It’s 4:30 a.m. when Paul Holbrook unlocks the backdoor of Stella’s Deli, flips on the kitchen light switch and prepares to make pies at the popular restaurant on Jefferson Street.
This is Wednesday, the day when Holbrook makes pie crust dough for the 12 to 15 pies he will make for customers to enjoy over the next several days.
Many home cooks find making pie crust fraught with ways to fail: too dry, too wet, too tender, too tough. It’s easier buy a pie shell ready-made at the grocery store.
Holbrook insists that making a deliciously flakey crust is not hard. The secret is “having a good recipe.” The one he has used for years was adapted from a Julia Child recipe and calls for flour, butter, a pinch of salt, a little oil, a tad of vinegar and a few tablespoonfuls of ice water.
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He simply puts all the ingredients in a Cuisinart bowl fitted with a metal blade attachment, and pushes the button. With lightening speed, voila! He has a moist dough.
Holbrook keeps the dough wrapped tightly in plastic wrap in the refrigerator. When it’s time to make pies, which he does on Mondays and Fridays, he sets the dough on a rack over the grill to come to room temperature.
Then it’s back and forth a couple of times with a rolling pin, and he fits the crust in the pie pan, flutes the edges, and he’s ready to go.
Easy as pie, he says.
Holbrook is an owner and operator of Stella’s, along with Lester Miller and Aumaine Mott. Griffin Van Meter is a silent partner and co-owner. The partners bought Stella’s in 2006 from Daryl Woolum, who opened the deli 25 years earlier.
About a year after acquiring Stella’s, they also bought Al’s Bar on North Limestone.
In addition to being a pie man extraordinaire, Holbrook is director of the King Library Press at the University of Kentucky, and a former philosophy and comparative religion professor at the university.
Stella’s dessert menu includes Kentucky pie (the Not Kentucky Derby pie), pecan, chess, lemon icebox, in-season berry pies, bread pudding and its signature pie, the Mary Porter.
Mary Porter was a Lexington artist and arts supporter, not known for her kitchen skills, who made the pie once for an Easter Sunday potluck at Gay Reading’s house on West Second Street, Holbrook recalled. Lucie Slone Meyers, owner of a la lucie and Red Light, asked for the recipe. Porter said she wasn’t sure of the ingredients because she had combined two recipes.
Porter finally came up with a recipe and gave it to Slone Meyers, who passed it along to Holbrook, who was making pies for a la lucie at the time.
In a pre-baked pie shell, he layers chocolate filling, sliced almonds, whipped cream, cream cheese and granulated sugar blended together, and toffee. That’s topped with plain whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate.
Not exactly low calorie.
“No,” Holbrook chuckled, adding that he does not eat pie. “If I did, I’d weigh 300 pounds.”
Mary Porter came to Stella’s for her 95th birthday in 2006. She had a piece of the pie and declared it delicious.
“She said she was delighted to have the pie named for her,” he said.
Holbrook came from a family of good cooks in Ashland, so he knew his way around the kitchen. Those home-taught skills were polished when he cooked his way through two theology degrees at Harvard Divinity School to pay expenses.
In the early 1970s, Harvard provided every dean with a free house to live in, and a cook, Holbrook said. The dean of the Harvard Divinity School, Krister Stendahl, advertised for a part-time cook. Holbrook was hired to do a breakfast of tea, toast and coffee for two people, plus dinner.
Many times, dinner included guests.
“We had about 200 people a month eating sometimes,” Holbrook said.
In exchange for cooking, he received room, board and tuition. “My tuition was $1,300 a semester,” he said. “The Divinity School is the cheapest school at the university, but God knows what it costs today.”
The summer before he started his cooking job, Holbrook bought both volumes of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child, and “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” and read them thoroughly.
“My theory is anybody who can read can cook,” he said.
Child lived on Irving Street in Cambridge, Mass., the next street over from Francis Avenue, where the Divinity School is located. She and Holbrook became culinary friends. He cooked for Stendahl and his wife for six years while earning two master’s degrees, in theology and divinity.
“We had a great time,” he said.
Beverly Fortune is a former Herald-Leader reporter. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul Holbrook’s never-fail pie crust recipe
½ pound of butter
4 cups flour
6 tablespoons oil
4 tablespoons vinegar
6 tablespoons ice water
Pinch of salt
Put ingredients in Cuisinart bowl with metal blade attachment.
Makes 4 pie shells.
Store dough in refrigerator wrapped in plastic wrap. Bring to room temperature to use.