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Peaches, blackberries, apples, blueberry, strawberry and rhubarb, oh my! There’s never a bad time to bake a pie. And if you need an extra incentive, Missouri First Lady Georganne Nixon’s pie contest is just around the corner. Deadline to enter is Aug. 2!
The competition will be judged at the Missouri State Fair on Thursday, August 19, the day of the Governor’s Ham Breakfast. There are categories for fruit pies, as well as soft pies with custard or cream filling. A Best of Show award will also be presented.
The competition is sponsored by AgriMissouri, a marketing program of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, and Starline Brass, a Sedalia-based manufacturer. Cash prizes in the First Lady’s Pie Contest total $750, with the top winners each taking home $150.
Although the contest encourages Missouri amateur bakers to prepare their favorite family recipe, every cook can improve an old standard by learning a few tricks of the trade. Few Missouri bakers are more qualified to offer advice than Jan Wooten, proprietor of Sunshine Valley Farm, Market and Café near Rogersville.
Jan began baking pies at her U-pick farm operation and farm market about 15 years ago, well before the business opened a café and started serving lunch. It seems that her customers just always clamored for freshly baked pies.
“Pies are the original comfort food,” Jan says. “There’s a nice combination of whatever the filling is – it’s generally kind of gooey or soft and has lots of flavor – and then you have the crust. There’s always a contrast, whether it’s a cold pie or a hot pie or a meringue pie or a cream pie. I think that’s one thing that attracts people.”
Jan rarely bakes cream pies, finding them too complicated for her business, but says she admires anyone who can pull it off. Soft pies are especially difficult in the summer, when the heat makes getting a good meringue topping a challenge. For most bakers, just starting out or entering their first contest, she suggests sticking with fruit pies. If you do decide to make a cream pie for the State Fair contest, remember, you must transport the pie on ice in a cooler. The pie will be kept cold until the judging starts.
AgriMissouri member Sunshine Valley Farm Café specializes in fruit pies. The farm grows apples, peaches, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, all of which are made into pies, depending on the season. Jan also bakes pies with other fruits purchased from local producers. She says that while apple pie is a favorite year round, she believes that in-season fruit – and lots of it — makes the best pie.
For the State Fair contest in August, Jan says that peaches should be in their prime, and early apples will be coming on as well. Fruit doesn’t have to be picked fresh to make good pies, though. Stored fruit works fine, she says, as long as it’s well cared for.
Some fruit is easier to work with than others, she says.
“Blueberries are easy. Apples are easy as long as you have a peeler. Peaches are harder because they’re more difficult to peel and pit. They take more labor,” Jan says. “Gooseberries are the hardest because it’s hard to get all the stems off.”
Whichever kind of pie you decide to bake, Jan recommends using “real” fruit, as opposed to canned pie filling. That’s not really an issue for the First Lady’s Pie Contest because the rules specify homemade crusts and fillings. But even when baking for your friends and family, the closer you can get to the tree or bush that bore the fruit, the better your pie will taste.
Jan says she limits the number of extra ingredients so that the flavor of the fruit really comes through. She uses just enough thickener – flour, tapioca or commercial products such as Clear Gel – so that the pie filling isn’t runny. She also skimps on extra sugar, though some fruit, such as gooseberries or early-season blackberries require some help to keep the pie from being too tart.
Creating a delicious filling is only half of the challenge of making a great pie, though. A good pie depends on a perfect crust.
Crust is surprisingly challenging, given the seemingly simple recipe. Flour, water, shortening and maybe a little salt — that’s all there is to it. And yet, some cook’s crusts turn out light and flaky, while others are tough and unappetizing. The key is not to do too much, Jan says. Don’t work the crust until it’s smooth and shiny. “More stirring does not mean a more conscientious baker,” she says.
Even the water you use matters. For a flaky crust, use cold water – ice water if you have to bake the crust right away. This helps your shortening to stay in little globs so that when you bake the pie, tiny air pockets form in the dough.
Finally, there are tricks to baking your pie. Some cooks watch the top of the crust and pull the pie out of the oven when it begins to brown. Jan says she’s more concerned about making sure the filling is properly cooked. “If it’s too runny and it falls apart, that’s not good,” she says. “If it’s too firm and tastes like it didn’t get cooked long enough, you might as well eat a raw apple.”
Generally, she says, a pie is done when the filling starts oozing out onto the baking sheet. When baking apple pies, Jan pushes a toothpick into the fruit to judge if the apples are cooked. With some pies, such as blueberries, she precooks the filling before assembling the pie so she only has to worry about the crust when the dessert goes in the oven.
Although she once cooked 82 pies for the Governor’s Conference on Agriculture, Jan Wooten won’t be entering the First Lady’s Pie Contest, which is not open to professionals. Amateur bakers should get their fruit ready and start rolling out their dough, though. They could bring home a ribbon – and maybe a bit of cash – at the State Fair in August. First place will get you $150, second place winners will walk away with $100 and third place will take home $50. Have the best pie in the state? The Best of Show winner will receive $150.
“I’d say go for it,” Jan says. “What do they have to lose? A couple of hours, a few ingredients and they might have the best pie in the state!”
For more information about the First Lady’s Pie Contest, including rules, entry blank and recipe form, log on to http://www.mo.gov/ or MoStateFair.com .