Thursday, July 5, 2012

Judgement Day

Despite sweltering heat, the competition at the Fourth of July Pie Bake-off was fierce.

There were at least ten pies in every category and each one looked more delicious than the last. I looked around and felt a little embarrassed that my pies were so under dressed.

Some bakers used props to help with presentation. An Earl Gray Pie (whatever the hell that is) sat primly on a silver platter with a pretty china tea cup and silver spoon. Many pies rested on festive Fourth of July place mats. And some were decorated with edible American flags, a mixture of food coloring and frosting, a creative, but not quite appetizing presentation. (Frosting on pie?)

A frothy banana cream pie even had a tiny American flag on a toothpick, sticking out of the middle.

I was awestruck by a handful of pies' intricate lattice crusts. They were stunning really. Green with envy, I secretly hoped they were under baked and tasteless.

As I placed my rather plain-looking pies next to those beauty queens, I began to regret having trash-talked quite so much. I was in way over my head and as more of my friends and family arrived for moral support, I wanted to crawl under my folding chair and disappear.

One of the signs my kids made to cheer me on.
I was beginning to worry I'd let them down.

I put on my game face and began telling my kids, "win or lose, it's fun just to be here," -- total self-defeating loser-speak, I know.

I felt a little queasy when the judges sliced into each pie. They took only a few bites-worth of each and I wondered how two bites could possibly be enough to get an adequate sampling. But despite small portions, they took quite a while to carefully evaluate each entry.

The pies were judged on the following criteria:

Appearance: 1-5 points
Taste: 1-10 points
Texture: 1-10 points
Crust: 1-10 points

As the judges deliberated, many of the bakers, myself included, checked our pies to see how they'd held up.

Relieved, I saw my Classic Cherry and Blueberry-Lemon Twist held together beautifully, faring way better than a few watery, runny messes with soggy crusts. My Chocolate Cream was still light and fluffy, despite the extreme humidity. It weathered remarkably well compared to Earl Gray, now a runny, gelatinous mess.

My Awesome Apple Crumb was my least-attractive entry. The brown sugar topping had melted and looked unappetizing. My 12 year-old daughter told me it resembled "poop" -- which clearly wasn't the look I was going for.

Awesome Ugly Apple Crumb
I said a little prayer and headed back to my seat as the emcee took her place at the front of the room.

Blueberry-Lemon Twist
My queasiness turned to outright nausea when she began announcing the winners. The room was packed and despite the air-conditioning, beads of sweat formed on my brow. The crowd chattered anxiously, making it tough to hear. After a few minutes, I heard my name called and had to ask which category was being announced.
Chocolate Cream Pie

It was the fruit category and my Classic Cherry had won 1st place.

Classic Cherry - 1st place

My other pies didn't place, which was surprising because I thought Chocolate Cream and Blueberry-Lemon Twist had the best chances of winning. I guess it speaks to the caliber of entries, if my best pie didn't earn a medal.

After all the categories (fruit, cream, berry and apple) were awarded, the judges took all the first place pies and evaluated them again to determine the Best of the Best. The winner of this lightning round would get a big-ass trophy, $25 to a local Italian restaurant and a ride in the Fourth of July parade.

Despite the 100+ degree temp outside, I crossed my fingers to win the top honor. (I'd already laid out a special outfit to wear.)

The judges took a good 15 or 20 minutes longer to determine the top pie. The anticipation (or was it high humidity?) was thick and when the emcee took her place, I  held my breath.

She announced the name of the Best of the Best baker and it was... NOT ME.

Temporarily deflated, I watched the winner come forward to claim her trophy. To my delight, she wasn't the old broad who'd won the contest for the past 15 years. Instead, she was a fresh-faced 16 year-old girl who was genuinely surprised to have won.

As she accepted her prize, I read her lips, "Wow! Me? Gosh! I can't believe it!" and I fell in love with her instantly.

I cannot think of anyone else to whom I would rather lose.

My kids moaned and groaned at my loss, but I quickly shushed them and encouraged them to clap and cheer for the winner. They'd heard enough of my trash talk and now I had to model good sportsmanship. It wasn't hard -- I genuinely was happy for the winner.

After the winners were announced, just like last year, the other bakers pulled their pies and left. Me? I stuck around and invited others to have some pie. I was disappointed when others didn't follow suit, as I'd hoped. Only one other baker shared his pie -- a Lemonade-Peach diddy that won 3rd place in the fruit category.

~ ~ ~

This whole experience has been a blast. Learning to make pie has been fun, yet challenging. My first pies were total train wrecks. Runny, watery, under baked. It took months to get the hang of rolling dough. But I stuck with it and have emerged an award-winning baker.

Wild, huh?

And all the time spent at my kitchen counter has taught me a thing or two about the Art of Pie:

1) Respect the pie. Making pie is HARD. It takes time and commitment to roll dough, peel fruit and babysit the oven in the hopes of baking a masterpiece. You can't cut corners or it'll show.

2) Pie is meant to be shared. All that time, work (and calories!) cannot be kept to oneself. Pie is community food.

3) Pie = love. Getting, giving and sharing pie is love in it's simplest form. During the past year, I've given away a whole lotta pie, and in return, have grown closer to friends, neighbors and coworkers than I could ever have imagined.
My 1st place medal and Pie Shark apron (yes, those are faux pearls)
So maybe you're wondering what's next for the Pie Shark.

Will I continue making pies?

Will I enter the 2013 contest to defend my Best Fruit Pie title and avenge my losses?

I'll definitely keep making pie. It's in my blood now. I'm well-skilled at baking pretty good pies, but there's definitely room for improvement. I plan to keep baking and ultimately achieve what I'll consider master baker status.

My approach this year will be different; To become a better baker, I plan to spend less time in my kitchen. I want to get out and expand my view on pie, to eat more pie and talk with other bakers.

I want to explore Pie Culture and incorporate it in my own baking.

Several months ago, in a spontaneous moment, I bid on and won a tattoo at a silent auction fundraiser for my kid's school. I've been carrying around the gift certificate for a while now, wondering what, if anything, to get permanently inked on my body.

Who knows, maybe I'll get a secret slice someplace...

and if I do, you'll be the first to know.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A year of pie

Exactly 364 days ago, I sat and watched a small community Fourth of July pie bake-off and hatched a plan.

The woman who won the best pie award had won several years in a row and I'd imagine those who took second and third places had as well.

"Wouldn't it be a scream," I whispered to my husband, "if some unknown came in here and won this thing? You know, a total Cinderella story, swooping in here and winning every category?"

He raised an eyebrow and gave me a sideways look.

"You've never baked a pie in your life."

"I know. But I've got a year to learn."

And so it began.

Since that day, I figure I've read a dozen or more cookbooks, peeled 120 apples, gone through 65 sticks of butter and baked about 45 pies. My taste testers have included friends, neighbors, family members and coworkers.

My husband has even come to bed to find me curled up with a cookbook. Or two.

I've even dreamt of pie.

I spent all day today, the day before the 2012 bake-off, prepping and baking the four pies I will enter with hopes of unseating the previous victors.

Tomorrow the judges will determine first through third places in each category and award a medal for each. Then, they'll judge all the first place pies to determine the Best of the Best. While it'd be great to get the top honor, I've set a more realistic goal -- to bring home four medals, one in each category.

Here's my (hopefully) winning line-up, one entry in each of the four categories:

Berry: Blueberry-Lemon Twist
Fruit: Classic Cherry Pie
Cream: Old School Chocolate Cream Pie
Apple: Deep-dish Awesome Apple Crumb

So today, on one of the hottest days in recent years, I cranked the A/C and prebaked all except the apple, which I'll pop in the oven tomorrow morning.

Judging takes place at noon tomorrow. And when it's all said and done, I'll either emerge victorious or will be left to eat a little crow.

Either way, it's been a fun ride.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The tiara might be a little much.

So, it's come to my attention that the winner of the best of the best in the bake-off will get to ride in a convertable in the Fourth of July parade.

Naturally, I've been planning what I'll wear ever since.

I'd love to wear a super cool, retro June Cleaver-style dress and set of pearls, but sadly, I have neither.

A friend told me she has a tiara I could wear, which certainly has appeal.

I can just hear whispers in the crowd along the parade route:

"They give a tiara to the winner of the pie contest?"

"No, she brought her own."

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Together, we will eat pie

11 days to go.

When I started this pie journey almost a year ago, I was cocky and sure. I mean really, how hard could pie making be? 

I'd baked cakes and cookies before with tasty results, so I figured whipping up a pie (or four) would be a snap.

Boy, was I wrong. Standing at my counter peeling apples the other day, I had a realization: 

Pie -- truly great pie -- cannot be faked.

You can fake a good cake by buying a mix and tossing in a few extra ingredients. You can fake homemade cookies by buying tubs of raw dough and plunking blobs down on a cookie sheet.

But you can't fake a homemade pie.

Sure, they sell refrigerated pie crusts and cans of filling, but it's really hard to pass them off as homemade. The fillings are too pasty, the fruit too bland. And refrigerated pie crusts are rarely flaky enough to fool anyone.

Really great pies are authentic. And the deliciously flaky results are just too good to keep to yourself. Pie simply must be shared.

And this leads to something that's been bugging me for the past 354 days.

At the 2011 Fourth of July bake-off, after the winners were announced, everyone just packed up their pies and went home. Without a word, they just left. 

It was anticlimactic and cold. I'd expected someone -- anyone -- to invite the small crowd to come up and have some pie. I thought for sure we'd hang around afterward, chatting, congratulating the winners, trying the entries and enjoying each other's company. 

But nobody did. In fact, people hardly spoke to each other. It just felt wrong.

So regardless of if I win or lose, on this Fourth, I will share my pies. I'll bring forks, plates and napkins and, after the judging is complete, I will invite everyone to have some pie.

I just have to.

Don't worry. This self-proclaimed Pie Shark hasn't gone soft. I fully intend to dethrone those Nancies one by one, and I won't bat an eye if I make the lady who's won this thing for the past 15 years cry.

But after the carnage, when the virtual slaughter is over, together, we will eat pie. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Star struck in blueberry heaven

I've made exactly two blueberry pies in my life. One was an icebox recipe last fall and the other, a more traditional blueberry pie last weekend for my husband for Father's Day.

I'm pleased to report that with just two blueberries under my belt, I've found the winning candidate for the berry category. I hit a home run with the Father's Day pie.

Honestly, I'm not a big blueberry fan. I like the occasional blueberry muffin, but typically pass on a slice of blueberry pie.

Blueberries are just OK for me.

Nothing special. Nothing worth wasting a couple hundred extra calories.

And then I saw the light.

I paired a fairly straightforward blueberry recipe with my favorite sweet pastry crust and amped up a few key ingredients -- one of which was lemon zest.
I took one bite and saw stars.
Come to mama.
This is my new favorite pie in the universe. Served chilled, it's so light, so sweet, so refreshing.

In a word: Heaven.

If this baby doesn't earn at least a medal in the bake-off, I'll eat my hat.

Better still, I'll stand on my chair, cry foul and demand to taste a pie better than this blueberry beauty. And if the so-called winner doesn't wow me, I'll wind up and throw this blueberry baby right at the judges table.

Oh yes, I will.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Classic apple

When I first embarked on the apple pie category, I considered various ways to make my apple stand out among the others.

I toyed with adding raspberries for a blushing effect.
Root beer for a molasses vibe.
And even bourbon for an edgier 'smack yo mamma' mojo.

In the end, at the insistence of my brother, who knows someone who has judged pie bake-offs, I decided simplicity is best.

And so, in a few short weeks, I will submit my take on the classic apple pie:

I'll submit this deep-dish, ultra flaky, ubber cinnamony-with-a-hint-of-nutmegy classic apple pie.

This is what awesome tastes like.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Freaking out: 19 days until the bake-off

Remember all that trash talking I did 11 months ago? Yeah, well, I'm singing a different tune these days.

There's less than a month before the contest and, despite the fury of baking I've done, I feel woefully unprepared.

My vision of going from zero to hero has given way to a slightly less victorious outcome. Instead of earning winners' medals, I imagine lots of pats on the back and consolatory hugs.

Still, I will not back out. My mouth may have gotten me into this, but with any luck, my pies will get me out -- hopefully with a medal or two.