Baking Memories; The Pursuit of Pie Perfection (part one)

Take a moment and think of Fall. Chances are if you’re like me, Apple Pie is one of the first things that come to mind. There’s festivals, parades, and even bake-offs devoted to the sweet treat, and I can see why. Even our country is hopelessly devoted to it – the only thing that could make apple pie more American is if it was an Eagle’s primary food source. After all, what’s more red, white, and blue than a good old fashioned apple pie. The sweetness of the apples, the flavorful hint of cinnamon, the light flake of the crust, all are equivalent to heaven in my mouth and soul. Luckily it seems that I’m one of the many in my devotion. 

Perhaps it’s too much Great British Bake Off, but I fancy myself a pie connoisseur. I’ve watched countless baking shows, and even tried to recreate them in my kitchen; I always make the pies for Christmas and often brought dozens of mini pies into school for my classmates and teachers. Still, I’ve always craved the adrenaline and high-stakes energy of the real deal experience – a baking competition. But here’s where I get to live out a dream, check off an item on my bucket list, and bake some memories – The Fall City Apple Festival and its Apple Pie Contest.

The Pie Contest is a fundraiser of sorts, organized by the NWNHC Family Fund. When entering the contest, the entree must pay a fee, and in addition, the pies, after being judged, are auctioned off to the highest bidder, all money going towards the nonprofit. The NWNHC “was founded in 2010 to help families in need, experience the healing power of the horse without worrying about the costs. The fund helps military families reconnect and heal through equine-assisted therapy and family retreats and provides scholarships to assist struggling families in making their child’s horse dreams come true,” as said in their mission statement. What could be better than pie and charity? Absolutely nothing.

Leading up to the competition, I knew I needed preparation. I was the Seattle Seahawks before the 2014 Super Bowl – I had a lot to prove and a lot of training to do if I wanted to bring home the Lombardi of the local pie world. 

 First, technicalities. The bake-off has a few rules regarding pie crust, size, and the ratio of apples to other fruits. Overall, the winner is judged in four categories; appearance, taste, texture, and originality. Originality and appearance were my biggest concerns, given that I often don’t venture too far out of the typical apple pie box and that my baked goods always taste better than they look. To further add to my worry of achieving originality, the rule that the majority of the pie filling must be apples kept me unsure of how to incorporate new flavors. 

After a few inspirational words from the hosts of the Great British Bake Off, I mustered my courage and set out on my voyage to find the perfect recipe. I know without a doubt that my grandmother’s French Canadian pie crust recipe, with lard imported from Canada, was easily my greatest strength. But, my sureness with my pie crust recipe made my debate between pie filling look concerning in comparison. I had reached a conundrum; there are only so many things that go well paired with apples, and hence I decided to do some practice bakes to figure out which pie I should enter. 

Dutch Inspired Apple Pie – Test Bake

With the enthusiastic approval of my taste-testing family, I opted to test bake two different apple pie variations, a dutch inspired apple pie (with a heavy cream filling) and a caramel apple pie (think modern-day twist on a candy apple). Carving out five hours of a Thursday afternoon, I commandeered the kitchen. I channeled my inner Mary Berry as I crafted the homemade crust and both apple pie variations, just in time before dinner arrived, and my patience fled.

According to my family, who are well versed in the merits of an apple pie, the Dutch Apple Pie fell flat with the lack of flavor. Though creamy, it lacked the punch of cinnamon that my family has become accustomed to. The texture was most definitely there, the apples were perfectly gooey yet almost seemed poached, but the lack of flavorful impression left me hesitant to put all my eggs in this basket.

Knowing my sweet tooth family, it wasn’t much of a surprise that the Caramel Apple Pie stole their hearts. Though the lattice was lacking, as was my patience at the point of its construction, there was the sweet punch of caramel sauce, a lovely texture from apples, and a unique spin on the classic. Is it a pie or a candy apple, I wonder?

Caramel Apple Pie – Test Bake #1

Deep down, I knew the truth- all the elements to potentially win the contest were in this pie; it was just my final execution that was lacking. Luckily, I had given myself enough time to do another test bake for the family-approved pie. So, the next day, I channeled my inner strength to commit another four hours to the worship of apple pie. This time I came with notes from my family of pie judges and made some amendments to the recipe. I added in a little extra flour to increase the thickening of the sauce, tripled the cinnamon, and used some larger grains of sugar for a crystalizing effect to the crust. Then I folded some streusel topping into the filling to add a crunch and spent time working on my lattice skills.

Caramel Apple Pie – Test Bake #2

Now you might be thinking; this pie doesn’t look quite as good as the others. But let me tell you something, the adage of never judging a book by its cover has never been more accurate. Though a little bit of an ugly duckling due to the unfortunate baked appearance of the strudel, I’ve never tasted a better apple pie. This pie tasted like it had been blessed by the pie gods and chosen as the representative from pie heaven. If I listened closely enough when I took a bite, I could hear angels from above-playing harps as they sang about the glory of this pie. In the words of my 13-year-old brother, Jack, who was adamant, I didn’t stand a chance against the seasoned veterans of the pie competition; this pie “had a shot.” For a moment, I felt like the luckiest person ever; I had somehow improvised my way to the perfect pie.

By now, I was ready to compete. I had eaten more sugar in the form of apple pie in the last three days than in the previous month, and I was prepared to put myself and my pie out to be judged.

But of course, fate had to throw me a curveball. Given Covid-19, the Apple Festival had to be outside for safety reasons. However, the smoke from Eastern Washington and Oregon recently decided to make an appearance, making an outdoor festival this weekend unsafe. Hence, the Apple Pie Festival has been rescheduled to Sunday, September 20th, where I will pray that my sugary concoction stands its ground. For me, at least, this is going to be a long week, hoping that the pie gods smile down on me again and somehow gift me with a perfect pie for the competition.

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