11 February 2010

Pies! Pies! Pies! (from September and October, not November)

I was really busy in November, so I cheated and used my previous 2 months of perpetual pie baking as an excuse to opt out. So I didn’t make the EBcO recipes. But I will instead share this year’s pie contest progress with you.
For the past 2 years, I competed in the Bucktown Apple Pie Contest, as you long-time readers may recall. The first year I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I followed the Everyday Food recipe/suggestions for apple pie, and placed 16th out of 80. Not too shabby. The second year, I worked really hard on improving my crust technique, but unfortunately our flame-throwing gas oven produced some burnt spots on my pies and I did not do so well.

2009 actually brought 2 pie contests – the usual in October, but also the Pastry Chicago apple pie contest in September. So I had a much longer ‘pie season’ this year. The Pastry Chicago competition required the use of specific ingredients – Plugra European Butter, King Arthur flour, and Nielson Massey Vanilla extract. Since I had never used vanilla in my apple pie before – this caused me to rethink my strategy & recipe. My landlord (not only a wine man, but also highly trained in culinary & governmental affairs) suggested an apple strudel type method, so I ran with that. I had 2 goals this year – even better, flakier crust, and amazing & simple apple filling.

[2009 Pastry Chicago Pie Contest - mine is 2nd from left]

Crust – I found that using the European butter (higher fat content) and a high-quality pastry flour made for really great crust. We* had recently purchased Michael Ruhlman’s “Ratio” book – a great read if you want to master the basics of cooking without recipes. It is all about memorizing ratios of ingredients & not using a recipe. Based on his section on pie crust, we experimented and arrived at the perfect flour to butter to water ratio. I also mastered the technique of double rolling the crust – which achieves a result of super flaky crust, much like puff pastry but not as puffy. (No I will not share those secrets with the internets – you do realize I do this competitively, yes?)

Apples – This year I even went to the extent of sampling all the apples in Whole Foods before deciding on the perfect pie apple – which was of course Michigan Honeycrisp. Instead of tossing the peeled, cored & sliced apples with sugar and typical spices this year, I pre-cooked them with butter, brown sugar, vanilla extract, and the ultimate – fresh vanilla beans (per Landlord’s suggestion). Once cooked down a bit, I added a tiny bit of cinnamon (most people really over-do the cinnamon and mask the flavor of the apples). This results in a really juicy and appley filling. The response from my many test groups was positive. I will give you this tip though – use fresh squeezed orange juice instead of lemon to keep your sliced apples from turning brown. The orange prevents the filling from adopting a bitter flavor.

[final practice pie before Bucktown Apple Pie Contest]

The first competition (Pastry Chicago) didn’t go as well as hoped, but that is purely due to the fact that we thought it was a fine idea to go to a play the night before the competition and bake the pies when we got home. Because the flame-thrower is such an unforgiving beast, I can only bake one pie at a time. The first pie had a bit of a melty crust avalanche, requiring me to piece on some extra crust. Stressed. 4:30 rolled around, and although pie #2 (you bake 2 for each contest) wasn’t quite done, I was. So I presented two beautifully underbaked pies. Not the best recipe for a winner, that half-baked crust... Also, the pies that did place were NOT traditional apple pies – they all had other fruits or flavors mixed in – a big departure from the Bucktown contest to which I am accustomed. So I ate my chocolate truffles supplied by the French Pastry School and focused on what I needed to do at contest #2.

Determined NOT to have any fiascos for Bucktown this year, I cleared my schedule of all events for the 2 days prior to that contest. I poured all my focus and energy into making 2 perfect pies. I spent all day Saturday making crusts, cooking apples, and baking my 2 pies. They were perfect. Crust was flaky but didn’t droop in the oven, and was cooked to golden perfection. Apples were juicy and still just the right amount of crispy. Vanilla sugar & cinnamon sprinkled perfectly on top of the lattice crust. Is your mouth watering yet?

[best pie of my entire life at Bucktown...]

Unfortunately, despite making the best pies of my entire existence, I didn’t even make it to semi-finals. And we tasted some of the pies that did – hot messes of too much cinnamon and allspice with dried out flat crust. I’m really not sure what the deal is. (But fine, we had fun doing it and the proceeds are for a good cause, blah blah blah.)

Anyway, after this disappointment, I really needed a break from pies, and since we were going to Mexico for Thanksgiving anyway, I didn’t have the time or excuse to make a holiday pie. But I am ready to give it a go again. Because I mean, is pie ever really perfected? I better keep baking and tasting to find out!

*I mean Don and myself when I say “we”. He’s in charge of cutting apples and keeping me from having a nervous breakdown.

No comments: