A Dora Pies Leads a Dessert Throwback Renaissance
Old-school sweets are enjoying an East Bay renaissance.
A Dora’s Eric Rocher makes an apple-lemon pie, a rustic American beauty.
Pies by Lori Eanes
Watching pastry chef Eric Rocher pleat a raw pie crust at Berkeley’s A Dora Pies, one hand flying around the pan’s rim while making neat, nearly identical tucks, is hypnotic.
“It’s perfect!” exclaims a customer, pausing mid-purchase to gaze.
“Oh, no,” argues Rocher, a former Chez Panisse pastry chef. “It’s a pie. Pies are rustic. They don’t need to be perfect.”
Old-school desserts such as Rocher’s beautifully basic and basically beautiful apple, pecan, and lemon meringue pies aren’t making a comeback, because they never went away. But the raging respect with which such sweets are being re-embraced constitutes a renaissance.
A Dora opened last fall, as did Stateside Bakery in the Elmwood, where Kate McEachern—founder of the pioneering CupKates trucks—bakes natural, noncorporate versions of Twinkies, Pop-Tarts, Moon Pies, Oreos, and other nostalgic sweets. Meanwhile, Straus Family Creamery organic ice cream informs the knock-down-drag-out-dreamy milkshakes at Lafayette’s Roam Artisanal Burgers. Banana splits are popular at Oakland’s Chop Bar. Rice Krispies squares sell well at Peet’s Coffee & Tea. Oakland’s Donut Savant is hipster heaven, as is Doughnut Dolly, whose second location opened in Berkeley last summer.
“People love milkshakes for the nostalgic value,” for memories of “summer vacations and good times spent with friends and family year round,” says Roam’s co-owner Joshua Spiegelman. Made in such flavors as salted caramel, Blue Bottle coffee and Mint Chip, Roam’s hand-spun shakes can be ordered topped with brûléed marshmallows to deepen the retro feel.
Classic desserts “provide a sense of comfort, a taste of childhood, and home,” muses Rocher, whose aromatic American-style pies don’t exactly evoke his childhood in Normandy, where the closest equivalent are large tarts made with thick slabs of that region’s renowned apples, “usually baked in a wood-burning oven.”
He baked his first of these at age 5, “with my mother, an amazing home chef.”
“At that age I was already in love with food. That tart we made might not have been up to Chez Panisse standards, but I remember it vividly.”
After apprenticing with a French chef, agricultural-school grad Rocher “was lucky enough to get a job at Chez Panisse, whose emphasis on galettes and tarts is so classic, so retro.”
That emphasis pervades A Dora Pies, lovingly named after matriarchs in the families of co-owners Jess Steeve and Christopher Blue; Rocher also prevails at their Fourth Street ice creamery, Chocolatier Blue Parlor.
He uses only house-squeezed lemon juice, house-sliced apples, and house-roasted pumpkin: no canned or frozen fruit, no readymade purées.
Each A Dora apple pie contains seven to nine fruits. Maple syrup and molasses render Rocher’s pecan pies delicately caramelly, not overly sweet. Rocher eagerly anticipates making seasonal fruit pies: In spring, “Monterey Market always gets amazing rhubarb.”
And his dough? Crafted with rich organic butter, as classic as it comes.
“I always work it by hand, getting a feel for its temperature, and making sure that my flour is incorporated into it, but not too much. I almost massage it.”
Maybe our grandmothers were right about at least one thing: dessert.
“I personally prefer a good slice of apple pie to some fancy complex dessert that involves 20 different sauces,” Rocher attests. With fancy newfangled sweets, “it’s all about the complexity, but with the pie, it’s all about the experience.”