I love apple pie and have been trying to learn about heirloom apples so I couldn’t very well turn down an invitation to judge an apple pie contest organized by the Friends of Piper Orchard, Seattle Tree Fruit Society and City Fruit. The Piper Orchard with some 50 heirloom apple and some nut trees in Carkeek Park was planted in the 1890’s but had become neglected and overgrown until being cleaned up and refurbished by a dedicated group of community heirloom apple enthusiasts in the 1980’s. Today it is a living museum of heirloom apple tree varieties maintained by the Seattle Parks Department and Friends of Piper Orchard.
Held at the Environmental Learning Center at Carkeek Park, the apple pie contest was part of the annual Festival of Fruit which included an heirloom apple tasting, cider press, lecture on making hard cider by Northwest apple guru Bob Norton, apple identification for people who don’t know the variety of the old apple tree in their back yard and a tour of Piper Orchard.
I was instructed to be ready to judge at 10:00 am. When I arrived, fellow judge Bob Norton, was giving a talk about making hard cider.
A table in the back of the room held the pies, bathed in the slanted autumn light coming in through the window. About a third of the pies, recently out of the oven, were still warm. Is there anything more heartwarming than the smell of apple pie right out of the oven? I guess the answer would be the smell of several apple pies right out the oven.
Earlier that morning I sent out a tweet on Twitter asking what made an apple pie great. Molly Watson, a former staffer at Sunset Magazine replied immediately, “Fully cooked apples, flaky crust and not a lot of nonsense in between.” Angie Jabine former editor of Northwest Palate magazine added, “Superior crust (the hardest part), the right sweet-tart ratio. Cinnamon.” “It’s all about the crust!” says Poppy Tooker from New Orleans. Colorado piemaker Kelly Yandell, whose Twitter handle is @themeaningofpie, likes a little lemon zest. Archery coach Ann J. from Toronto says “tasty crust, not too thick, cooked through and apples should have good texture.”
I’m also big fan of crust… a golden-brown, tender, crisp, flaky crust with “backbone.” My wife Kate and I collaborated on a joyful two-year quest to develop the quintessential American apple pie figuring pie was probably the best way to celebrate and give expression to heirloom apples. When we started I had a notion of what the perfect crust was like; it just took two years to get there.
Apple pie, of course, is all about apples and there are so many to choose from. Some apples turn into applesauce in a pie. Others like the Newtown Pippin hardly lose their shape at all when cooked. Some are seductively aromatic. The Brammley Seedling is puckeringly tart and Russets are sweet.
Unless I’m using Gravensteins, the tart-sweet apple which many say has the best flavor of all, I favor a mix of apples with different textures, colors, aromas and flavors. I’ve been exploring the wonderful world of heirloom apples like those century old varieties grown in Piper Orchard. Professor Norton has a simple definition for “heirloom” when applied to apples—“a variety that has been around for at least a century.”
With more heirloom varieties coming into farmer’s markets, selecting apples for a pie is a fun way to support the growers committed to bringing the old varieties back and a way to experience and learn about the panoply of tastes and textures of the apples our grandparents and their grandparents made pies from.
My fellow pie judges were Tracy Bernal, former Tom Douglas pastry chef and veteran Festival of Fruit pie judge; food writer, blogger and cookbook author Lorna Yee and Professor Norton who joined in after his cider talk. There were ten apple pies to judge. Each pie had a number. Judges received a slice of each and scored the crust and filling on several criteria. Every pie received a ribbon. We awarded three pies “Best of Show” ribbons, two for superior crust and pie #5 for a standout apple filling. Unfortunately I never learned the variety of apple in pie #5, nor did we learn who submitted it. Shucks. I couldn’t help thinking if the pie maker with the best crust would marry the piemaker with the best filling, we would have a hell of pie.
I tried not to eat too much pie but wasn’t successful.