By Candy Sagon
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Pie is the ultimate American comfort food. We celebrate Thanksgiving with generous helpings of pumpkin pie, and a thick wedge of apple pie has become a symbol of all that is simple, reassuring and good. No other dessert holds this place in our hearts. As screenwriter (and pie fanatic) Holly Goldberg Sloan writes on the food Web site Oneforthetable.com, there's a reason people have to decorate cake, but not pie: Pie is already perfect.
That sentiment certainly was apparent among the more than 50 readers who sent in recipes for this year's Holiday Issue pie contest. The response was both gratifying and instructive. "As American as apple pie" apparently still holds true, judging by the many recipes we received for that dish. There were traditional apple pies, of course, but also apple-cranberry, apple-caramel, apple-sour cream, apple crumb -- almost as many permutations as there are varieties of apples.
The second-most-popular flavor in reader pie recipes was pumpkin; no surprise, given the season. What was surprising was the third-most-popular variety. Our readers evidently adore chocolate cream pie. Which, as it turns out, mirrors what Americans prefer. Who knew? In a nationwide survey this year conducted for the Schwan's food company by New York market research company Goodmind, nearly 1,100 adults were asked to list their top three pie flavors. About three out of four mentioned apple or apple crumb. Pumpkin came in second, and chocolate cream, finishing third, easily beat standards such as pecan, lemon meringue and Key lime.
Our contest entries included pies in all of those flavor categories. As I tested recipes, my family and neighbors got to try two or three pies every day -- for weeks. After a while, just seeing me get out my 9-inch Pyrex pie plates would elicit groans from my calorie-maxed husband. The compelling stories that came with many of the recipes made picking the winners even more difficult. Pie lovers are a passionate lot, and their favorite recipes were often ones passed down for generations or fine-tuned for years to get them just right.
In the end, the best recipes came from the most obsessed bakers. Take, for example, Laura Dove of Alexandria's Del Ray neighborhood, one of those honored in the apple pie category. She convenes panels of friends and neighbors to critique her latest pie creations. Her Capitol Hill co-workers refuse even to mention pie when she's around "because I won't stop talking about it," she admits.
Or consider cream pie winner Amy Turim of Takoma Park, whose mother calls her "a maniac" when it comes to writing out the detailed instructions for her family's favorite mocha mousse pie. And then there's Warren Capps of Alexandria, who began making pies 45 years ago, when he was 10. "I told my grandmother I wanted a cherry pie. She said if I wanted one, I should make it. So I did." It took him years to develop his sour cream apple pie recipe, but we think the wait was worth it.APPLE PIE
Winner: ELLEN CONNORTON, Caramel-Apple Pie
In 1996, when the Pillsbury Bake-Off upped its grand prize to $1 million, Ellen Connorton decided to win the money.
She was living in Washington at the time -- now she's a doctoral student in Boston at Harvard's School of Public Health -- and she thought a retro dessert such as apple pie would be her best shot. She began working on an apple-caramel combination with a crumb topping. She tried using caramel sauce in the filling but soon switched to individually wrapped caramel candies for their thicker consistency.
"I kept testing and testing the recipe. Adding a little lemon juice, a little more butter. I had friends eating it all the time," says Connorton, 46. "After a while they began to say, 'Oh no, it's that pie again.'"
Just when Connorton thought she had the perfect recipe, she hit a snag: "The instructions for the contest came out and said the recipes had to take 15 minutes or less to prepare." Unfortunately, unwrapping the caramels took up most of that time. "I tried to unwrap them faster, but it just didn't work," she recalls. She never submitted the recipe to the Bake-Off, but her work didn't go unrewarded. Her family loves the creation and demands it every holiday season.
What makes the pie a winner is its perfect balance of tart apples, sweet caramel, buttery topping and thin, flaky crust. Cutting the caramels into small pieces allows them to melt into the apple filling and bubble up into the topping for an absolutely heavenly dessert.
Baking tip: Freezing the shortening and butter before adding them to the flour in the food processor keeps the pie crust dough from turning out tough, Connorton says. She also uses fruit juice instead of water because the acid cuts the gluten in the flour and makes it flakier and lighter.APPLE PIE
Honorable Mention: LAURA DOVE, Abby's Blue Ribbon Pie
Laura Dove cheerfully admits that she is compulsive about pie, particularly when it comes to the annual pie baking contest at Del Ray's Art on the Avenue festival in October. Starting in September, she convenes a weekly panel of eight friends and neighbors to critique the recipe she's thinking of entering. "And I mean critique. If someone's not constructive enough, they get booted from the panel," she says.
But even a tough-talking team isn't always enough. "I enter every year, but the only time I've won is with this pie," Dove says, referring to the apple-cranberry dessert she named after her 6-year-old daughter.
The pie began with an old Bon Appetit magazine recipe that she kept tweaking to improve the flavor. She stopped tinkering with it, she says, when she finally won the blue ribbon.
What makes the pie unique is that Dove chops, instead of slices, the apples and then tosses them with dried cranberries, Grand Marnier, lemon or orange zest, cinnamon and sugar. The result is a blend of sweet and tart with a hint of citrus. "Personally, I think the Grand Marnier is the secret," says Dove, 38.
The busy mother of two also loves to have her children help with the baking. "This pie is fun to make with kids because they can add the cranberries and toss the apples. Abby has made a million of these pies."
Baking tip: Dove says she learned this in a baking class at L'Academie de Cuisine: If the pie crust dough looks nice and smooth, like bread dough, you've added too much liquid, and it will turn out tough. But if it looks shaggy and messy in the food processor, it will turn out flaky and delicious.APPLE PIE
Honorable Mention: WARREN CAPPS, Sour Cream Apple Pie
There's not much that keeps Warren Capps, 55, from getting the pie he wants. He was 10 when he made that cherry pie. At 20-something, he tasted a sour cream apple pie at a restaurant and wanted to re-create it at home, so he did that, too -- even though it took him nearly a decade to perfect it.
"I can remember it precisely," says Capps, of Alexandria. "It was at Zimmerman's Family Restaurant in Lancaster, Pennsylvania."
He spent about five years looking for a good baseline recipe to begin tinkering with and another few years developing his version. "I kept working at it, trying to make it taste the way I remembered," he says. He uses a basic all-shortening crust for its flakiness; to keep the crumb topping crisp, he doesn't add it until halfway through the baking.
He serves the pie in the fall because that's when the apple selection is best. He prefers tart apples: "the tarter the better; Granny Smith if you can't find any local ones." In a good year, he notes, he uses the apples from the tree in his front yard.CREAM PIE
Winner: AMY TURIM, Mushkie's Mocha Mousse Pie
Amy Turim, 53, of Takoma Park still remembers her first baking debacle. She was 11 and making an apple cake. The recipe said to "peel and core apple and place on top of batter." So she peeled the apple, placed the peelings on top of the batter and baked it. "My family still laughs about that," she says. "I even won a contest for the best baking disaster story with it."
Times have changed. Turim now occasionally works for her cousin, who owns Eat a Little Something catering in Olney. She is also the anointed baker of the family's all-time favorite dessert, Mushkie's Mocha Mousse Pie.
The rich, elegant pie, with its chocolate crumb crust, coffee-laced chocolate cream filling and whipped cream topping, is named for Turim's mother, who was nicknamed Mushkie by her Russian parents. (Mushka means "little fly" in Russian.) Turim says she doesn't know where her mother got the recipe, but she remembers eating the pie when she was growing up. When she went away to college, she began making it for herself. Then she began making it for her father on his birthday, and then for her husband and son. "I'm the only person in the family who makes it now," she says.
The recipe is not difficult, but the ingredients must be cold, and the pie requires 24 hours in the freezer before it can be served, Turim insists. "My mother says I've become a maniac in really sticking to the directions, but if it doesn't get well chilled overnight, the slices won't hold up when they're cut," she says.
Turim likes serving her pie around the holidays, although she admits it might be a little too rich after a heavy Thanksgiving meal; instead, she suggests making it part of a New Year's Eve spread.
Baking tip: If using raw eggs in a cream pie is a concern, look for pasteurized eggs (the Davidson's brand is available at Safeway and Harris Teeter supermarkets). Just be aware that pasteurized egg whites take twice as long to whip to stiffness as regular egg whites.CUSTARD PIE
Winner: ABBY ARONSON, Mixed Berry Custard Pie
New York native Abby Aronson, 38, gets the prize for the pie recipe sent the longest distance. A Foreign Service officer serving at the U.S. Embassy in Tirana, Albania, she wrote that she began perfecting the recipe about two years ago, when she was stationed in Washington for language training.
"My husband and I had just gotten married [and] we had a 'local honeymoon,' visiting places we had never been in and around D.C.," Aronson wrote in an e-mail. They discovered the pick-your-own berry farms, and when they ended up with more fruit than they could eat, Aronson began experimenting with berry custard pie recipes.
The pie she eventually created is breathtakingly easy and is like a slice of summer on a plate. What makes it doubly inspired is that it tastes just as summery made with frozen berries, so it can be enjoyed year-round.
"The pie was a favorite in my language training program, and it's a big hit again when I serve it at parties here in Albania," Aronson writes. She says that at Thanksgiving, her mother's pumpkin pie still has the place of honor, "but this is my go-to recipe now for almost any other occasion."PUMPKIN PIE
Winner: TINA HSU, Candied-Pecan-Topped Pumpkin Pie
Can a woman who doesn't really like pumpkin pie create a winning pumpkin pie recipe? She can for love.
That's the story behind the candied pecan-topped pumpkin pie created by Tina Hsu, 37, of Mount Pleasant, for her husband.
Hsu, a lawyer in Rockville, met her husband, Doran Flowers, about 10 years ago when they were law students at Georgetown University. Until she met him, she had never eaten a pumpkin pie. "The idea of squash in a pie sounded terrible to me," she says. "I couldn't imagine eating the stuff I scraped out of my yearly jack-o'-lantern."
The two were dating at the time and were getting together for Thanksgiving with friends. "I knew he liked pie, so I figured I'd make a pumpkin pie. I didn't really know what it was, so I looked up all these recipes. I had a whole pile of them, and I kept trying different ones. Some were better than others."
She liked the way one recipe put pecans on top. She decided that a prepared graham-cracker crust would be easier -- and taste better -- than a dough crust. "I wanted a recipe that was easy and had nothing exotic. I'm not a baker, and I wanted a recipe that anyone could make," Hsu says. "The most laborious thing about my recipe is arranging the candied pecans on top halfway through the baking."
The pie she created a decade ago is now a Thanksgiving tradition. "I'll make four, and he'll eat two, and everyone else eats the other two," she says. She confesses that pies "are still not my thing," but that doesn't matter. "My husband likes them, and everyone else likes them; that's all that's important."NUT PIE
Winner: HEATHER KENNEDY, Heather's Bourbon Chocolate Pecan Pie
Pecans, bourbon and chocolate: What could be better? That was Heather Kennedy's thought when she created what has become her favorite pecan pie recipe. The 31-year-old McLean mother of one grew up in Texas, prime pecan territory. "To me, pecan pie just says holidays," she says.
She has been working on her recipe for years, initially starting with a plain pecan pie and then tweaking it a little each season until she was satisfied. "I'm a chocolate lover, so any time you can find a way to add chocolate, it's a good thing," she says.
She prefers Jim Beam bourbon in her pie, and her original instructions included wry comments such as, "If the pecans are still floating in excess bourbon, drink it." Some might call the pie overly rich, but Kennedy would disagree. "People don't think it's too rich. They even want it with vanilla ice cream."
Candy Sagon is a former writer for The Post's Food section. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.