Anna: The home cook can do more adventurous things in a contest than we can in our business, since they’re just making one pie. We get pretty adventurous with our pies at Three Babes, but we’re not going to make a pineapple-guava-infused persimmon custard pie with a walnut crust. That’s interesting when it works out well, but sometimes it doesn’t.
Don’t overdo it.
Lenore: Ultimately, the best way to stand out is to have a well-executed product. We want people to be creative, but when people try to stand out by doing something crazy, it often that backfires. A lot of times people try to use unusual ingredients like rosewater or tea, but they wind up overdoing it. Same with alcohol in your pie. We think alcohol is great, and it can really heighten the other flavors, but if you put too much bourbon in a bourbon pecan pie, it’s like drinking a shot of alcohol, which is unpleasant when you’re eating a dessert. If you’re going to get creative, moderation is really important.
Do use quality ingredients.
Anna: If you are entering a CUESA Pie Contest, we expect that you probably already have your heart in the right place as far as sourcing really excellent ingredients goes, from getting fruit from the farmers market to using flour that’s organic or locally sourced.
Do use what’s in season.
Anna: Apples are exciting right now because there are so many varieties to choose from at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. We love to mix different varieties. Right now we’re mixing Granny Smith from Hidden Star Orchards and Jonathans from Devoto Orchards, because there’s one really crisp tart apple and another softer, more floral red-skinned apple that imparts a beautiful pink to the filling. It’s fun to play with apples, and you can taste the difference when you use a mix of tart and sweet, rather than using just a single variety.
Fall is also an interesting time because we’re so lucky to live in California and benefit from the insanely long growing period of freshly grown berries. You wouldn’t necessarily think of berries in the fall, but we have a pear-blackberry crumble on our Thanksgiving menu because you can get blackberries so late in the season. Pears are definitely fall, but we like to spice our pie up with some tart berries.
We also use walnuts from Old Dog Ranch in our Salty Honey Walnut pie. Nuts are one of those awesome pantry items that, when stored properly, can be kept for a long time. There’s definitely a clean taste that comes from the new crop in the fall.
Don’t underbake your crust.
Lenore: Our number one tip: don’t underbake your pie crust. Most of the entries we get are underbaked.
Anna: People are really afraid that their pie is going to be overdone, and they’re really afraid of the browning of crust. But there’s nothing worse than an underbaked pie, when the dough and filling aren’t properly cooked. Don’t be afraid to get a nice brown tone on your pie.
Do know how to use thickeners.
Anna: Thickeners mystify people. One time we had an employee add twice the amount of cornstarch to some of our pies. That’s one of those ingredients in a pie that you never want to be noticeably present. You want to make sure you can slice a pie well and not have it oozing out over everything. You also don’t want the filling to be gelatinous.
Do make sure it tastes good.
Lenore: The question we ask ourselves when tasting a pie is, “Does this taste good?” One of the big ways to mess that up is adding too much of something. If a flavor enhancer really jumps out at us, that’s usually a negative thing. I remember we tasted one pie in a contest that was really creative, using a lattice of bacon on top, but the pie had large chunks of congealed lard inside. It was really unpleasant to eat. For the pies that don’t win, it’s usually because of something really obvious like that.
Do learn from your mistakes.
Lenore: One time we had someone donate us some plums that were super delicious when we ate them, but when we cooked them the skins imparted this sourness that was terrible.
Anna: The lesson is, be familiar with your ingredients. Don’t enter a pie contest using ingredients you’ve never worked with.
Do have fun!
Lenore: We think this pie contest is a lot of fun, and there are always great prizes, so we encourage everyone to enter. Even if you don’t win, it’s just good practice. With pie making, like many things in life, you have to keep practicing to get a good feel for it.