September 2007 Issue
Apple of Their Eye
Elyria's annual pie-baking contest is a bittersweet delight.
The women will start to congregate on the town square shortly before 9 a.m., cradling their Pyrex pie dishes as though the contents inside were more precious than gold. They'll warily scope out the competition, silently wondering whether they'll walk away a winner.
And I will take my place in the conference room of Elyria's First Place Bank, plastic cutlery in hand –– one of four judges who, with the stroke of a pencil, will pass muster on something I have no idea how to make.
To me, the art of apple-pie baking is as mysterious as Stonehenge.
For the past 19 years, I have judged the baking skills of contestants in a Saturday morning Apple Pie Contest that's part of Elyria's annual Apple Festival. Every September, the city pays homage to the fruit that's always at the head of the class –– or at least inside just about every school kid's lunch box — at this time of year. The pie-baking contest is a key ingredient to the fest's success.
My foray into Betty Crockerdom began 20 years ago, when I was an editor at the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram, charged with overseeing the newspaper's weekly food coverage –– a tall order for someone who still buys Lean Cuisine by the caseload. I got through it for 10 years by filling my food section with stories written by experts who made everything sound like a cinch to whip up. (A phrase that, when proffered nonchalantly by friends in the same breath as a potluck invitation, has always caused me to break out in a cold sweat and run to the gourmet food store for my specialty: a precut, pre-arranged fruit or vegetable tray.)
So when, in 1987, my pal Dottie Klimczak, Apple Festival events chair, asked me to be a judge for the pie-baking competition, I couldn't help but look askance. "Why not instead have a contest asking people to write essays about their favorite apple –– MacIntosh, Granny Smith, Red Delicious or Gala?" I nervously suggested. Needless to say, my proposal was quickly dismissed.
Now, almost two decades of tastings later, it never ceases to amaze me how seriously the apple-pie contest is taken: the $25 first prize and accompanying blue ribbon are greeted with nearly as much enthusiasm as a Publishers Clearing House check for a zillion dollars and a visit from the Prize Patrol. And, like the post office, neither rain, sleet nor snow will thwart pie enthusiasts in their pursuit. (Or as one festival official explained to local media six years ago, after the events of September 11 caused so many other activities across the nation to shut down: "No terrorists are going to make us cancel this festival.")
It's also astounding how many ways an apple pie can be –– how do I put this delicately? –– improvised. Entries are judged on a 40-point scale for crust, consistency, filling and appearance. Too bad originality isn't one of the categories.
Every year, I wait with bated breath and nervous stomach for the usual suspects: the pie that is barely visible beneath all the nutmeg sprinkled on top, and the creamy apple-and-custard concoction that looks like the result of a Sunbeam Mixmaster gone amuck. Making last year's debut was an apple pie bursting with green grapes that erupted like Mt. Vesuvius when the first slice was cut.
Being a judge for a pie contest does have its merits, and commands more than a little respect. I feel like Emeril Lagasse as the crowd of 40 or so gathers around to watch my every bite. Those of us who sit in judgment every year are a motley crew ranging in age from The Greatest Generation to Generation X. Although we get together only once a year –– just for this event –– we take an avid interest in what has transpired in each other's lives over the past 365 days: kids off to college, a parent's passing, the aches and pains of growing older.
For us, this pie contest –– which over the years has ebbed and flowed from six to 35 entries –– is woven tightly into the fabric of our lives, rent through the years only by the death of one member and the move to Arizona of another. It's truly a bonding experience as we dig in and compare notes.
All gastronomic agonies quickly fade into oblivion when the perfect pie is encountered. For me, it's the one that brings back bittersweet memories of the pie my Aunt Dorothy used to whip up with ease: a delectable confection featuring a buttery crust that was flaky but not falling apart, a filling that was sweet yet a tad tangy, and an appearance that would make Martha Stewart weep.
Last year, the forks-down favorite was the deep-dish apple pie submitted by Cindy Halfhill of Elyria Township. Her mother, Doris Hintz, handed down the recipe to her. Cindy has fond memories of savoring the dessert as a child, when she and her six siblings would discuss their day's adventures around the dinner table.
The joy of cooking was offered by my mother, too. Sadly, I spurned it, opting instead to spend after-school afternoons in front of the TV watching Dark Shadows, and weekends with friends playing Moody Blues records.
Now it's too late to learn the secrets behind my mom's melt-in-your-mouth beef roast and my aunt's renowned pie.
"The secret is the flour I use," Cindy says of her award-winning apple pie entry –– a recipe that she hopes to one day share with her 15-year-old daughter. "But the key ingredient is love."
Homemade pies more precious than gold? Bank on it.
Linda Feagler is senior editor of Ohio Magazine. The 2007 Elyria Apple Festival will be held September 21 through Sept. 23. Most activities take place on the town square. For more information, visit www.elyriaapplefestival.com.
Mom's Deep-Dish Apple Pie
Recipe courtesy of Cindy Halfill
For pie crust:
2 cups flour *
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup milk
For pie filling:
8 cups cored, peeled and sliced apples
2 tablespoons flour *
3 pinches cinnamon
2 pinches nutmeg
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 stick butter
Combine flour and salt in medium bowl. Add oil and milk. Mix well. Roll out half the dough on a floured surface and place in a 9-inch deep-dish pie pan.
Mix apples, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar in a large bowl. Add lemon juice. Pour into bottom pie shell. Cut butter into 4 pieces and place on top of pie filling. Roll out top crust and place over pie mixture. Pinch and seal the edges. Poke holes in top of crust with butter knife to vent. Sprinkle cinnamon sugar on top of crust, if desired.
Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.
*Cindy Halfhill uses Hudson Cream Flour