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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Pie à la Jersey

The Garden State’s bounty makes for simple but rewarding desserts

By ROBIN FRIEDMAN | The STAR-LEDGER | August 22, 2001

If summertime means easy livin’, can easy-as-pie pies be far behind?

With the bounty at farmers’ markets and roadside stands throughout the state, the answer is an unequivocal no.

Although this classic American dessert came to the New World with the Pilgrims, it is so much a part of the American experience now that the old expression, “American as apple pie,” has never gotten stale.

Pies provide an endless outlet for creativity, resourcefulness, flavor and enjoyment. And they truly are easy; easy to make, easy to eat. And they travel well.

In New Jersey in the summer, a freshly baked pie is a wonderful way to take advantage of the Garden’s State’s fruitful bounty — Jersey Fresh, little fuss, and oh-so-delicious.

Jamesburg resident Bob Gatarz knows this implicitly, though he came to the discipline of pie-making late in life. In 1987, Gatarz bought a home of his own, leaving the East Brunswick farm where he’d grown up with his parents and siblings.

“I always liked desserts and always loved pies,” he says. “I wasn’t at home anymore and couldn’t depend on Mom to bake for me, so I figured I better learn how to make a pie.”

Indeed, the first question Gatarz always used to ask after coming home from a day spent playing in the fields was not “Mom, what’s for dinner?” but “Mom, what’s for dessert?”

Armed with a “foolproof recipe” and a lot of cravings, Gatarz was successful at his first pie endeavor, all the way from flaky crust at the bottom to sweet filling at the top. Thus was born his insatiable passion for pies.

Today, Gatarz bakes about 15 pies every summer, taking advantage of each sweet harvest that the market brings. You could say his tastes mirror the seasons.

“When blueberries are available for two or three weeks, I use them till they come out of my ears, then they’re gone and that’s it,” he says. “Then peaches come around in July, August and September. By the time July rolls around next year, my tongue will be hanging out for peaches.”

Gatarz especially likes to prepare white peach pie, using white peaches instead of the more common yellow peaches. White peaches, he says, have a milder, more mellow taste, and provide a nice variation on the traditional summertime peach pie. When he was a child down on his parents’ farm, he used to spend a lot of time in its vast peach orchard. Out of 100 trees in the orchard, two produced white peaches. Those were the trees, of course, that most called to Gatarz to be picked and eaten.

New Jersey, Gatarz believes, is truly the place to be for pie makers in the summer.

“New Jersey has a good climate, and a very, very good supply,” he says. “The fruit that gets dragged in from California, Florida or South America never tastes the same. New Jersey seems to have the best- tasting peaches, plums, blueberries, cherries.”

Those who know the intimate pleasures of homemade pie, like Gatarz, say they can never succumb to commercially prepared alternatives. Even the high-quality products pale in comparison to a home-baked pie, they contend.

“Pies from bakeries don’t taste the same — they have a lot of guck around the fruit. I want the fruit to be the dominant flavor, not the guck around it. If I eat a peach pie, I want to taste the peaches, not the cinnamon and nutmeg. It’s okay to taste those spices as long as they complement the fruit, but they should never overpower it,” he says.

Gatarz’s cousin, Colleen Stollen of Spotswood, is another devoted pie maker who whips up at least 10 pies every summer. She even goes so far as to freeze certain fruits in order to have access to them all year long.

For instance, Stollen will freeze blueberries that her family has hand- picked themselves so she can continue to make blueberry pie after berries have disappeared from the market. She also freezes the rhubarb she grows in her own garden so she can make rhubarb pies even after the plant’s farewell.

What is Stollen’s favorite pie?

“I don’t know if I have a favorite,” she replies thoughtfully. “I really do like a lot of them. There are very few I don’t like.”

Theresa Micchelli of Freehold has been rolling out pie crust for the past 35 years. As a child, the art of pie-making was a skill she learned from her mother.

“I love sweets,” she says. “Instead of buying things, I always made things. There was always something homemade on the table on Sundays.”

Micchelli also likes the easy aspect of pie preparation. After all, when the crust is ready, pie is really all about filling the shell and baking it. No decorating, no glazing, no frosting, no unmolding, no assembling layers or cutting into squares. Additionally, pies in which the fruit requires little or no preparation — such as pitting, peeling or slicing — for example, blueberries and raspberries as opposed to, say, peaches, which require all three preparation tasks, and cherries, which need to be pitted, take hardly any time at all.

Some specialty pies, like Key lime pie and lemon meringue pie, both favorites of Micchelli, use the juices of fruits for the filling instead of the fruits themselves. These pies are also easy to prepare, mostly requiring a short list of ingredients to be mixed in one bowl or pot, then poured into the shell and baked.

But the perennial attraction of summer pies may go deeper than all that. It may, in fact, provide the reassurance that’s rarely satisfied by most things in life: You know what you’re getting.

You know when you bake a fruit pie that the fruit will not rise or fall, or change color, or taste completely different, or turn into something you hadn’t planned.

“Whereas cakes are mysterious, with pies you know what to expect,” agrees Gatarz. “The filling doesn’t change. With a cake, you slam the oven door by accident and the cake may fall.”

A pie, on the other hand, is mostly indestructible unless, of course, you burn it.

“People like pies because you don’t have to eat the cake to get to the best part — the frosting in the middle. A pie is all frosting, it’s all filling, and let’s face it, there’s nothing tastier than pie,” declares Micchelli.