By Deborah Cassell
They say few things are as American as apple pie, and I agree. As a kid, one of my favorite treats was a warm slice of my mother’s homemade crumb-top apple pie in a bowl of milk. (Yes, milk. There’s no accounting for childhood tastes.) As an adult, one of my best-loved desserts is a warm slice of apple pie a la mode (a mature version of its milky predecessor).
With these visions in mind, I signed on to be a judge at the American Pie Council’s Crisco-sponsored National Pie Championships, held in Orlando in April.
Eating pie (apple pie, no less) all weekend seemed like a good idea at the time. I was the envy of my co-workers, whose eyes turned to saucers when I told them about my upcoming trip. “Tough gig,” one friend sarcastically noted.
But none were as envious as my father, whose passion for pie is unrivaled by friends, family and acquaintances. Unfortunately, my mother — whose job it is to meet my dad’s many gastronomic demands — hates making pie almost as much as he loves eating it. So when I asked my mom, an otherwise confident cook, to teach me how to make a pie from scratch, she prefaced the lesson with this disclaimer: “I’m no pie baker.”
Neither am I, Mom. But that didn’t stop me from evaluating the handiwork of the many competitors in this year’s pie championships. Flavor categories ranged from berry to cream to peach to silk to citrus to peanut butter to pumpkin to nut to even single-serve, handheld and Splenda-sweetened pies. Judges hailed from all over the country and included industry experts, local chefs and culinary academy instructors, as well as ordinary consumers in search of the perfect slice. Among them was a man who drove down to Florida from Ohio just to cast his votes. Talk about dedication.
More than 400 pies from commercial bakers — such as award winners Mrs. Smith’s, Harlan Bakeries, Bonert’s, Baker’s Square, Sublime, Pure Joy, Kenny’s and Wick’s — competed on Friday. Amateurs — such as Evette Rahman of Orlando, winner in her category for the best apple pie this judge has ever tasted — faced off on Saturday. Junior chefs and professional Orlando-area chefs duked it out, as well. Entrants prepared their pies in ovens at the Sheraton Safari (our host hotel), the Orlando Culinary Academy, Celebration High School and even a local Winn-Dixie.
The Food Network, Today show weatherman Willard Scott and even the Pillsbury Doughboy attended the event.
But the pie-ce de resistance was a weekend-long festival celebrating pie, held in the aptly named town of Celebration, Fla. There, approximately 30,000 slices were served at the Never-Ending Pie Buffet (just $8 for all you can eat).
In my father’s absence, I felt it my responsibility to perform the pie-judging duties to my utmost ability. And although my love of pie does not run as deep as Dad’s, I came away from the National Pie Championships with a keen sense of what makes good (and bad) pie … and a desire never to eat apple pie again.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against the American Pie Council, the National Pie Championships, the Great American Pie Festival or even the all-American apple pie itself, but I learned a valuable lesson from tasting more than 40 entries over the course of just two days: There is such a thing as too much pie.
I’m sure my dad would disagree. SF&WB
Contrary to the “book by its cover” rule, you can judge a pie by its crust. Before having us rate entries in the 2006 National Pie Championships, the American Pie Council gave out an evaluation primer. Here is a brief summary, in my own words, of how to score a pie, from top to bottom.
1. Appearance, Pre-slice: Is it enticing? Decorative? Appetizing? In short, is it pretty?
2. Appearance, Post-slice: Is it runny? Gelatinous? Worse yet, is it gray? (Yes, gray. I saw it with my own eyes.)
3. Crust: Is it soggy, overcooked or even raw? Or is it flaky and tasty?
4. Flavor: Does it have a nice aroma? Is it too sweet or tart? Does it contain too much cinnamon, nutmeg or allspice?
5. Mouthfeel: Is it chalky, mushy, dry or sticky?
6. Aftertaste: Pleasant or unpleasant?
7. Overall Impression: Was it memorable? Did it impress you? Would you buy the pie?