No matter the filling in these Pinecraft pies, each one is layered with love.
Whether it's the layers of crunch pecan, the detailed crust work on a pumpkin pie or the drizzling of cream cheese over raspberries, the pies that the folks of the Sarasota Amish and Mennonite community churned out could easily go on display on food art museum.
But by the time I was finished with each piece, they were unrecognizable. Just crumbs everywhere, nary a bite to be found for the most part. Yeah, that's the tough life of a pie judge.
I was lucky to be invited by cookbook author and Cooking and Such editor Sherry Gore, who sought someone to help fill out the roster of judges for the second annual Pinecraft Pie Contest at Everence Federal Credit Union.
I really didn't know what to expect, and felt wholly unqualified because I'm heavily biased in favor of peanut butter pie and apple pie. Amazingly neither were entered.
The judges weren't sure what to expect either as at first there was a worry that the entire city of Sarasota would bring their baking mitts after The Herald-Tribune wrote a wonderful feature and posted it on its homepage Friday morning. Yet, 13 pies came through saving my stomach and saving me from worrying that I would hate pie by the end of the day.
Sherry helped guide me through the process of what to really look for. How does the pie cut? Was it clean? Should this pie be runny or more solid? Did you look at the crust? Does it appear homemade or store-bought?
That's a lot that goes into ranking for presentation, taste and flavor, and overall impression.
Then there were things that only Sherry and the other judges would even know, but they even had to give their best guess on how authentic the Shoofly pie was. King's Syrup or Golden Barrel molasses?
It didn't matter as judges raved over how the crust was still flaky as it soaked up the molasses.
I was familiar enough and ate a good bit of Pennsylvania Dutch-inspired cooking when I grew up in Clear Spring, Md., which had a strong Mennonite community and population and markets throughout. Some of that heritage runs on my father's side, too. I would never claim myself as an expert on it, though, other than I know that the food is comforting.
Whether your palette, once it hits your tongue you'll know whether it's a good pie.
For me, it was all in the nose. I'm sure the audience looked on and wondered why this strange man sniffed each pie.
It had to smell like something. A good pie should be like a well aged bottle of wine…except not really smelling like it's aged. FRESH. Yes, fresh.
Citrus pies when done right had the upper hand because of the zest that can really pop the flavor. One of the early favorites had to be the Orange Creamsicle pie, or to me, Dreamsicle as the orange and vanilla creams blended so well.
You could taste the orange and it had a nice whiff of the tropics. Another pie I could see the orange zest that made the pie sing.
Then came apricot pie. The pie pulled double duty in scent and flavor with heaping portions of apricot. What did it over the top was the it was the only pie that was still warm from the oven.
Oh, that brought back memories of home. When mom's pie, cake, brownies, cookies—whatever was baking—none of my siblings could wait for it to cool before we dived into the dish.
Cheesecake pies, however, always should be nice and cold. They're a finicky bunch of pie that wiggle, shake, jiggle and can have a bit of attitude when mixed with fruit.
The raspberry cream cheese pie, however, had elegance. The raspberries were not covered up by some sort of jelly or preserve, but instead drizzled with topping and had a nice posture coming out the dish—it stood upright and didn't slouch in its plate.
That same couldn't be said for me. I sunk lower and lower in my chair as my stomach grew from pie and had to ask for coffee as the carbs kicked in. This was like a Thanksgiving meal of pie that I wasn't sure I could make it through.
The delightful part was that no matter the quality or score of the pie, they were all edible. There was nothing I would want to spit out as each one had a quality of its own.
But one pie baker stood above the rest. Pat Stahley of Goshen, Ind., a Mennonite snowbird resident, managed to take first place in the cream, fruit and one crust categories with her raspberry cheesecake, apricot and pecan pies.
"It takes lots and lots of practice," Pat said as she accepted three gift bags full of baking ware and accessories.
And all that practice certainly made perfect, but how do I really know what pie perfection is?
Pat should be the judge of that.
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