Being a pie contest judge sounds like a lot of fun, but you aren’t qualified just because you like pie a lot. You can’t have a cold or any food allergies or aversions, and you can’t be a wimp.
I’ve seen neophyte judges who realized their problem after 10 pies into the gauntlet. I always tell them to taste just enough no matter how good it is. It’s not like wine or beer judging, where you can discretely spit out a taste. You have to swallow. When you have five more fruit pies to rate you can’t say, “I’m full.” You have to judge pie No. 15 with the same gusto you had for pie No. 2.
The kicker: When you get to the end you’ll probably have to go back and re-taste the first few to make sure you have your Top 3 pies. The first pies they bring you to judge at a pie contest inevitably taste good.
My pie judging history is long and messy, but I’ve been rating pastry for more than 30 years — not constantly — including Chief Judge at the National Pie Championships. The subject is on my mind because I’ve managed to schedule two contests this weekend, Hygiene on Saturday and Louisville on Monday. Usually I like a month in between to swim a lot of laps.
To prepare to judge you can’t be ravenously hungry and you can’t be full. My advice: Eat lots of lean protein beforehand and avoid sugar. In the pie judging business we call this “un-carb-loading.”
Here are the criteria we use to judge a pie:
• You will be shown the whole pie so you appreciate the artistic effort involved. You can also tell by looking at the crimp around the edge whether it was a pre-made crust from the supermarket.
• Next, check out how a slice of pie looks on a plate and the cut-pie look. It’s a problem if the filling is too thick or too runny or if there is a “dome,” an empty space under the top crust.
• A slice of pie is delivered. No à la mode, whipped cream or sauces allowed: Pie has to stand on its own two crusts (or crumb topping). Taste the bottom crust (to see if it’s baked), the top crust (to see if it’s tender and flaky) and the crimp (to see if it’s scorched). Sample the filling to see if its flavor and texture are appropriate. If it’s a fruit pie and you can’t tell which fruits by tasting, that’s a pie with a problem. Is the starch in the filling, or “slurry,” thoroughly cooked?
• Finally, you decide how much you love this pie. Is it memorable? Would you have another slice?
Meanwhile, the people who made the pies are most likely watching you intently, trying to discern from facial twitches whether you like their toasted hazelnut pie. As you judge, the pies start ordering themselves. The third pie is good but not as tasty as the second pie and so on.
One tough part is keeping your palate clear of butter, sugar, spices and crust after every pie you taste. Vodka works well for this task but is not recommended because it also numbs the buds — never a good thing in a food judge. Water, coffee and saltines help to clear the slate for the next pie.
In the end, you have to pick the three best pies that you tasted and rank them. Sometimes the results show judges all agree about the winners, other times not so much.
I continue judging because I want to see pie-making survive and besides, the next pie could have the X factor. Sometimes I’m presented with a pie that looks right and I taste it and everything’s right. I’m just enjoying pie, not wondering if they forgot the salt. It’s hallelujah time. I’ll glance at the other judges, raise my eyebrows, and they grin. The commentary includes such pithy comments as “Yum,” “Damn-good crust.” There are also usually some deep sighs.
Long ago at one of the first Great American Pie Festivals in Boulder, I judged a Concord grape pie that was simply perfect and pretty. The grapes had been individually de-seeded. To this day I can recall exactly the wonderful aroma and flavor.
Please enter one of the pie contests this weekend or come by for a slice of pie.
The Hay Days Pie Contest starts at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 3 at the Stone Church of the Brethren in Hygiene. There’s a special contest for kid pie bakers under 14. Results announced at 2:30 p.m. when the Pie Social begins with homemade and donated pies sold by the slice. Registration: hygienecommunityassociation.org.
The Louisville Homemade Pie Contest is Monday, Sept. 5 at Memory Square Park. Pie judging begins at 11 a.m. with pie slices available at around 1:30 p.m. Registration: thehuckleberry.com.
Local Food News
Denver’s Humble Pie Store has introduced gluten-free “Naked Pie” consisting of a scoop of Liks ice cream over warm pie filling. … With the retirement of the owners, Mickey C’s Bagels has closed at the Table Mesa Shopping Center. … All-you-can-eat spaghetti Tuesdays are coming to Longmont. Boulder’s Gondolier Italian Eatery will open a second eatery at 1217 S. Main St. in Longmont in 2017. This is currently the Main St. location of Longmont favorite Deli Cioso whose owner Rudy Masias is retiring in September after almost 30 years of dishing green chile … Longmont’s GoodBird Kitchen, 1258 S. Hover Road, becomes Post Chicken & Beer on Sept. 8 after some menu and décor upgrades but the fine fried chicken and cherry pie remains the same. …Speaking of chicken, Lakewood’s iconic White Fence Farm now sells its pressure-fried bird and fixings at 7685 W. 88th Ave. in Westminster. There are no farm animals here, just take-out chicken, pickled beets, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn fritters and, of course, pie.
Taste of the Week
I don’t often stop for ice cream but the moon was full and summer was fading so I did the only thing I could. I headed to Glacier Ice Cream, 3133 28th St., and ordered a double scoop of Glacier coffee ice cream. It’s a step up from the gold standard for coffee ice cream, Haagen Dazs, with its super-creaminess and a dark, strong flavor reminiscent of Vietnamese coffee.
Words to Chew On for Labor Day
“You think cooking is a cute job, eh? Like Mommy in the kitchen? Well, Mommy never had to face the dinner rush when the orders come flooding in, and every dish is different and none are simple, and all of the different cooking times, but must arrive at the customer’s table at exactly the same time, hot and perfect! Every second counts, you cannot be Mommy!” — Colette, the sous chef in the animated film Ratatouille.
John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles at 8:25 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU, 88.5 FM (kgnu.org). Read his blog at: johnlehndorff.wordpress.com. Complaints to: Nibbles@BoulderWeekly.com