits that are going to continue to ripen when you get home and the ones you have to get at their peak. Here's what happens when you bake with frozen fruit as opposed to fresh fruit. All of that is a consideration that you have to train yourself before you even turn the oven on.

We have to reconnect with a joy and a love for these products before we start messing them or getting into cooking with them. That being said, there are a lot of really easy recipes that are super easy to access for even someone who's never baked anything before. My husband never made a dessert ever, and he made the lime pie from the book, which is very easy and very cheap to make. He made it perfectly and I did not help. 

This is your iconic pie that, that you say kind of saved you. Can you tell a little bit of that story?

We were starting out. We had just opened the restaurant and we passed through the initial wave of press, and the holidays hit us pretty hard. We weren't thinking about making the lime pie. We were going to move on to fancier stuff and then we needed to put it into the rotation because it's a very easy pie to make and it stays really well.

We started making it during Thanksgiving, and it was a hard sell for people because it wasn't pumpkin. After the holidays, business kind of trickles usually around January. It got slower and slower. Bill Addison found us and started coming to the restaurant. He had just taken the position of one of the food reviewers for the L.A. Times and he happens to have a love of pie and a love for sweets in particular.

He loves key lime pie because he grew up with that in his household and he fell in love with the pie. He wrote the first review for the year, and his first review in his new position, on Fiona. Then we just got packed with people looking for that pie and coming to us for that. It was both good and bad because it got crazy. But people found us through that and it's wonderful.

That's the real labor of love. That recipe feels like the heart of the book. 

It's basically like making a smoothie. You don't have to cook any custard, you don't have to temper any eggs and whisk them slowly. You literally dump everything in this bowl and you put it inside this par-baked cookie crumble crust with stuff from the grocery store and bake it. There's a couple of twists in the recipe that make it a little bit more special than the traditional recipe. Most of it is more salt in the crust. That's the modern twist.

The topping is really the part that gets people, because they're expecting the topping to be really sweet whipped cream. It's sour cream with heavy cream and there's no sugar in it. It really transforms the whole pie into something that's a little bit easier to eat, more of, which is good or bad depending on who you talk to.

You really explore the tangy side of it, and you're very forward on ricotta and yogurt and sour cream and all the things that make fruit shine. You use tomatoes in their fruit form, which I've not tried. I get a little scared off at the thought of having tomatoes for dessert.

If you're a southerner, then you would recognize that dish because in the south — in South Carolina, in Georgia — there is tomato pudding that gets put on the table and it's put on the table next to savory stuff, which is really interesting. When I tried it for the first time, it is very sweet. It's like at Thanksgiving when you have sweet potato casserole with marshmallows on it at the same table as gravy and turkey. There's not that much difference between stewed tomatoes with biscuits on it and then something more appropriate for people to consider dessert.

I have had people who were really into tomatoes who have tried the recipe and they're super into it. You could also definitely serve that dish a  part of a meal with a salad and it would be totally approachable and seamless. It's very savory but also sweet, and biscuits on top are good.

What would be something that I could make, that would make me feel like a show-off? I want to entertain some guests.

The message of the book is that you should impress people by carefully choosing some fruit and wowing them with how perfect and ripe it is and doing as little as possible to it. If you really want to impress people, sometimes I find making a really good crisp or making a cobbler is a perfect way, because people are expecting something maybe a little fancier when you invite them over and then you put this rustic thing on the table.

The difference between a good crisp and a bad crisp is the guts. If the guts are made of really good fruit and you've seasoned it well and you add a little salt to it, it's really impressive. The real icing on the cake is actually cooking it properly. That's something that I think people don't get. The difference between a good baker and a novice baker is taking something all the way.

In particular it's a major fail with pie. People often don't take pie, especially fruit pie, all the way. It could be a very expensive failure if you don't take the pie all the way and the fruit doesn't actually boil inside underneath the crust. If it doesn't come to a boil inside and then you let it cool and you cut it, it's going to just leak out everywhere. It's going to be like soup, and then you lost $30 on berries and all that time. It'll still taste good. But if it's seasoned and ripe and perfect and then you don't take it all the way, it might end up being kind of a flop.

I want to ask you one more question. You talked about like making the great crisps, crumbles, buckles, Bettys, cobblers. What's the difference?

Crisp, cobblers, crumbles, and Bettys are all versions of casseroles. Casseroles are great, super approachable. A Betty technically uses old bread on top, either cubed or in breadcrumb form, which is a really old school dessert. 

A crisp and a crumble are sort of in the same thing in that they're a streusel-y sandy topping that gets thrown over fruit. It's fat and flour and sugar. Sometimes grains, sometimes oats, and that is the crisp and crumble category. If you have to break it up and put it over the top, then that is technically you're crumbling it. A cobbler can be two different things. In Texas, it's a loose cake batter, but the ratio is different than a buckle. 

A Texas-style cobbler is more fruit and less cake. Then an American style cobbler can be biscuits or cut up pieces of raw scone dough or cakey dough that gets put on the top and it stays on the surface.

There's one that's also like a cookie. What's that?

It's a pandowdy. And these are all ancient deserts.

I'm going to be able to sleep tonight, knowing what's a pandowdy. 

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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