A Prize-Winning Pie, Oh My!

I still can’t believe I won the 13th Annual Retro Pie Contest in Asheville! There were 78 pies entered and eight crust-only entries from serious bakers. From Slow Foodies to professional bakers, cookbook authors to enthusiastic junior bakers, there was tons of talent.  Lots of pie categories add to the fun: historic, locally sourced, heirloom recipe, children’s, men’s, first pie, fruit, meat, custard, chocolate, tarts, small pies, gluten-free, most creative, prettiest, best in show and a few more I can’t remember.  There are non-pie categories too like best retro outfit, best retro apron and so on. My favorite is at the end: thought-you-should-have-won-but-didn’t category. You can nominate yourself or someone else for this and it gets pretty funny. If you taste all 78 pies you get a prize too. And maybe a tummy ache!

IMG_2619The mood was festive with a cloudless Carolina blue sky, 80 degree temperatures, tents in a lovely garden setting and toddlers in retro aprons. There was a table full of prizes to admire and clothes lines hung with vintage aprons. In the freezer were a couple of pounds of Benton’s Bacon, the very special Smokey Mountain bacon from Tennessee that is always back-ordered, as top prizes. There were kegs of local beer, bottles of wine and the gallons of cold water. Tasting 78 pies is very thirsty business.

IMG_2625I entered the small pie category with my blueberry hand pies, and the meat category with a Tourtiere Quebecois, a highly spiced, mostly pork pie traditionally served on Christmas Eve in Quebec.  My crusts came out really flaky so I was feeling pretty good and entered the crust only category too.

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My crust only entry.

My crust only entry.

How It Worked

Bakers registered, got numbers (the judging is blind) and a serving spoon and set up their entries at the table for their category. Talented hubby Paul painted adorable signs to go with my entries. He has a hollow leg, loves pie and really gets into the spirit. He tastes soooo many pies!  More than 100 attendees signed up to judge one or more categories. You must taste all the pies in a category to vote. Everyone votes for Best in Show, costumes, prettiest pie and most creative pie. The crust only contest is the most serious. The judges are real pie experts.

Once the ballots were in we took our spoons and little plates and tasted as many pies as we could stand. A few brave folks did taste all of them! I could manage only about three dozen bites. I have to admit , the last few were pushing it. Many revelers were in pie comas by the end. While the ballots were being counted, a bunch of us entertained the pie revelers with bluegrass and old-time music. Not an easy feat after all that tasting.

My tasting plate after more than 30 bites. Yes, there is a pea and a blueberry. The variety was endless.

My tasting plate after more than 30 bites. Jackson Pollock watch out!

Amazing Entries

Here are just a few of the incredible entries. Don’t you want to run to the kitchen and make a pie right now?  And eat it too of course.

The competition was tough in the small pie category!

The competition was tough in the small pie category!

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Fruit entries.

Fruit entries.

Vegetarian Everything in The Garden Pie.

Vegetarian Everything in The Garden Pie.

Yum!

Yum!

And the Winners Are…

Finally the winners were announced. Everyone pulled up chairs or stretched out on the grass to digest all that pie and hear the results. Winner of the small pie category was me! I selected a very nice vintage apron as my prize. Near the end of all the categories was the crust only announcement. I tied with a very seasoned baker for my savory flavored crust and came away with a bag of special Carolina Ground pastry flour. Carolina Ground is locally grown and milled wheat flour that bakes up like a dream. Excited to have won two cool prizes, I felt humbled in the company of so many great bakers!

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Making the blueberry jelly that filled the hand pies.

Making the blueberry pepper jelly that filled the hand pies.

 

Cookbook author Ashley English won the tart category with her Peach plum tart with Mint Pesto. Delicious and beautiful.

Cookbook author Ashley English won the tart category with her Peach plum tart with Mint Pesto. Delicious and beautiful.

 

Prize winning berry margerita pie.

Prize winning berry margerita pie.

 

Annie Erbsen's gorgeous gluten-free lemon pie. She has got the gluten-free crust thing down! And she won the prize for best retro outfit too.

Annie Erbsen’s gorgeous gluten-free lemon pie. She has got the gluten-free crust thing down! Annie won the prize for best retro outfit too.

 

Historic winner, shrimp heads and all!

Historic winner, shrimp heads and all!

At last it was time for Best in Show. The prizes were a cookbook, A Year of Pies: A Seasonal Tour of Home Baked Pies by Ashley English (autographed because Ashley, her husband and her adorable toddler were there!), and a pound of that excellent Benton’s Bacon. My jaw nearly hit the floor when I won for the Quebecois meat pie! It’s really fun to win when you don’t expect to at all!

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One of my Best in Show Tourtiere practice pies.

The best in Show Ballot Box.

The best in Show Ballot Box.

Paul was as excited as I and we were still basking in the pie glow the next day. I ordered a new pie dish to celebrate. We had the last hand pies for breakfast and the last of the meat pie (it was my practice pie) for dinner with home-grown lettuce and Buttermilk Chive Dressing. Like a lot of stews and meat dishes, the flavor of the meat pie gets better overnight.

Paul and Mom having a big time!

Paul and Mom having a big time!

 

The wonderful hosts addressing the pie crowd.

The wonderful hosts addressing the pie crowd.

Thanks to Barbara Swell, contest founder, for getting me to bake that first pie a couple of years ago, and to my family who tasted all my practice pies this year when I got serious!  This year I will make pie often. I’m inspired to bake more and now have my eye on a home-made English Muffin recipe that was on one of my favorite blogs, Food52, last week.  If I can conquer pie crust, I can take on twice cooked yeast breads, right?

I’ll post the meat pie and hand pie recipes later this week.

In the meantime, here are pie crust tips from my recollections of watching my grandmother bake and from research that helped me become a pie maker.

Pie Crust Tips

  • Keep the pie dough cold. Chill the flour, butter and even the entire pie before baking. Handle the dough as little as possible since your hands are warm. Anytime it starts to feel soft, put it in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
  • Use a pastry cutter with blades, not wires. The blades cut through the coldest butter. In lieu of a cutter, use two knives.  If crumbling the dough with your fingers, put it back in the fridge to chill half way through.
  • Most crust recipes call for pea-sized crumbles. Be sure to leave some larger and make some smaller for nicer texture.
  • Pound your dough disk with the rolling-pin 20-30 times before starting to roll. This makes the rolling time shorter and doesn’t melt the butter in the crust. Plus, it’s fun! Click here for a demo. 
  • After trimming the crusts, turn the dough under itself for a nice, high edge.
  • A silicon rolling mat and non-stick rolling-pin are invaluable, but rolling with a pin on waxed-paper or a stone (stone keeps the crust cold) counter top works too.
  • Keep your rolling-pin and rolling surface well floured. This seems basic but it’s essential.
  • In case I haven’t said it enough, keep the dough and rolled crusts cold!
  • HAVE FUN. If it’s not working, cover the dough or rolled crust with plastic wrap, put it in the fridge and take a break. It will keep.

I hope you’re inspired to bake a pie, bring friends together to eat it and even host a pie cook-off of your own. You’ll love it!

The Pie Contest Looms

These wonderful friends of mine, Barb and Wayne, are pie people.  Barb is a master pie maker, teaches pie classes, has written a pie cookbook and can bake a perfect pie in a wood stove. She believes that pies bring people together. I think she’s right! Their adult daughters dress in retro housewife dresses and make fabulous pies. Their friends make pies. Wayne loves pies, eats lots of pies and helps stage their giant pie contest each year. He also has his musician friends (Paul and I are in this category) play old-time and bluegrass music for the pie crowd while the ballots are being tabulated. This takes a while since there are multiple categories, about 100 entries and lots of judges (every guest tastes and judges).

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I had never been a pie maker. Cobbler, cake, cookies, icebox pies and rustic tarts yes, but not real baked pies with scratch crusts. When I got the urge to do something with seasonal fruit or at holidays, I purchased a convenient pie crust from the dairy section that come ready to unroll. I remember watching my grandmother make pies and even cute little hand pies for us kids too. I like the hand pies best because there is a higher ratio of flaky crust to filling.  Sometimes too much fruit filling can overwhelm me! We called the little pies tarts. Other people must have too because along came these store bought hand pies with a strange chemical taste in the background, called Pop Tarts! As I child I was fascinated by them but never related them to grandma’s tarts. Of course Pop Tarts and ready made crust are never even mentioned by the serious pie people, so let’s pretend I never brought it up.

images-2With some nudging from Barb, I entered the contest. It’s a wacky, friendly kind of contest with super bakers and novices competing. Two years ago, I took a whack at pie crust the morning of the party. I think it got too warm. It had to be pressed into a tart pan and I can’t remember what I filled it with. It was good, but not a pie. In hindsight, I should never have used that recipe from Cooks Illustrated. It had all these extra ingredients, like vodka, and pages of directions that took the fun out of it and made me feel distressed. Last year, I enjoyed making a regular old butter pie crust with a lemon sponge filling that was good but not great and not quite beautiful either.

This year, for some reason, I’m really into it.  I’ve decided to master, pie crusts, pizza dough and several other types of baked goods that I have avoided in the past. I think I had pastry and yeast dough phobias. I’m good at eating them, but afraid to make them! The truth is that once you make these things 8 or 10 times, the walls come down and it starts to feel natural. I’m getting to that point with pie crust. Baking is part of my heritage and it’s time I put my pie on the table!

imagesAt the pies contest/party there are always way more sweet than savory pies. My husband goes nuts over the savory ones so he asked that I make one this year.  Savory pies are especially good when you’ve already tasted 50 sweet pies and can’t face any more sugar!  I tested a few last month and settled on one. I can’t reveal what it is yet, but it’s delish! I also started thinking about my grandma’s little hand pie tarts and how much I liked those.  Then came a post from one of my favorite blogs, Smitten Kitchen, on hand pies and I had to give them a try. I’m using the Smitten Kitchen recipe as a base and improvising from there. Aren’t I brave and creative to have two entries?  I served the savory pie last week and my husband and parents couldn’t stop eating. The doughs and fillings are ready  so that I can do a dry run on both entries tomorrow. We’ll have the results of my test drive for supper.

images-1I just wish I’d had Barb’s pie cookbook on my shelf a long time ago. Then I’d be a real pie queen by now instead of just a novice pie princess! Her book is The Lost Art of Pie Making Made Easy by Barbara Swell. The recipes really work and the tips are great! You’ll find it at Amazon in case you want to jump on the pie bandwagon.

The contest is Saturday afternoon and I’ll have dough for both kinds of crusts in fridge before my head hits the pillow Friday night.  On Saturday morning I will remove those smooth discs of buttery dough from the refrigerator and I will roll, fill and bake with aplomb.  Stay tuned for all the details and the recipes next week.  Wish me luck!1940s My-T-Fine Pudding & Pie Mix Filling vintage advertisement illustration