A short while after I had started baking apple pies at the Farmhouse, I got wind of a pie baking contest in one of the city's neighborhoods. It was a fundraiser for one of the local parks and anyone and everyone was welcome to participate. I knew I had a long way to go before my pie was award-winning, but I really wanted to give it a shot anyway. If I could get an honorable mention? Now that would really be something. It would be a start to making a name for myself in the baking community, affirm that I was on the right path and get me one step closer to having my own bakery or cafe.
The contest was for apple pies only and had very strict guidelines - no other fruit allowed, double crust only! There were also very specific tasting notes; the pie should have eye appeal, filling consistency, a nice color, definition, spice balance, crust that was flaky, but not too flaky, with uniform thickness completely sealed with no leaking and a flavor that was complimentary to the filling.
Over the next few weeks, I made pies several times a week with various alterations to the recipe, trying to get the spice, sweetness and consistency of the apples to the right place. I started by tinkering with different kinds of apples. Tim, the owner of the Farmhouse had given me lectures regarding the types of apples I was using for pies and how I should taste them to determine the appropriate sugar level, and not overpower it with additional flavors like lemon juice, and what thickeners were best and so on. He had a secret mix of apples that he always used for pie that consisted of Jonathan, Golden Delicious and a couple other varieties. I personally hate Golden Delicious, so I stayed far away from those and searched for ones with a nice round flavor and tartness. I settled on a mix of Jonathan and Empire. The Empires were tart almost like a Macintosh, but had a firmer texture that would hold up in baking. The Jonathan had great flavor and would break down a little more, resulting in a pie that was neither crunchy nor mush.
Once the apples were chosen, I played around with crust recipes, working with varying amounts of sugar, butter, shortening and even one that used hard cider instead of water. I also experimented with chilling times and oven temperatures. Sometimes my crust drooped in the oven, sometimes the filling was too tart, most times the crust was not flaky enough. But I kept at it, buying up all the apples I could at local farmer's markets. I even went apple picking in Michigan one weekend.
"Tim's harvest party at the apple orchard is this weekend and he wants you to make the pies for it."
I felt a knot form in my throat and I hesitated to ask the next question, fearing the answer. "How many pies does he need?"
"As many as you can possibly make."
Awesome. While I was honored that he thought my pies were good enough for his party guests, I had no idea how many I could possibly bake in the next two days. I decided to whip up crusts for eight pies that night and let them chill until the next day. Then I would come in and power through the peeling, coring and slicing. Up until now, I had been doing all of the apple prep with a small apple corer, a vegetable peeler and a chef's knife. It was tedious. Apples for two pies took me 30-45 minutes. This was not gonna fly if I needed to make more than two pies tomorrow. As if reading my mind, that night my husband surprised me with a combination apple peeler, corer, slicer. It was a brilliant device and cut the prep time down significantly. Not to mention, it saved my hands from hours of pain!
Apparently Pam had been thinking the same thing. When I walked into the Farmhouse kitchen the next night, there sat the same peeler, slicer, corer my husband had brought me the night before.
"Have you used one of these things before? It's a life saver!"
Indeed it was. That night could have been a nightmare, but with that device, it went by without a hitch. Now if I could just get my pies for the contest to come out right...
The night before the contest, I started my prep for the pies. I had planned everything out. The crust had been made earlier in the day and was thoroughly chilled. I would fill the crust, chill the pie overnight and then bake it off in the morning. I got the filling ready to go, lined a pie plate with crust, filled it and started to seal it. But something was wrong. Juice started oozing all over the place. A quick check of the bottom crust found a gigantic, gaping hole in it. Panic set in. It was already 11 pm. I was going to get up at 6 am the next morning to bake the pies before the contest. I needed to make another crust and it would have to chill at least 1 hour before I could roll it. Looked like it was going to be a long night. I took a deep breath and worked through it. Why on earth had I thought this contest was a good idea?
The next morning, I baked the pies, but didn't check on them until they were almost done. Apparently my oven was not wide enough to bake two pies on one shelf - the edges of one of the pies nearest to the side had almost burned. It looked like one of the crusts had leaked too. Disaster. But I swallowed my pride and delivered the pies anyway. If nothing else, maybe they could sell them and make some money for the park.
"Ceth!" He exclaimed. "I served some of your pie to this older gentleman today and he said it was the best pie he'd ever had!"
I wanted to kiss him. After feeling like an utter failure, he had managed to turn my world around. I had lost sight of what was important. All along I thought it was that stupid contest, but it wasn't. It was the people that were eating my desserts on a regular basis at the cafe. They already approved of my work, they didn't need my name on a list to validate it. I hadn't needed the contest to win. I had won months ago when I had accepted the challenge of baking at the Farmhouse. And that was a prize most amateur bakers couldn't add to their list of awards.