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!
The 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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!