Think Like a Chef

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By Jason Shriner, The Aubergine Chef

Have you ever wondered how a chef develops a new recipe? Here are some tips on recipe development explained using my famous peanut butter pie as an example.

 When you slice into the pie you can see the distinctive layers of chocolate, peanut butter, and whipped cream. Photo Credit: Jason Shriner

When you slice into the pie you can see the distinctive layers of chocolate, peanut butter, and whipped cream. Photo Credit: Jason Shriner

I used to work for a grocery store and one of my favorite items there was a peanut butter pie. It had a chocolate cookie crust, a layer of chocolate pastry cream, a layer of peanut butter mousse, and was topped with whipped cream. After I left to do my own thing, I decided I wanted to have a peanut butter pie recipe of my own. I searched online for a simple peanut butter mousse recipe and combined it with three other reliable recipes I already had. But I didn’t want to just recreate their pie. I wanted my own version.

The first step to making unique recipes is to realize that there are only so many techniques and so many ingredient combinations–especially with baking. Start with a reliable recipe you like and tweak it. I wanted my pastry cream layer to be softer, like pudding, so I reduced the amount of cornstarch. Be prepared to experiment and to fail. Each failure is a step closer to success. Keep in mind, simpler recipes are easier to adjust.

Stop using generic ingredients everybody uses. Use the gluten-free platform as an opportunity to experiment and learn about flour substitutes. When I make my peanut butter pie for friends and family I use Toblerone instead of chocolate chips, and I use Chocolate Teddy Grahams instead of Oreos for the crust. The results are amazing and are some of the easier substitutions to make.

Know your ingredients. You’d be surprised what products contain additives, and they affect your recipes. The best example is ketchup. Try using organic ketchup just once and I bet you’ll never go back to regular. For the pie, I use all-natural peanut butter. Regular peanut butter often has shortening added to it to help keep the peanut oil emulsified with the solids. That shortening leaves a pasty feel in the mouth that’s especially apparent in desserts served cold.

So there’s the big secret: Start with a reliable recipe, substitute different items, and understand your ingredients. When you read through the recipe below, think about ways you can change or improve it and you’re on your way to thinking like a chef.


Jason Shriner owns the baking & pastry blog The Aubergine Chef, which contains free videos and recipes. He also teaches baking classes at the Manassas Park Community Center. You can visit his blog at


Cookie Crumb Crust

Makes enough for one 9” or 10” pie

1 cup + 3 tablespoons cookie crumbs (e.g., graham crackers, vanilla wafers, Oreo crumbs)

2 – 4 tablespoons (Up to 2 ounces) unsalted butter, melted but not hot

½ – 1 egg white (About 1 – 2 tablespoons)


1. Combine crumbs, half the butter, and the egg whites and mix well with your hands. The crumbs should be damp and when gently squeezed the crumbs should form a ball that holds its shape. If needed, add the remaining butter. The crumbs should not be wet and dripping.

2. Press the crumbs into the pie shell. Start by pressing them against the bottom of the pan pushing outwards to the sides. The bottom layer should be thin and even. Then press the crumbs along the sides of the pan using your thumb to create the top edge. Be sure to check the corner of the pie pan – it should be pressed down as well.

3. Bake the crust at 375 degrees for about 8 minutes. The crust should be somewhat soft to touch but solid.

4. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely. The crust should now feel like a solid cookie and should not crumble easily.

Chocolate Pastry Cream

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 cup + 2 tablespoons whole milk

1 whole egg

4 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 ounces chocolate (about 1/3 cup chocolate chips)


1. Place milk and 1⁄2 of the sugar in a pot. Bring to a boil.

2. Whisk together the remaining sugar and cornstarch. Then whisk in the egg.

3. Slowly add the hot milk to the egg slurry while continuously whisking. Pour the tempered egg back into the pot.

4. Reduce heat to medium-high. Bring to a second boil and boil for 1-3 minutes.

5. Take off of the stove and whisk in the vanilla extract, chocolate, and butter. Whisk until completely melted and uniform.

6. Pour into the 9” or 10” cookie crust and spread evenly. Refrigerate until cool, approximately one hour.


Peanut Butter Mousse

1 cup heavy cream

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

½ cup powdered sugar, sifted

5 ounces peanut butter (a little more than ½ cup)

2 tablespoons whole milk

1 ½ ounces cream cheese


1. Whip the heavy cream and vanilla extract on an electric mixer to soft peaks. Set aside.

2. In the same bowl combine powdered sugar, peanut butter, milk and cream cheese, and mix together with a paddle attachment.

3. Remove from mixer, and using a rubber spatula, take a scoop of whipped cream and mix it into the peanut butter mixture to lighten it.

4. Add the remaining whipped cream and fold until mixed well.

5. Pour mousse on top of the cooled chocolate pastry cream.


Chantilly Cream

1 2/3 cups heavy cream

3 tablespoons powdered sugar, sifted

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

About ¼ cup toffee pieces


1. Combine all ingredients, except toffee, in a mixer and whip until soft-medium peaks.

2. Pipe or smooth Chantilly on top of pie. Sprinkle toffee pieces on top.

3. Refrigerate for an hour to allow ingredients to firm up for clean slices.


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