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September 19, 2011

KCRW's 3rd Annual Good Food Pie Contest 2011 at LACMA

Once again the Annual Good Food Pie Contest has come and gone, with much anticipation and angst on my part.

This year's 3rd Annual competition again had many changes to the structure of the event. It was held at LACMA, with many family-friendly kids activities surrounding the main competition and sampling.

(the check-in line)

I planned to enter both the cream and fruit categories this year; in the cream category, a tried-and-true recipe, my mom's chocolate marble cheesecake, and in the fruit, a more experimental pie inspired by the blackberries that grew in my garden this year. I've never made a fruit pie, let alone one without following a recipe, and I've never made pie crust from scratch, so the whole thing was a risk. I half expected the fruit pie to flop in the kitchen, and thought the cheesecake would be my salvation.

A friend of mine kindly let me borrow her beautiful kitchen in her new home to bake for the competition, as I have no counter space in my tiny apartment. I enjoyed the companionship of baking in a home with my friend and her husband, chatting as I worked. Baking in the unfamiliar kitchen was lovely, and the cheesecakes were beautiful ~ until the very last step, of resting in the oven for one hour with the oven off after baking. I mistakenly turned the dial of my friend's oven over the top, instead of back the way it came, resulting in the oven being turned to broil rather than off! Goodbye went the cheesecake, at least for competition.

On the other hand, the blackberry-toasted pine nut-homegrown rosemary creation I had concocted in my head solidified in real life better than expected. I visited at least three grocery stores to find frozen blackberries, so my fruit entry was very nearly mango-rosemary pie, but emerged triumphant after the whole cheesecake fiasco. On the stovetop I simmered the fruit, water, sugar, rosemary, a touch of vanilla, and cornstarch to create the filling, along with the toasted nuts.

I made cheddar crust from scratch, inspired by one of Evan Kleiman's pie-a-day posts from the first season of pie-mania. I used a Betty Crocker basic recipe, reducing the fat (Crisco) by just a bit and adding a couple cups of grated cheddar cheese. The dough's texture rolled out nicely, but I should have made more--I was unable to get the rolled out crust to cover the entire pie pan, so couldn't properly flute the edge. Instead my pie took a rustic form, with the bottom crust folded over the top like a tart.

I had bought stencils to add an artistic flare to my garnishes on top of the pies, but by the end of the cheesecake fiasco, then having to wing my fruit pie in every way, I had forgotten to save pine nuts for garnish, and had no energy left to be particular. I etched a sand dollar into the top of the pie for venting and left it at that, a bit deflated myself.

The next morning, I was in much better spirits and pretty proud of myself for attempting something new as I headed to LACMA for the competition. I arrived early to be assured of one door prize--an Emile Henry Pie Dish was promised to the first 100 to check in. As it turns out, I was in the wrong place, and way too early besides. So I had some time for some great photographs, and got to watch the crowds entering the museum, which opened about two hours later.

I found the right place in time to be the seventh pie checked in anyway, and this year's process was quite streamlined and smooth! One part I really enjoyed about the first pie contest was everyone was in a congenial mood and there to have fun, so people talked to one another while waiting in line. As the contest has become more organized, it seems to be all business. I was done in five minutes, and really didn't get to meet anyone or see anyone else's pie before it was checked in and cut into.

LACMA was a great choice for resources--they had all the manpower necessary this year for crowd control, and space containment. The judging once again was held in private, except for the five category finalists, which were judged onstage for best in show. Volunteers cut into pies on a private dock area, and judges tasted from only one slice. I wonder if judges got the full aesthetic value of each pie's overall appearance in the judging process. I was lucky enough in the post-press to find a couple shots that showed my pie on the judging table (above, #7), before and after sampling.

However it looked, my pie tasted pretty great! Without practice, I was afraid the interior would be runny, but on sampling day, the pie filling proved to hold up, with an almost gummy-like consistency. Fine-tuning the recipe next time will involve reducing the cornstarch. The cheddar crust was definitely the way to go. More room for experimentation in the crust will be to adjust my fats--I'd like to add some butter in place of a portion of Crisco next time for better flavor.

While the judges were busy on the loading dock, the pies (minus a single piece) were transported to the big tent for display and sampling, and arranged by check-in number. In not being grouped together by class, it was hard to get a sense of how many pies you were actually competing against. I never did hear summaries of the categories. But as usual, it was fun to see the array of combinations.

Because the competition was held at LACMA, the viewing and the tasting were open to all museum patrons. This meant there was no way there could be enough pie for the entire crowd, and the event staff were constantly trying to urge the crowd through the line faster. That was the biggest drawback to this year's contest. I have no problem including friends and family of contestants that come to root on their family members, but including random passerbys made the event unmanageable. After going through all the work to bake and compete, I was dismayed to only get one or two samples so that there would be enough for everyone. And being asked to serve your own pie meant you couldn't taste anything but those immediately around you as you were too busy to roam. Just being pushed for time is an affront; the reason I compete is to get to enjoy everyone else's creation, even if it takes me more than five seconds to read the card.

The apron fashion show was an annual highlight of the competition. This year was fun, with the participants weaving down the long line of the crowd. I've worn a different one of my Grandma Walker's aprons each year, and this year's above is the last I have without repeating. Putting on her apron always makes me feel close to my late grandma; I know she's have so much fun with me at these events.

I'll post my other favorite pie combinations in a separate blog entry. I'll be looking to see what changes are made to the event next year. Hopefully it'll be a more private event. For now I'll share my pie recipe with you, and look forward to making it again next spring with my homegrown fresh blackberries.

"Black Rose" Pie
Blackberry ~ homegrown Rosemary ~ toasted Pine Nuts on Double Cheddar Crust

for Crust:
3/4 cup Crisco
2 cups all-purpose flour
4-5 Tbsp cold water
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

for Filling:
3 bags frozen Blackberries
1 Tbsp finely minced fresh Rosemary
1 bag (about 1/4 cup) Pine Nuts, toasted
1 Tbsp Vanilla
1 1/2 Tbsp Cornstarch

Simmer filling over stove until fruit falls apart and sauce somewhat thickens. If sauce is too runny, strain out fruit, reserving liquid, and use only enough liquid to cover fruit in pie pan. Mix crust and refrigerate till cold; divide dough in half and roll two circles for top and bottom. Lay bottom in greased pie pan. Pour in filling. Cover with top crust and seal the edges. Cut slits in top crust for ventilation. Cook at 325 degrees for approx. 45 minutes or until golden.

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