Paging Martha!

First, for purposes of full disclosure: this is NOT a picture of my pie. Let's call it the goal. But first, from the beginning....

It's our fall ritual. Far be it for us to build a ritual around JUST leaf collecting, pumpkin hunting or something festive without also including a little taste of the season. After three years (and one intended, but failed after a sudden and tragic brush with food poisoning) of making the trip to Holstein Park for the Bucktown Apple Pie Contest, we know how to handle the festivities. We camp out, we line up and strategize ('one lap around the tables, then we split up, you get the lattice work, I'll look for the crumb'), and in a methodical and swift maneuver, we emerge from the gymnasium with no less than four slices of traditional, all-American apple pie. The next few minutes are filled with satisfied groans, a few offhand comparisons and our own winner among the group.

At this annual neighborhood fundraiser, as many as 200 pies are featured and judged by a panel of celebrity chefs, local bakers and volunteers gathered on an early fall Sunday morning. The top five are celebrated with blue ribbons and of course, one is crowned winner. Prizes are awarded, but wouldn't a nod from local pastry queen Gale Gand be enough?! The crowds come later, purchase tickets and sample the leftovers (while they last!), as bluegrass music pumps into the gym.

Last year, as we arrived a bit TOO early to claim our samples, I looked around at the registrants, turned to my resident taste tester and fiance, and shrugged. I inherited my mother's knack for over-producing legions of Christmas cookies, I insist on not one but two kinds of coffee cake for hosting my brunches and consider baking my forte. I could do this.

And so, gulp, I did. Yesterday, I registered to join the group of 120 amateur and accomplished bakers all putting forth their best pie pans and offering up traditional apple pie. The only catch is, I have never, ever made a pie. I haven't even produced a turnover.

Call it trial by fire- and for my readers, perhaps a bit of what the Germans call schadenfreude. I'll be posting updates along the way toward my apple pie eduction. I welcome suggestions and favorite recipes. And come October 18th, we'll see how the pie crust crumbles.


  1. Lots of vibes for your pie baking endeavor and who knows... you just might even have beginners luck!

  2. I’ve competed in the contest the past two years, but won’t be able to this year (I’m moving to Philadelphia).

    Pie making seems more intimidating than it actually is. That being said here are some tips:

    1. Make sure to cut in your fat finely enough – aim for pea sized bits or smaller. If you don’t do this, the dough will be extremely fragile and hard to transfer without damaging it
    2. A lot of recipes call for egg washes on the top of the pie, but I think a milk wash gives a much better golden brown color to the top of the pie
    3. An important choice when selecting a pie crust recipe is the type of fat (butter, lard or shortening) that you are going to use. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
    a. In my opinion the only advantage that shortening has is that it is vegan friendly so unless that it a concern to you I would not consider using it.
    b. Many people prefer the flavor of butter crusts but they are generally not as flakey as lard or shortening crusts. An even bigger disadvantage for a beginning pie maker is that butter is far, far, far more difficult to work with than lard or shortening. I have had much better luck using my family recipe for a lard pie crust (let me know if you are interested in the recipe) than I have with recipes for butter crusts.
    c. Lard crusts are flakey with better flavor than shortening crusts and are easy to work with. The downsides to using lard is that it is not kosher or vegan/vegetarian friendly and that the lard that you would find in Jewel (for instance) is partially hydrogenated. Mexican grocers carry freshly rendered lard, but even better is lard you render yourself from leaf fat. That is a bit involved though and probably only for those who are truly passionate about their lard.
    4. The judges at the contest seem to prefer very traditional apple pies. More unusual pies (including my admittedly avant garde submissions) tend not to do well. This is only an issue if you want to advance to the second round or beyond. Personally I got more enjoyment out of making 10+ test pies before perfecting my recipe last fall.

  3. Ben- you're fabulous! Keep in touch!