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Ahead of first book, Casserole Queens talk Bobby Flay, making it in the food biz

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com
Crystal Cook, left, and Sandy Pollock pose in front of a large collection of aprons at Cook's home.

Just as June Cleaver made putting dinner on the table look easier than it is, Austin's Casserole Queens, who are known for wearing dresses inspired by the 1950s character, do the same with running a food business.

Crystal Cook and Sandy Pollock met a decade ago when they were working at the same marketing agency, and about five years ago, over margaritas at Opal Divine's, they came up with the idea for a casserole delivery business with one big, memorable hook: They'd dress up in vintage outfits, pearls and heels when they delivered the dishes.

"We have a whole new level of respect for entrepreneurs because at the core, neither of us are," Cook says. "We were marketers, so we knew how to make ourselves look good on paper." Everything else, they've had to figure out through "trial and freaking error," as Pollock puts it, and there's still a lot of unknowns.

Both Cook and Pollock still work full-time marketing jobs, even as they prepare to go on a multistate book tour to promote their first book, "The Casserole Queens Cookbook" (Clarkson Potter, $17.99), which comes out this week and is already in its second printing. "It isn't easy," says Pollock. "We aren't living off this, and it's a work in process every single day."

In fact, when producers with "Throwdown with Bobby Flay" on the Food Network asked them to go head-to-head in an episode featuring a chicken pot pie challenge, they were on the verge of putting the business on hiatus. "I was moving (to Washington, D.C. with longtime boyfriend Michael Lovitt) and Crystal was going through life stuff, and we thought, 'Now maybe isn't the time for us,' " Pollock says. "But once they called, we shot the episode two weeks later."

Ever since, it has felt at times like they are hanging on by their apron strings. "Once it hit the Food Network, oh lord. It was insanity," Pollock says. After the "Throwdown" episode premiered, an agent approached them about doing a book, and within a year, four publishing houses were bidding on their first cookbook.

In many ways, Pollock and Cook got lucky, but they credit a lot of their success with strong branding, which many food startups underestimate. When they were first getting started, they knew they weren't just selling dinner; they were selling an idea. "The 1950s represents a simpler time," Pollock says. "Subconsciously, I think that's what draws people. When life is so crazy, casseroles make people think they have a nuclear unit."

They aren't sure what the formula looks like — cookbooks, casserole delivery, retail, television or some mix therein — for them to take Casserole Queens to the next level, especially in this economy. "It's terrifying to grow and not know exactly where you're growing," Pollock says. In coming months, they'll hit up a book festival in Georgia and book-signing events in more than a dozen states, and then head to the QVC headquarters in Pennsylvania, where they'll go through the training required to pitch the book on the cable shopping channel. They are also hoping to hear back from the Cooking Channel and the Food Network about what will happen with the pilot they shot last winter. "They like us, but they don't know what to do with us," Cook says.

Every time their "Throwdown" episode airs, Pollock and Cook are inundated with queries from people who are looking to start their own food business. "It's people looking to provide for their families," Cook says. "We hear all kinds of stories, some of them heartbreaking. We can hear desperation in their voices."

Friendships don't always survive business ventures, but theirs has. Cook wells up when asked what it's like with Pollock splitting her time between Austin and D.C. "We're way better together than we are apart," Pollock says. She knows it sounds cheesy, but they even share a birthday.

The irony isn't lost on them that they dress up like June Cleaver, but they are entrepreneurs running a quickly growing business. "We have a lot of momentum right now, but the trick is to capture that, and that's what scares ... me," Pollock says. "What if we don't?"

What they do know is that they don't want to lose the connection with customers who've grown to love their food and personalities. "We hear the most incredible stories," Pollock says, recalling a woman who'd arranged a delivery for her sister who had just lost her husband. "When she opened the door, she just lost it. She was such a big fan. It meant so much to her. I sat with her for probably 30 minutes. It's a gift for us to do that."

Putting love and care into the food they serve is what they are trying to inspire home cooks to do with this new book, which includes the recipe for the chicken pot pie that lost out to Flay's on the show. They know that not everyone will have the time to make cream of mushroom chicken from scratch, but they offer recipes and tips that both experienced and novice cooks can use.

It will be a challenge for them to keep the simplicity they tout in the book in mind as they go through the whirlwind of the next few months. They were in New York this week for an appearance on the "Today" show on Tuesday , but they'll be back in Austin for a BookPeople event at 7 p.m. Thursday that will feature samples of the "Idea-Generating Margaritas" that appear in the cookbook and launched this adventure in the first place.

Then it's off on a book tour and who knows what else. Cook says she's amazed at how much Casserole Queens have become part of their lives, their identities. "I couldn't imagine my life without it," she says. "I'm just trying to relish in this moment."

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

World's Greatest Chicken Pot Pie

You can use frozen vegetables in this, but if you use fresh, blanch them by placing vegetables in boiling water for about three minutes, Drain vegetables through a strainer and then plunge into ice cold water to stop from cooking further. You can also make individual servings by using 6-oz. ramekins instead of a big casserole dish. You can also use store-bought or homemade pie dough to make empanadas. Cut out circles that are 3 inches in diameter with a pastry cutter or small bowl, and place a large spoonful of filling on one half of each circle. Brush the edge of the pastry with egg wash, then fold in half to make a half-moon shape. Press the edges together firmly and crimp with a fork. Put the empanada on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes or until golden brown.

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

1 (3-lb) roasted chicken, boned and shredded

1/4 cup chopped red bell pepper

2 medium shallots, thinly sliced

3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. dried tarragon, crushed

1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

2 cups whole milk

1 cup heavy cream

1/3 cup dry white wine

11/2 cups fresh peas, blanched

11/2 cups carrots, diced and blanched

2 russet potatoes, diced and blanched

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed

Egg wash (lightly whisk together 1 whole egg and 1 tsp. water)

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In a large skillet set over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the chicken, bell pepper, and shallots, and cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. Stir in the flour, salt, tarragon, and black pepper. Add the milk and cream, and cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture is thick and bubbly, about 10 minutes. Add the wine, peas, carrots, and potatoes and stir until heated thoroughly, about 5 minutes.

Transfer the hot chicken mixture to a 9-inch-by-13-inch casserole dish. Place the puff pastry over the top of the casserole dish. Brush the edges of the puff pastry with the egg wash and press against the side of the casserole dish, then cut slits in the pastry to allow steam to escape. Brush the top of the puff pastry with egg wash—this will help the puff pastry brown evenly. Bake for about 35 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Serve immediately. Serves 8.

Cream of Mushroom Soup

1 quart chicken broth

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

1/2 cup roughly chopped leek, white parts only

1 cup roughly chopped white button mushrooms

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 tsp. dried thyme

1 bay leaf

1/2 tsp. salt, or more as needed

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed

1/2 cup heavy cream

In a large pot set over high heat, bring the broth to a boil.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan set over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the leek and mushrooms, and cook, without adding color, for 6 minutes. Sprinkle in the flour and thyme, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Let the mixture cool slightly.

Gradually whisk the hot stock into the leek and mushroom mixture, making sure to break up any lumps. Add the bay leaf and season with salt and pepper. Return the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer gently for 30 to 35 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Put the soup in batches into a blender and puree. Pass the blended soup through a fine strainer into a large saucepan. Put the soup over medium-high heat, add the cream, and return to a boil. Season to taste with more salt and pepper.

This soup can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two days. Cream-based soups do not freeze well, as they tend to separate when reheated. Makes 3 cups.

Peanut Butter Freezer Pie With Chocolate and Bananas

Cooking spray

11/2 cups vanilla wafer cookies (about 30 cookies)

11/2 cups packed light brown sugar

3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

4 oz. cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup creamy peanut butter

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

2 (8 oz.) containers frozen whipped topping, thawed

2 cups sliced banana (about 2 bananas)

1/2 cup chocolate syrup

Coat a 9-inch-by-13-inch casserole dish with cooking spray. Pulse the cookies in a food processor until finely ground. Add 1/2 cup of the brown sugar and the butter; pulse two to three times or just until combined. Press the crumb mixture into the bottom of casserole dish. Set aside.

Put the remaining 1 cup brown sugar, cream cheese, peanut butter and vanilla in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Beat at medium speed until smooth. Fold in the whipped topping.

Lay the banana slices on the prepared crust and drizzle with the chocolate syrup. Spread the peanut butter mixture over the bananas and drizzle again with the chocolate syrup. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze until frozen through, about 5 hours. Let stand at room temperature for about 10 minutes before serving. To store, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to two days. Serves 8 to 10.

— 'The Casserole Queens Cookbook,' (Clarkson Potter, $17.99)