JUDGING BEGAN earlier this year, late morning rather than early afternoon, and that meant a change in routine. Like a finely-tuned runner on marathon day, I had to carefully consider what to eat, and when, in advance of the competition, my fourth time serving as a judge at the annual “Great New England Apple Pie Contest.” The event was held Saturday, October 19, during the first day of Wachusett Mountain’s weekend-long AppleFest.
I needed just enough to blunt my appetite so that I would not be tempted to wolf down the first few entries. Caution is the word when you have to taste more than 40 pies in two hours; to continue the running metaphor, if you go out too fast at the beginning of the race, you will pay for it later on.
For the same reason, I needed to go light on breakfast. Too much food in my stomach and I might not make it through the day’s pies. I chose a small bowl of cereal about three hours before the judging began.
Now in its fourth year, the contest has grown in size, resulting in the earlier start. For the second year, Rick Leblanc of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources joined New England Apple Association Executive Director Bar Lois Weeks and me on the five-person panel of judges, with on-air radio personalities Chris Zito of WSRS and Ginny Sears of WTAG, both in Worcester.
THE RED-AND-WHITE checkered tables beneath a tent and a crisp October sky gave the event the informal atmosphere of a bake sale or church supper. But the long tables were laid out with impressive-looking apple pies of all descriptions, no two exactly the same.
Some pies had elaborately sculpted, crumb, or latticed crusts, some were arranged artfully in picnic baskets or surrounded by apples and foliage. Others came with no frills — just straightforward apple pie.
The pies are graded on presentation and appearance, but this is largely subjective, and in any event we judges agreed that the greater weight in our scores should go to flavor, crust, and texture. When it comes to looks, though, I am more partial to a beautiful, hand-crafted fluting around the pie’s edges than I am to a nice container, although both contribute to the pie’s sensory pleasure.
It is hard to make generalizations after sampling the efforts of 43 different bakers, mostly women. Almost any apple variety — or combination — can succeed in a well-made pie. Apple pies should be lightly spiced; I love nutmeg, but a little goes a long way. Less sugar usually means more apple flavor. A consistently flaky crust can take years of practice.
WE BEGAN with eight pies in the “Apple and Other” category, and there were some outstanding ones with cranberries and pecans. Last year’s winner in the “Apple Only” category, Patricia Kuhn Bonita of Winthrop, Massachusetts, entered a pie featuring apples with Asian pear, but the pear flavor did not come through.
Bonita, a veteran pie-maker and winner at other contests, took the feedback in stride, especially since her friend, Anita Mochi, also of Winthrop, won the category with her Apple Praline Pie.
Then it was on to nearly three dozen “Apple Only” pies. Pacing myself with just two bites of each and cleansing my palate with water in between, I was fine until the last six or seven. I was able to maintain my focus during the judging, but for the first time I looked forward to the end.
Every last bite was worth it, though. Lori Meiners of Hubbardston, Massachusetts, won first prize in the “Apple Only” category with her delicious rendition of New England’s favorite dessert. The final scores were close, and we had to resample two pies in order to decide between the second- and third-place winners.
It is inspirational to see the combined efforts of so many proud and imaginative bakers, and humbling to evaluate their delicious but perishable works of art. I hope I am invited back to try again next year.
Lori Meiners’ Apple Pie
For the crust (makes 2 pies):
4 c unsifted flour, spooned lightly into cup
1 T sugar
2 t coarse salt
1-3/4 c shortening
1 T cider vinegar
1/2 c water
For the filling:
8 large New England Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored, and cut up
3/4 c white sugar
1/4 c brown sugar
1 t cinnamon
1/4 t ground nutmeg
2 T flour
2 T butter, cut into pieces
For the wash:
1 egg yolk
1 T sour cream
1 t water
1. Prepare the crust:
In a large bowl, use a fork to mix the flour, sugar, and salt. Cut in the shortening until mixture is crumbly. In a small bowl, gently whisk together vinegar, egg, and water. Add egg mixture to flour mixture, and stir until just combined. Divide dough into four portions, quickly form into discs, wrap in plastic or waxed paper, and chill for at least 30 minutes.
2. Prepare the filling:
Peel, core, and slice the apples into a large, heat-proof bowl. Pour boiling water over apples until just covered, cover bowl with plastic wrap, and set aside for 10 minutes. Drain water and set aside. In a small bowl, mix together sugars, cinnamon, nutmeg, and flour, and set aside.
3. Assemble the pie:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Roll out the dough: generously flour flat surface and both sides of the dough. Roll out to 1/4″ thick. Place in pie pan. Pour apples into pan. Add butter pieces, spread out on top of apples. Pour sugar mixture over apples. Roll out top crust and place over apples. Trim edges so there is about 1/2″ of dough hanging over edge of pan. Fold dough under and pinch to seal. Cut several slits in the top crust to vent steam while baking. In a small bowl, mix egg yolk, sour cream, and water, and paint over top crust.
Place pie in preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes until crust is golden brown. Remove from oven and place on cooling rack.
Serve warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice cream, if desired.
Anita Mochi’s Apple Praline Pie
2-1/4 c flour
1/4 t salt
1/2 c shortening
7 T butter
5-7 T water
1 Granny Smith
3 T butter
1/4 c brown sugar
1/4 c sugar
1/2 t cinnamon
1/4 t nutmeg
1 t lemon juice
3-1/2 T flour
In small saucepan, melt 1/4 c butter, 1/2 c brown sugar, 2 T cream. Bring to boil. Remover from heat and stir in 1/2 c pecans. Spread over pie shell and return to oven for five minutes.