In the late summer, a baker’s fancy turns to thoughts of pie. Everywhere you look in the markets, you’re confronted with gorgeous fruit in season.
Naturally, this is the time of year to hold pie contests. The 5th Annual Mission Pie Contest pulled in 20 hopefuls on Sunday, and the people who showed up were as varied as the pies they brought to the competition.
After the judges got an eyeful of the complete pie (appearance was a key judging factor), Mission Pie co-owner Krystin Rubin cut them open. You’d think, as a professional, she’d cast a jaundiced eye over some of the sloppier entrants, but no. “Each one is just a delight to encounter. The amount of care that’s gone into each one of these... Really, it’s touching to me, how seriously all the contestants are taking this.”
While the judges tasted and took notes in the kitchen, the contenders and their supporters dove into the rest of the pies laid out in the front room.
Callie Arnold, a pre-school teacher currently from West Marin, made a chocolate cherry pie. She acknowledged preemptively that the recipe makes for a pie that’s “a little soupy,” but that’s exactly why she thinks it works. Arnold loves how the cherry juices run out and mix with the chocolate. Years of practice have made her confident of this pie’s charms, but she harbored doubts when I talked to her, right after she tasted the Shaker Lemon.
Clothing designer Michelle Tannenbaum of San Francisco was also worried about the Shaker Lemon. She made a galette with plums, pluots, and Mission, Adriatic and Kadota figs. The filling came courtesy of Knoll Farms, the famous fig producer from Brentwood. OK, so I’m biased, because I did a story on them two years ago for NPR and I was blown away by their fruit. Tannenbaum was more than blown away. After years of arriving at the open of the Ferry Building Farmers' Market to get first crack at their fruit, she finally began selling for the Knolls at their stand. The habit is cheaper that way.
Back in the kitchen, the judging continued. Filmmaker Kyle Garrett recently started The 7 Squared Project, a documentary series highlighting non-profit and otherwise “purposeful” businesses in San Francisco. Mission Pie, with its mission driven approach to community building, is one of his subjects. Of course, I had to ask him about the Shaker Lemon. Garrett thought it “pretty spectacular,” even though he’s not a huge lemon fan. “It was kind of crisp and chewy at the same time. The flavor was not overpowering.“
While there were professional bakers on the judging panel, (Michelle Pusateri of Nana Joe's Granola and Mission Pie’s Sharon Litzky) Mission Pie’s co-owners Krystin Rubin and Karen Heisler like to make sure non-professionals are well represented, too. Each year, the previous year’s winner is invited to judge. Patricia Hewitt won the contest last year with a honey pie, made with honey from her own bee hive. “A honey mousse pie, really. With a very flaky crust.”
Hewitt was immediately taken with the concept of the Emperor Norton, a chocolate nut concoction. “It’s incredibly sweet and nutty, and Emperor Norton probably was sweet and nutty, too. I’m really thrilled to see someone incorporating the history of San Francisco into a San Franciscan pie contest.”
There must be some way to find the metaphoric significance in the toughness of the crust as it relates to the character of the famous 19th century oddball, but I can’t think of it off-hand. Somebody had to hold the plate down, so Hewitt could make off with a bite of the Emperor Norton using her compostable fork. Still, she was smitten.
After 90 minutes, with the crowd in the front room buzzed with restless energy. They’d already fixed on their pick for People’s Choice. But the judges in the kitchen took their time, deliberating earnestly.
Everybody loved the flaky crust on the Shaker lemon, but only on top. The bottom was gummy, and in a pie contest, anything less than a dynamite crust will take you out of the running. The judges waxed lyrical about the crust on a lime blackberry Italian meringue that “revealed itself in layers.” Best Crust by a unanimous vote.
Emperor Norton walked away with Most Creative. But the crown for Best in Show went to something entirely different, an unassuming pie with none of the visual flash or dazzle of its competitors. It was, one judge said later, “a sleeper.”
When the group got to the Coffee Break Pie, they all murmured the word “love” in unison. Even though one judge worried the taste was so “classic,” there was a good chance this pie came straight from an old recipe book. As if that would be a problem. Executing a pie recipe properly is no small feat.
The judge needn’t have worried. Coffee Break Pie did not exist before Sunday.
For the past two weeks, Sarah Jones of Dallas (and more recently Palo Alto) has been baking “non-stop.” She baked every night, and ate pie for breakfast, searching for the perfect recipe. Her colleagues in accounting at Apple have also been gamely gaining weight in support of her bid.
Jones found something close in Bon Appetit: a recipe for caramel coffee creme brulee. And then she found another, for a salty honey pie.
“So I basically took a salty honey recipe, substituted caramel that was infused with coffee for the honey and then did a Biscoff cream (creamed cookies, people!) and sea salt." She had been looking for Nutella in the market and came across the Biscoff instead...
“At the last minute, I decided to lighten it up with the Biscoff cream, and I think that helped cut the sweetness a little bit.”
“I was so afraid,” Jones said, “because everybody had fruit, and I was going to go fruit. And I just decided, you know, I’m going to go really rich.”
She must have been gauging the tenor of the room, because the People’s Choice was indeed fruity to the max: Ru Cymrot-Wu’s Olallieberry and Peach.