Tom Frerotte is a pie guy
Beginning as a bakery apprentice at the age of 15, Frerotte has been mixing, kneading, rolling, filling, crimping and topping for more than half of his life. And his love for pie didn’t diminish, even a crumb, even after he and his wife opened an Asian restaurant in Winchester, Va.
It may seem odd, even clashing. But diners at Chop Stick Caf know to leave room after their Three-Spice Fish, Pnang Curry, Dragon Rolls, dumplings, noodles and sushi, for key lime pie with a crust of toasted graham cracker crumbs and almonds.
This is fusion of the most original sort: not just East meeting West, but Thailand meeting North Carolina.
As the youngest of seven children, Frerotte learned to bake from his mother. “My mom was from Riedsville, N.C., a tobacco farm town,” he said. She cooked with fruits and vegetables fresh from the garden, and made her pie crusts with lard, a fat that Frerotte still sometimes employs.
At 15, Frerotte began working summers for the British Bakery in McLean, Va., mixing dough and “learning how to proof dough,” he said. His crusts enfolded meat and sausage pies.
“They liked me because I had the basic skills I learned from my mother,” he said.
For Frerotte, making pie is about “building flavors,” he said. “What will work with what. What won’t break it down.” His menu of pies includes several he invented.
Frerotte’s basic pie begins with the crumb crust, which he grinds in a food processor. “Almonds are by far the best with fruits,” he said.
For his lime pie, Frerotte begins with bags of tiny key limes, each about the size of a walnut. First, he zests them, then pummels the limes with the paddle attachment in his stand mixer. He says that makes them give up their juice more easily. An entire bag of key limes will yield about a cup of juice, Frerotte said.
Frerotte uses a hand press to juice the limes.”Your hands are stained green the whole day,” he said.
First, he tried a garlic press to juice the limes, and for a short while, he used an antique screw press used to juice grapes for wine. Frerotte was searching for the quickest way to extract juice from the fruits.
No matter the method, juicing the tiny limes is time consuming and leads to aching hands. But Frerotte says he can taste the difference between fresh and bottled juice in a pie. And he won’t compromise.
Or maybe he’s making his signature lemon-pear pie, or a cherry-vanilla almond crunch pie. Or, perhaps some of Frerotte’s poppers, tiny cream-fruit tarts baked in a muffin tin. Sometimes, there are cobblers, and for the holidays, Frerotte offers the traditionals: pecan, apple, pumpkin and sweet potato pies.
For his pumpkin pies, Frerotte starts with fresh, whole pumpkins, which he will steam. No canned fruit for him.
“Everybody talks about complex flavors,” Frerotte said. “I like true flavors the best. I like to capture the essence.”
For some recipes, Frerotte will reduce berries to a strained essence. “I want that full berry flavor,” he said. He likes to balance sour fruits with the thick sweetness of sweetened condensed milk, one of his go-to ingredients. Frerotte is also working on gluten-free versions of his treats.
These days, Frerotte’s pies leave the restaurant in bulk. Customers are ordering trays of poppers nearly as fast as Frerotte can make them.
“I’m baking so many pies that I’ve had to restructure how I do it,” he said. “People buy the poppers by the tray now.”