Yes, it’s back! The Apple Pie Baking Contest is back at the Gravenstein Apple Fair, taking place at Ragle Ranch Park in Sebastopol, on August 12 – 13, 2023. Home bakers will be competing for the best apple pie award on Saturday, August 12. To register for the competition for free, fill out our google form by 8PM on Friday, August 11th.
To give readers a leg up on the competition, we’ve asked local food expert and former winner of the contest, Stephanie Rosenbaum Klaussen, to share some of her favorite tips and tricks. Take it away Stephanie.
Happy 50th birthday, Gravenstein Apple Fair! Back in 2001, when the fair was still a twenty-something, I bought a big bag of Sonoma-grown apples at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, baked a pie in my tiny city kitchen and road-tripped up to Sebastopol. Much to my surprise and delight, that pie won the grand-champion ribbon, and I got invited to come back as a judge the following year. Since then, as a food writer, cookbook author, and former restaurant critic, I’ve judged a lot of pie contests—which means I’ve tasted a lot of great pies made by enthusiastic home bakers. Of course, in a contest, you’ve got to pick a winner (or three). Here are my tips for baking up a fantastic pie for any occasion.
Stephanie’s Tips for a Winning Pie
Practice, practice, practice Your second pie is going to be better than your first. Even if you’ve never made a pie before, you can make a pie today, and another pie a few days later. You want to get a feel for your dough, your apples, your spices or flavorings, and your oven. Familiarity breeds confidence; as British cook Fergus Henderson writes in his book The Whole Beast, “Do not be afraid of cooking, as your ingredients will know and misbehave.”
Make it your own Find a recipe you like and make it more than once, adjusting it to suit your own taste as you go. Crumbly streusel top? Lattice top? Mile-high slices or a dainty French tart? Classic cinnamon or spicy green chiles in a cheddar-cheese crust? It’s up to you!
Get a pie pan and (maybe) a rolling pin Fancy cookware shops will have loads of pie pans and rolling pins. So will most secondhand and thrift stores. (Just skip those flimshy disposable foil pans from the supermarket.) A rimmed baking sheet is handy to catch any bubbling-over drips. An aluminum or silicone crust shield is useful for covering the outer edge of your crust and keeping it from over-browning, but you can cut out a ring of aluminum foil and use that. You can also roll out your dough with anything heavy, rounded and smooth, from a bottle of Chardonnay to a glass water bottle. If things seem to take forever to bake–or burn in minutes—an oven thermometer can help gauge the actual temperature inside your oven.
Know your ingredients Flours can vary from brand to brand. So can butters or plant-based baking sticks. Taste your apples. Of course, you’re using Sonoma-grown apples, probably Gravensteins, but are they tart or sweet? Do they hold their shape when baked, or collapse into sauce? Has your cinnamon lost its zip?
Keep your cool Dough too sticky? Too soft? The fridge is your friend. Make your dough, leaving a little on the dry side. Wrap it well or put it in a tightly covered container and chill it for several hours or overnight. The flour will fully hydrate, meaning the dough should now feel moist and malleable; the gluten (the protein in wheat flour that makes it stretchy and bouncy) will have relaxed, allowing the dough to be rolled out easily without “snapping back”, and the butter or other fat will have firmed up again, helping the crust to bake up flaky and crisp.
Crimp, crimp, crimp If you’re making a double-crust pie, you’ve got to press the edges of the top crust and bottom crust together, so the hot, bubbling apple juices stay inside. But don’t stop there! Look at the edge of your pie as a creative opportunity. Crimp it, wave it, pinch it, press it with a fork—always finish off the edge to bring your pie to perfection.
Glaze it While you’re at it, give that crust a final brush of glaze before it goes in the oven. You can use cream, a beaten egg, an egg yolk and cream, non-dairy milk and maple or agave syrup—anything that will give an appealing shine and enhance its golden-brownness. Once your crust is glazed, don’t forget to add some decorative slashes through the crust to let the steam out.
Don’t underbake While you can certainly burn a pie, I’ve seen way more pale, wan, underbaked pies under my fork. It’s not just the crust that suffers from underbaking; most thickeners, from cornstarch to flour to tapioca, don’t start working until they hit a certain temp. Until then, they’re raw-tasting, chalky white powders that no one wants to eat. Look at the center of your pie (peer under the steam vents/slashes if you’re using a double crust) and see if the juices are clear, golden and bubbling, looking syrupy rather than watery.
Have fun Need a goal? Want to make a mess and create something delicious in the process? This contest is a great reason for anyone and everyone, at any age and skill level, to have fun making their very own creation. As I’ve learned from teaching cooking classes, no two pies are ever exactly alike. Be creative, have fun, and get ready to share your pie with the world. Good luck!
Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen is the author of A Little Taste of San Francisco, World of Doughnuts, The Art of Vintage Cocktails, Honey from Flower to Table, and several other books. She has written for KQED, Kinfolk, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, Edible East Bay, San Francisco magazine, and many other print and digital publications, and has taught food writing through Stanford’s Continuing Education program. She is currently working on a murder mystery set in the kitchen of a California artists’ colony.