Tips from a Pie Contest Judge

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By Emily Paster

One of the fringe benefits of being a food blogger is that sometimes people ask you to judge food contests. This has happened to me exactly twice. Earlier this year, I judged a contest to determine the best frozen yogurt-and-topping combination — the "coolest combo contest" — by Yumz Gourmet Frozen Yogurt. (Given my husband's devotion to frozen yogurt and his penchant for creating truly vile flavor and topping combinations, I think they asked the wrong family member, but no matter.) This month, I got an even better invitation: the American Pie Council invited me to be a judge for the 2013 Pie Town baking contest.

The American Pie Council is a membership organization dedicated to preserving America's pie heritage. The APC hosts the National Pie Championship in Orlando, Florida and that is a big deal. The Pie Town event in Chicago is a much smaller affair, but I was honored to take part nonetheless. And after judging a competition with only thirteen pies in it, I am not sure I could handle tasting dozens and dozens of pies, like the judges at the national competition do. A few bites each of thirteen pies before lunch was enough to make me want to skip lunch.

I tasted all kinds of pies ranging from the exotic — coconut cream and blackberry ginger pumpkin cheesecake — to the traditional, like apple and pecan. We evaluated the pies' appearance, the flakiness of the crust, the flavor and texture of the filling and the creativity of the recipes. Although on a typical day, I am happy enough to see any homemade pie coming my way, after spending the morning distinguishing between more than a dozen pies, I became quite nitpicky. Woe to any underbaked bottom crust or mushy fruit filling that passed in front of me!

In the end, the pie that I liked best won the competition and my second-favorite pie came in third, which makes me think that I must have done something right. The winning pie was an double-crusted apple pecan pie that was a perfect combination of creative and traditional. Although I cannot make this pie for my family due to Zuzu's nut allergy, I highly recommend this recipe for those who do not have to accommodate a nut allergy. My second-favorite pie, the third place winner, was an apple-cranberry pie with a cheddar crust that definitely won points for its sweet-savory combination. You can find all three winning recipes on the APC website.

Although I am far from a pie expert, I did come away from judging the Pie Town contest with several thoughts on what can make or break a good pie. Further, at the judges' table, I was lucky enough to sit next to Francine Bryson, one of the winners of last summer's "American Baking Competition" show, who shared some of her pie-baking wisdom with me. With Thanksgiving less than two weeks away and many people about to head into the kitchen to bake their once-a-year pies, it seems like a perfect time to share the pie-baking tips I picked up during my judging experience.

  •  All the judges were disappointed to see a slice of pie where the bottom crust stuck to the pie pan. To avoid this, you can brush the bottom of your pie plate with a light coat of melted butter. That will also help the bottom of the pie brown.
  • The only thing worse than a bottom crust that sticks is a soggy or undercooked bottom crust. It is tricky to get that right! If you are making a crust with a syrupy filling like pecan, consider blind-baking the crust for a few minutes before filling it. For fruit pies, you can sprinkle the bottom crust with a tablespoon of flour and a teaspoon of sugar prior to filling.
  • You want the top crust of your pie to be golden brown, not pale golden and not burnt. To prevent burnt edges, watch your pie while it is baking and cover edges that are getting too dark with a pie shield or even just aluminum foil. To get that rich golden brown color, brush top crust with melted butter or egg wash.
  • Take some time to make the crust look nice. I'm not saying that you have to make pastry turkeys, like in this article, but at least make the effort for a nice crimped edge. To make a crimped edge, starting from the outside of the plate, pinch an inch of the crust between your thumb and forefinger and then using your other hand from the inside of the plate, press your index finger in between your thumb and index finger to make a "v."
  • Although it may seem like the judges were obsessed with the crust — and we were — we also carefully evaluated the fillings. We definitely took off points for pies that seemed not quite full. Fruit shrinks as it cooks and exudes moisture so it is important to pack fruit fillings, especially apples, tightly and almost over-fill them. Also, be sure to choose the right apples for baking, namely ones that are not too watery.
  • You want a smooth filling that holds together, not a runny one. So, be sure to use a thickener for your pie filling whether it is simply some all-purpose flour — best for long-baked pies — cornstarch, gelatin (for chiffon pies) or tapioca. Tapioca is the preferred thickener of Laura Maychruk, owner of the beloved Oak Park institution Buzz Cafe, as I explained in this post about making blueberry pie with Zuzu's Girl Scout troop.
  • Creative pies are terrific, but there is no need to gild the lily. Don't try to do too much in one pie. But, if you do describe your pie as having an ingredient, make sure the audience can taste that ingredient. For example, in the Pie Town contest, if the judge could not taste the cheese in the pie that was described as having a cheddar crust, we would have deducted points. Luckily, there was a nice cheddar note and that pie was one of the winners.

Happy pie baking everyone!

Full disclosure time: This post was not sponsored in any way. I was not compensated for my work judging the Pie Town contest unless you consider a free lunch and lots of pie to be compensation. As always, all opinions expressed herein are entirely my own.

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