Sunday, August 31, 2014

County Fair Pies: Secrets of a Judge

During the summer I travel to several county fairs to judge culinary competitions. Over the past 20 years I've judged hundreds of classes, including preserved foods (no tasting, please!), baked goods, candy, and other unique classes like eggs, honey, noodles and carmel corn. I once calculated that I've tasted well over 5,000 pies alone.

I'm an advocate of open judging where competitors watch the judging live and ask questions. Most folks want to learn how improve the quality of their product. However, I also get lots of personal questions, i.e. What's the worst thing you've ever eaten?

Recently I judged the pie competition at the Stark County Fair in Canton, OH. I case you're unfamiliar with fair judging, classes are broken out by pie variety. When all classes have been judged, the first place from each class moves on to compete for Best of Show, a class that represents the best of the best. If your pie is in that class, it's a big deal.

Below are all the first place pies, along with a few tips on what I was looking for during judging. While there were more classes that what's shown, some classes did not have a first place winner.

Apple Pie

Apple pies should be full of fruit but not over spiced. Often these pies include heavy seasonings that mask fruit flavor. If you're using a combination of apple varieties, be sure to use apples that require the same cooking time. Baked crust should sit snugly against the fillings (rather than a "domed lid" after the apples cook down). A note about pie plates - while this pie was baked in a ceramic dish, the best vessel to bake a pie is a glass plate. Glass conducts heat and provides an evenly browned crust.

French Silk Pie

French Silk is a rich, light no-bake filling in a pre-baked crust. The filling, made of butter, melted chocolate and pasteurized eggs is whipped until very smooth and airy. Often the crust is slightly salty to offset the richness of the filling. It can be served with or without a whipped cream topping.

Pecan Pie

The filling of pecan pie is sweet and should be set, not runny. Although not reflected in the photos, competition pies should be topped with whole pecans, rather than pecan pieces. Check pie toward the end of baking. If nuts are overly brown, cover loosely with foil to prevent burning.

Coconut Cream Pie

This pie had a creamy, tender (but not loose) filling packed with coconut. Even better, the baker topped it with an Italian meringue to minimize weeping. I'd recommend using a spatula to pull up large peaks on the meringue, then baking longer to brown the peaks, like this.

Raisin Pie

Although it may not be common today, raisin pie was made during the winter when fresh fruit was unavailable. The filling benefits from the addition of citrus zest (orange is especially nice) and/or pecans.

Peach Pie

Peach pie filling should contain only thickener, sugar, a small amount of lemon juice and peaches. Cinnamon, nutmeg or other warm spices masks the flavor of the peaches. Fruit in this pie remained bright (unoxidized). A note on thickener: Cornstarch and flour tend to settle out of peach pies. I like Instant Clear Jel, a modified food starch  which can be found in bulk stores and online. It also works well in berry pies.

Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin pies can be over spiced, minimizing the flavor of the pumpkin. All the pies in this class were split on top, which indicates over baking. As the pie cools the filling becomes tight and splits, or pulls away from the crust. Remove pie from oven when just set (filling may appear wet or slightly loose in the center). The pie will continue to bake outside the oven for a few minutes.

Cherry Pie

Since fresh cherries are largely unavailable, pies used frozen (my preference) or canned cherries. The winning pie had a nice filling: not too loose, and a deep red color. For competition, I suggest adding 1-2 drops of red food color. Cherry pies should be slightly tart. Although it didn't influence judging, this pie had a top crust that was dusted with a crumb topping.

Many pies had crusts that were too thick. A single pie crust should use no more than one cup of flour, with a fat to flour ratio of roughly 1:3. I use the crust recipe below, adding 1 Tbsp lard for flavor. (I know lard can be controversial, omit if you prefer). Double the recipe for a double crust pie.

Single Crust
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup shortening + 1 Tbsp lard
2-3 Tbsp cold water
Combine flour and salt. Cut in fat just until incorporated. You should have a mix of large and small fat pieces. Add enough water just to bring dough together. Makes one 9-inch crust.

Best of Show
Rather than comparing pies, I place BOS based on how close the pie comes to a perfect standard. I considered the apple and coconut cream pies for the top spot. Ultimately, the apple pie won. Filling was flavorful with uniformly sliced apples which enabled the filling to bake properly. It was nicely sweetened without being overly spiced and the crust was tender and flaky. 

What did you enter in your county fair? I'd love to hear your stories and questions!

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  1. Those all look delicious! I especially love peach pie. Crust that is too thick is usually my biggest problem. My fair entries included photography and lots of flowers.

  2. I love peach pie too! If you stick to one cup of four/crust, you should have just the right thickness. So glad you participate in your county fair! Any ribbons?

  3. I always enjoy seeing how dishes are called overseas. French silk pie is a new one for me...and I'm French. Sounds good though, but no bakery in France will stock a chocolate and cream pie, this I promise!!! These language oddities always make my day :-D

    1. I'm sure that pie didn't originate in France. Not sure how it got that name - maybe 'French Silk' just sounds more exotic in the US??