Erika Chan is Elbow Deep in Thanksgiving Pie
The Dunsmoor pastry chef kickstarts her new pickup pie program with 60 apple, pumpkin, and pecan pies.
Photographs by David Gurzhiev
Two weeks out from Thanksgiving, Erika Chan began making big batches of pie dough. She cut butter with flour, salt, and a little bit of sugar, folded in crème fraîche, then briskly shaped the beige mixture into eight fat-flecked mounds to be chilled, rolled into footlong discs the next day, then frozen. She did this ten times over the course of 11 days to produce 80 doughs for 60 pies: 20 double-crusted apples, 20 pumpkins, and 20 pecans. Chan developed her dough recipe as the pastry chef at The Publican in Chicago with the intention that anyone could handle it easily in a commercial Hobart mixer and produce flakey, flavorful results. Currently, at Dunsmoor, however, where American heritage cuisine is cooked in a kitchen with no machines (save for one French top stove and a single plug-in oven), she mixes every batch of dough by hand. Since joining forces with chef Brian Dunsmoor in June, she’s gained significant muscle in her forearms.
Now, at the tail end of Thanksgiving prep, Chan is practically ripped. Mid-November is mayhem for bakers and pastry chefs, who devote themselves to making tens if not hundreds of pies for the many revelers who don’t want to bake their own. Preorders began the first week of November for local outfits like Baker’s Bench (170 pies in total, including a special persimmon-walnut custard number), Sasha Piligian (100 pies between apple-fig leaf crumble, sweet potato, and key lime-passionfruit), Friends & Family, and Bub and Grandma’s. Powerhouse Gjusta got ahead of the curve, taking orders over a month in advance of the holiday for their pumpkin pies and gluten-free cranberry crumbles. At Dunsmoor, Chan’s 60 Thanksgiving pies went on sale last Sunday, less than a week before Thanksgiving, meaning those slow to make moves—and who follow Dunsmoor on Instagram—were able to get lucky. Within three minutes, the apple pies were gone.
Chan was born in La Cañada Flintridge, grew up in Massachusetts, and went to Berkeley for nutritional sciences and dietetics before starting her pastry career in Boston at the fine dining institutions Menton and L’Espalier. Then, she moved to Chicago to sous for the pastry chef Dana Cree at The Publican. When Cree left to open her own ice cream shop, Chan stepped in to fill her shoes. Before ditching the Midwestern cold for sunny Los Angeles, she opened a bakery called Brite out of a coffee shop where she and a team of four made 350 pies for Thanksgiving. In 2021, she landed at Rustic Canyon.
Before ditching the Midwestern cold for sunny Los Angeles, Chan opened a bakery out of a coffee shop where she and a team of four made 350 pies for Thanksgiving.
“It was my dream job of my entire life,” Chan says. At the time, Andy Doubrava was the executive chef of the hyper-seasonal West Side institution. It was her first time in L.A. and she was stationed right by the famed Santa Monica Farmers Market, learning about fermentation and tasting new things every day. Next was Kato, where she made plated desserts for chef Jon Yao’s Taiwanese tasting menus. Now at Dunsmoor, she’s fusing her propensity for peak produce with manual techniques and a pre-Gilded Age approach to American sweets. She’s using a lot of cornstarch to make cream sauces without the eggy flavor of custard and relying on gelatin, like in a snow pudding dessert that she describes as “like whipped lemonade.” She’s reading bygone cookbooks and buying old gadgets, including a cast-iron waffle press and a vintage spatula with leaf cut-outs for making cookies. Also, she’s getting in touch with her ingredients. “I have to stand there and whip the cream, whip the egg whites,” she says. “I don’t really miss a circulator. I don’t really need a robot [coupe food processor]. There are certain things I miss, but it’s a more hands-on way to do things.”
While Chan does, at times, especially for pie, depend on Dunsmoor’s single gas-powered oven, she also uses the Glassell Park restaurant’s stunning wood oven, which anchors the dining room alongside a hearth. She sets pudding cakes in water baths, bakes cheesecakes, roasts fruits, and smokes nuts. Baking pies in the wood oven would be a finicky endeavor since highly regulated heat is necessary to avoid raw insides and burnt crusts. Still, Chan is committed to pie. “Pie is one of my favorite things ever to make of all time,” she says. She loves how a pie requires multiple components. She loves to shape pie dough. “And they’re so pretty when they come out of the oven.” For dessert at Dunsmoor, she’s served an array of inventive seasonal pie creations, from tomatillo pie with Meyer lemon curd whip to grape pie alongside brûléed grape nut pudding.
Last month, Chan quietly launched to-go pies at Dunsmoor, enabling Angelenos to order her whole pies a couple of days in advance. Her plan is to rotate flavors every three to four weeks. Apple was first, now it’s pumpkin. She’s thinking Asian pear (or standard pear) next, with sweet potato on the way. And that’s just for winter. But for the past week, her pie focus has been split between her take on the three Thanksgiving classics—so the apple, the pumpkin, and a pecan, too.
Last Saturday, Chan made her final batch of eight pie doughs, incorporating Rouge de Bordeaux wheat flour from Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project. (For the pumpkin pies, she used their spelt flour, and for her pecan pies, rye.) All in all, she wielded 12,093 grams of flour (approximately 100 cups), 11,860 grams of butter (about 105 sticks), and 5,349 grams of crème fraîche (~23 cups). As orders rolled in on Sunday, she began pressing pie shells into aluminum pans, confidently crimping the edges, and by Monday afternoon, she was toasting pecans from Peacock Farms (5,000 grams, or well over 40 cups), browning butter, and cooking 7,000 grams worth (around 30 cups) of pumpkin puree made of Laubacher Farms’ Musquee De Provence pumpkins roasted in the wood oven with nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and grated fresh ginger. She weighed down the crusts of her pumpkin pies (to circumvent soggy bottoms) with parchment paper and sugar, then blind-baked them eight at a time—four pies per two sheet trays—in the oven. She sliced 30 pounds of heirloom apples, a blend of six tart varieties from Cirone Farms, and made apple jelly with the peels and cores. Then, she cooked down half of the apples with the jelly, brown sugar, and lemon juice, mixed in brown butter and cornstarch, and melded them with the other half of uncooked slices. “I wanted it to taste like straight apple,” says Chan, which is why her apple pie filling contains no spices, not even cinnamon.
Exhausted yet? This is all before Tuesday, also known as the biggest bake day of the year.
By late Tuesday morning, all of Chan’s components were ready to be compiled into pies and baked off. Her spiced pumpkin puree was finished after adding 3,000 grams of sweetened condensed milk, half that amount of crème fraîche, and about 44 eggs. As was her pumpkin caramel, made of caramelized sugar deglazed with more pumpkin, to be layered thinly between the spelt-flavored crust and the custard. All of her pecan pie filling, comprised of 3,404 grams of brown sugar (~18 cups) and the same amount of glucose, plus about 4 cups of brown butter and more than 50 eggs, was made. She cut the top doughs for her apple pies into strips and made lattices, utilizing a variety of styles to save herself from the tedious monotony of pie upon pie upon pie, and sprinkled them with demerara sugar (“the key to crispiness.”) Finally, she baked, and she baked, and she baked.
Right now, on the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the 60 owners of Chan’s apple, pumpkin, and pecan pies are stopping by Dunsmoor to claim what’s theirs. Meanwhile, Chan is on her way to Northern California to have Thanksgiving with her family. She’ll bake a couple more pies to fill the gaps between what her grandmother and sister, who also love to bake, decide to make. There will be way too much food, including all the American classics, at least one Chinese dish, and a bountiful dessert spread. For someone who just made 60+ pies, you’d think Chan would be tired of Thanksgiving already, but nope. “I think it’s the best holiday,” she says.
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