FALMOUTH — I once took a cooking class in New York City from William Yosses, who had overseen the pastry kitchen at New York’s splendid Bouley restaurant and at the time of this class was executive pastry chef at the White House. About all I remember is a chocolate box he demonstrated that involved tempering chocolate, constructing the edible box and making something equally elaborate to fill it. It was impressive. It was glamorous. But believe me when I say that, though I am a baking fiend, I have yet to attempt that box at home, and I am 99 percent certain I never will.

Crustless Kale Pie, a dish from the Cooperative Extension’s recent Savory Harvest Pies class. Peggy Grodinsky photo

Crustless Kale Pie, a dish from the Cooperative Extension’s recent Savory Harvest Pies class. Peggy Grodinsky photo

The Cumberland County Cooperative Extension class on Savory Harvest Pies in late November was about as far from that Yosses class as a flea is from an elephant. The pie class, one in a series called “From Scratch: Your Maine Kitchen,” was all about practical, accessible recipes that a cook could make for her family and friends. I say “her” because, of the seven people signed up for the class, exactly seven of them were women.

For two hours, we sat at rectangular tables facing the sensible-looking slate blue and dark wood kitchen, where Extension educator Kathy Savoie stood, surrounded by bowls of neatly measured ingredients, what the French call mise en place: bowls of shredded cheese, sliced mushrooms, chopped onions and the like. Savoie, a reassuring and friendly presence, demonstrated recipes for Savory Pesto Cheesecake, Crustless Kale Pie, Dilly Carrot Pie with Nut Crust and Mushroom-and-Sour Cream Pie with Root Vegetable Crust; copies of each recipe let us follow along as she cooked.

Just once, Savoie invited students up to the six-burner stove, in that case to swirl pesto into savory cheesecake – she had no takers; other than that, we watched, listened, asked questions and (eventually) ate pie. A lot of pie.

Savoie had prepared and rolled the (varied and unusual) crusts ahead of time, so this was not a place to learn the toughest challenge of would-be pie-bakers: how to make and shape a good crust. When Savoie asked if we had questions regarding crust, one student dismissed the whole business out of hand: “You have to pick your battles, and I gave up on pie crusts,” Milton Township resident Lynne Billings said. “I go to the store.”

I doubt Savoie had a problem with that. Her consistent takeaway was to make these recipes adapt to her students’ lives, not the other way around: If you don’t have walnuts, use almonds. If you don’t have kale, use spinach. If you’re watching your weight, replace the sour cream with yogurt. “I am one of those cooks who tends to use what’s on hand,” she said.

Competent cooks, Savoie among them, know a lot of small tricks that can make a good dish a better one. White turnips cook faster than yellow, she told us; dairy ingredients really must be at room temperature before you start baking; finished pies need to set up for a few minutes before you slice them.

We ignored that last piece of advice. The clock was ticking. We sampled pie and traded cooking tales. Then we carried home leftovers in sweet pink boxes, courtesy of Portland’s East End Cupcakes. Not chocolate boxes, no, but adorable nonetheless.

UNIVERSITY OF MAINE COOPERATIVE EXTENSION. Various cooking classes offered around the state, from food preservation to cooking for crowds to Maine Bean “Suppah.” Prices vary (Savory Harvest Pies cost $40). extension.umaine.edu.

Maine Cooperative Extension Savory Pesto Cheesecake

Cooperative Extension educator Kathy Savoie says she often makes this cheesecake in mini muffin tins for party hors d’oeuvres. You can use the classic basil-pine nut pesto or any pesto variation. It’s important that the cream cheese be at room temperature. “If you have ever mixed up cream cheese where it has not been at room temperature, you know what I’m talking about,” Savoie told her students in a Savory Harvest Pies class.

Serves 8


1 cup cracker crumbs

1/2 cup walnuts, crushed

1 tablespoon butter


3 eggs, at room temperature

1 pound ricotta cheese, at room temperature

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, at room temperature

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

2/3 cup prepared pesto, store-bought or homemade

Salt and pepper, to taste

To make the crust, preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Combine the cracker crumbs, walnuts and butter. Press evenly in the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch pie pan. Bake for 10 minutes.

To make the filling, beat the eggs in an electric mixer or a food processor, then add the ricotta. Continue beating and add the cream cheese and flour. Mix in half the pesto. Taste and season with salt and pepper if necessary.

Pour the filling over the prepared crust (use a pastry bag to divvy up among mini muffin tins). Using a butter knife, swirl the remaining pesto into the cheesecake to make pretty patterns. (Use a toothpick to make the swirls in the mini savory cheesecakes.) Bake for 1 hour or until slightly golden in color (or 20 to 25 minutes for the mini cheesecakes). Let the large cheesecake set up at least 15 minutes before you slice and eat it.