DE PERE — A Pabst Blue Ribbon served with a free slice of Belgian pie.
Patrons at Jean and Ray’s Bar in Brussels could order a PBR all year. The slice of pie was a limited time offer.
As a child, Gina Guth helped her mom make a couple of hundred pies for customers at the bar owned and operated by her parents, Jean and Ray Guth. For Jean — a full-blooded Belgian who spoke Walloon fluently — making the pies also carried on one of the traditions that Belgian immigrants brought to Door County.
Gina grew up to raise a family of her own and worked other jobs for more than 40 years before turning her childhood years of Belgian pie making and her mother’s recipes into a fulltime business. In 2017 she opened The Flour Pot, a home-based business focused on cooking demonstration and classes with a side of floral arranging.
In 2021, The Flour Pot went from home-based to permanent home when Gina opened her cooking studio and small retail space next to The Abbey Bar in De Pere. There’s more than just Belgian pies here, but those are the treats where it really began.
What the heck is a Belgian pie?
A Belgian pie is like a super-sized Danish consisting of a sweet dough crust filled with fruit, raisin custard or rice pudding and topped by a sweetened cottage cheese mixture or whipped cream.
Traditional fruit fillings were apple and prune. Before pitying past generations for thinking that prunes topped by cottage cheese was a special dessert, try it. The cottage cheese topping is blended smooth with the addition of an egg and sugar to form a lighter version of cream cheese. Prune’s uber-sweetness comes from dehydrated plums. It’s sweeter than apple or cherry filled pies.
Still, prune gets a bad rap. Even with the chance to make two pies, it’s rare that Gina’s students risk filling one with prune.
“No one ever picks prune when I do my classes, so I make a prune,” she said. “I say I’m going to give you a little sliver and I’m not going to be offended if you spit it out. Nine times out of 10 they’ll go, ‘Oh my god, I really like that.'”
Her job was to pit the prunes
Her mother, Jean, baked hundreds of pies — eight at a time — in the family’s oven. If Gina hadn’t been there, she wouldn’t have believed it possible to make that many pies in her childhood home.
Her job was to pit the prunes. Prunes were then pureed in a grinder — cranked by hand. When it was time to make the cheese topping, the wet and dry cottage cheese was also cranked through the grinder.
Without food processors and stand mixers, it took a week to make all those pies even with help from the Guth children and several women from the neighborhood. Work started on Monday with peeling apples and pitting and pureeing prunes for the fillings that would be stored in the bar’s beer cooler until needed.
Working in batches big enough to make crusts for 30 to 40 pies, the sweet dough was mixed by hand in a large bowl. The women assisting Jean pressed the dough into pie tins then filled and topped each pie. If the work didn’t pass Jean’s inspection, it didn’t get made.
Gina said her mom kept a vigilant eye on the baking process. It required baking pies for about 10 minutes on the lowest rack in the oven before moving them to the top rack for another 10 minutes. The kids helped by moving cooled pies from tins to racks so the pie tins could be refilled.
Inevitably there would be some leftover dough, Gina said.
“Mom would send us over to Marchant’s (Foods) and we’d get a can of cherry pie filling and we’d use up the rest of the dough,” she said. “That’s kind of how the cherry was born.”
When leading a Belgian pie class, Gina doesn’t send students to the store to buy pie filling. She teaches how to make cherry filling. Same with apple, rice and raisin custard.
Then comes the lesson on making the cottage cheese topping with the added step of squeezing moisture from half the curds that will be combined with wet curds, egg yolks and sugar, and blended smooth.
There was a time when dry cottage cheese was widely available. Cottage cheese likely became the topping of choice, Gina said, because farmers made it and had it in abundance. Same for the traditional fillings.
While she holds true to the cheese toppings and her mother’s recipes, she’s not above using modern conveniences like a food processor. She also shares cooking hacks learned through decades of experience like how to turn an oven into a dough proofer or use an empty plastic bottle to separate egg yolks.
While the Belgian pies are easier to make, they’re still like the ones her mom baked, cooled and bagged to be carted off in a peach crate that Gina’s uncle had converted into a pie carrier.
Gina still has the pie carrier, mixing bowl, pie tins and grinder. They’re in the retail section of The Flour Pot, arranged around a framed Door County Advocate article about her mom and her Belgian pies.
After raising a family and two careers later, Belgian pies became a focus
Jean died in 1981, when Gina was in her early 20s. Raising four children, working as a hairdresser for 30 years and then spending 11 years as director of the Family Centers of Door County didn’t leave much time for Gina to carry on her mom’s Belgian pie making tradition. At least in great volume.
That changed after baking Belgian pies for a Family Centers fundraiser. The pies sparked interest from people who — after tasting them — wanted to learn how to make them, Gina said.
When the Family Centers of Door County announced its closing in 2015, Gina was again looking for full-time work.
She launched The Flour Pot using shared kitchens for her in-person cooking classes. She devised a class that she taught at the NWTC campus in Sturgeon Bay. Then St. Norbert College asked her to teach a Belgian pie class as part of its community outreach program.
In her Belgian pie class, everybody gets their hands in the dough.
“I want people to experience what that feels like because it’s a different dough than your regular pie crust,” she said. “It’s a pastry, it’s very soft and malleable.”
COVID-19 took away and provided opportunities
The hands-on nature of the classes required a lot of hauling of ingredients and equipment that was not available in the kitchens.
The pandemic canceled her classes, effectively shutting down her growing business. She used the downtime to make a couple of big changes.
First she moved from her home in Sturgeon Bay to Green Bay to be closer to family. Then she decided The Flour Pot should have a permanent space for classes after the pandemic passed.
Her cousin Kerry Counard who owns The Abbey Bar in De Pere had space available in the building next to the bar.
Gina applied for grants and started renovations in November. In between transforming the space into a cooking studio, she began teaching classes online.
Those classes have been be boon, allowing Gina to reach a larger audience. Home cooks from North Carolina to Arizona have logged in to learn how to make more than just Belgian pies.
The Flour Pot held its first in-person class June 5. Students learned to make Czech kolaches. Since then Gina has taught in person and online classes for cherry strudel, Danish kringle, cheesecake and, of course, Belgian pies.
Meanwhile Tanya Eland, another cook with years of practical experience, has taught a series of in-person cooking classes at the The Flour Pot for kids ages 8 and older. Some of the foods kids have made include pizzas, walking tacos and strawberry salsa. Parents are welcome to watch from a viewing area.
Working with other chefs and hosting private classes (in person or online) are part of The Flour Pot’s options. And Gina’s not sticking to just sweets. You can learn to make her chicken pot pie, and she said there’s a corporate team building session on making pizza scheduled.
“If I don’t how to make it, I’ll find someone to teach the class,” she said.
Work stations for in-person classes include all the equipment and ingredients needed to make the food.
Still, the Belgian pie classes have an extra personal touch. While waiting for the dough to rise during these classes, Gina rolls out a monitor hooked up to her computer for a slideshow history of this traditional treat. It includes a photo of her mother and the newspaper clipping.
“Doing this is more than a passion to carry on the tradition,” Gina said. “It’s a connection that I have with her (Jean) because I think that she would be happy that I’m doing this.”
About The Flour Pot
What: A cooking studio teaching classes for adults and kids. In person and online classes open to the public but private classes can be scheduled. A small retail space sells floral arrangements, home decor and some home made treats. Orders accepted for bakery items.
Where: 307 Reid St., De Pere.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and by appointment.