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Don't Wait-- Pie Lovers Say You Can Taste It Fresh From the Oven

By Dan Mayfield
Journal Staff Writer
    There's something about pie. Pie brings families together. Pie makes people fall in love. Pie can bring world peace! Maybe if George Bush gave Kim Jong-Il some of Laura's homemade pumpkin pie, he'd forget about all this nuclear bomb stuff.
    Mamie Eisenhower's pumpkin pie recipe is one of the great American treasures. First lady Abigail Van Buren made a great pecan pie, and greats like Bob Hope (lemon) and Ann Landers (pecan) made pie. Even Jimmy Carter makes a (what else?) peanut butter pie.
    Don McLean and Kenny Chesney have sung about it.
    Why? Because they know it's the great equalizer. Everybody can get a big slice, and with coffee or hot cocoa, it makes for a great conversation starter, meal ender, afternoon or midnight snack. It also makes a great gift. Who doesn't like to get a pie?
    It's unpretentious and is at home on bone china at a state dinner as it is on a paper plate at a cookout.
    And there is something about pie, something about a mouthful of fresh fruit, putting a fork through that perfect flaky crust, or mashing your tongue against a fluffy meringue.
    Making a pie, too, is almost as fulfilling as eating one.
    "When you roll it out, it gets a hold of you. You know?" said pie baker and New Mexico State Fair pie contestant John Saunders. "I like awake thinking about it."
    Who can resist blending the crust to the right consistency and rolling it out, digging hands in cold apple or cherry filling and folding in sugar or flour, and (of course) smelling all the pies baking?
    "It's not cooking. I hate cooking," said pecan pie baker Adrian Morris. "It's the reward of dessert. Whenever I go to a restaurant, I order dessert first."
    Saunders, an artist, said he feels the same sense of creativity and accomplishment when he finishes a pie as he does a painting.
    "I like to take them to galleries when they sell my work. I take them to my girlfriends, they like that," Saunders said. "We all give away pies."
Fair competition
    If you're looking for the best pies in the state, know that all the hard-core bakers show up at the New Mexico State Fair. They not only compete for blue ribbons but also stop in the Asbury Cafe pie shop for a slice or three when they can.
    Rebecca Jo Dakota woke up at 6 a.m. the day of the contest to bake her pies. The New Mexico State Fair pie contest is a big deal to Dakota, who has won several blue ribbons and a Best of Show award as well. It's such a big deal that she's making a documentary film on the bakers.
    Dakota, along with the other entrants of the 69 pies at this year's New Mexico State Fair pie contest, take their pie making seriously.
    Not only do these people wake up at the crack of dawn— Ron Bernitsky woke up at 5 a.m. to finish his (first-place) pie and take it to a buddy's house to bake because his oven was broken— but they go to extreme length to make their pies extraordinary.
    There was the cherry pie with cherries stacked in concentric circles. There were several lattice-work crusts, layered pies, meringue pies that looked like Himalayan peaks, and pecan pies as dark as the night sky.
    "I think most people who make pies are perfectionists. There's not a problem starting over," said pie competitor Barbara Polk— who won a blue ribbon this year for a pie.
Delicious outcome
    Pie makers, like pie lovers, come from all walks of life at the fair. There's the priest, the eye doctor and the documentary filmmaker, as well as housewives and other professionals who took the day off from work to compete.
    It's a friendly competition at the fair, where everybody knows one another and after the competition, they all go eat the pies that didn't win major prizes.
    "We all bring plates and forks so we can eat afterwards," in the afternoon once the judging is done, Dakota said.
    "It's heaven, really," Dakota said. "We make it and it's beautiful and we give it away and it's gone like that. It's like a sand painting. It's here and gone."
    It's hard to find a good commercially made pie, however. Though the pie pros at the fair swear by Asbury Cafe, it's only open during the fair. Some like Furr's Cafeteria, Denny's and Village Inn serve pies.
    But, for restaurant pies, one stands out: Zia Diner in Santa Fe. In classic diner style, Zia makes several flavors and offers them a la mode or simply warmed with a cuppa hot coffee.
    Though we say "As American as apple pie," like it was some sort of American invention, like everything American, pies came from somewhere else.
    Pie crusts came from the Egyptians, according to the National Pie Council. Early Romans learned to make them from the Greeks.
    Later, pies found their way north, according to the food research Web site foodtimeline.org, and became much more once the French, English and Danish discovered how to make them.
    Early pies, however, had a crust that was thick and dense to preserve whatever was baked within, usually meats. You weren't supposed to eat the crust, which was a dense egg-and-flour bowl and usually discarded. By the 14th century pie was well-known. Later, cookbooks were brought to the British colonies— as were apple seeds.
A man pleaser
    Pie is a dude thing, too.
    Apparently, men like pie more than women. There's something about a mouthful of peaches or rhubarb that's more satisfying than cake or pastry.
    Nobody seems to know why.
    "I would say that men and women eat pie here," said Beth Draiscol, owner of Santa Fe's Zia Diner. "But if a guy is going to order a dessert, it's pie."
    At the State Fair, pie judge Donna Peck noticed that "the men gather 'round the pies and the women will be over looking at the cakes."
    And at the New Mexico State Fair, one of the toughest judges was Ned Omalia, a chef known for his colorful language; he compares pies to runway models and uses biblical metaphors.
    When the judging starts, the cheery pie makers suddenly get serious. Some in the Creative Arts building were biting nails. Others milled around nervously.
    Nobody made a sound as the judges— four of them— rolled up their sleeves to dig in. Omalia, Laura Shirley, Patricia Aaron and Peck held nothing back as they reamed bad pies, and praised the good ones.
    With one pie, Omalia commented: "It catches your eye because it's hot. The lattice work and the walls of crust are like the parting of the waters the Red Sea."
Trust in crust
    All, however, agree that the secret to a winning pie competition is the crust.
    "A pie is a difficult dessert to make," Peck said, "much more difficult than a cake or something."
    "I think that the crust and the filling have to be good. Some of the pies had a hard and not-too-flaky crust. The filling has to have the right amount of seasoning and cut well," Peck said.
    Ohhh, and that crust. It's as easy as pie, right? It's the hardest part to get right. Thick, hard or gooey crusts sank many of the pies at the fair competition.
    Pros swear by lard in the crust. It creates the steam that creates the bubbles that make the flakes, Aaron said. Aaron writes a weekly column for Journal food section.
    That said, there are ways around it if you must.
    Commercial bakers like Annye Powdrell-Smith of Mr. Powdrell's Bar-B-Cue in Albuquerque and Draiscol of Zia Diner use vegetable fat in their crusts.
    "Lard makes the most tender crust, but we don't use it," Draiscol said. "Some people just won't eat it."
    Vegetable shortening and butter tend to do the trick.
Busy as pie
    This time of year is busy season for those who make pies professionally. Draiscol estimates the diner sells 2,000 pies, of all varieties, during the holidays.
    "We probably make 1,000 pies during the holiday season," said Annye Powdrell-Smith, baker of Powdrell's famous sweet potato pies. (The recipe is available online at MrPowdrellsBBQ.com.
    But making a pie commercially is much different from doing it in your home.
    "As a diner, the minute we opened, we were making pies," Draiscol said. "We spent months working on our recipes and we used classic cookbooks like 'Joy of Cooking' and then we would modify them for a bigger pan."
    But getting the sweet-potato recipe, Powdrell-Smith said, was more of a challenge: "Grandmother didn't use a recipe. She would just say, come on and I'll show you. When you go to school to cook, you learn terminologies and methods. She'd just say, put a little bit of this and put a little bit of this. We just paid attention."
Snooty pies
    True pie snobs are members of the American Pie Council, the organization of all things pie-related. At an annual conference, the APC gives away $8,000 in prizes to pie bakers and publishes the magazine, Pie Times. The group also promotes the Great American Pie Festival and National Pie Day, which is Jan. 23.
    Super pie lovers have joined the Pie Extremist Group. At pieextremistgroup.tribe.net, a group of pie lovers advocate "Torta Nella Vostra Faccia" or, "Here's Pie In Your Face."
    3 1/2 cups rhubarb
    3 cups strawberries
    1 1/4 cup sugar
    1/4 cup cornstarch
    1 teaspoon cinnamon
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    9 1/2 inch, deep-dish, unbaked pie crust
    1/4 cold butter (1 stick)
    1/2 cup sugar
    1 cup flour
    Combine the fruit, sugar, cornstarch and salt and let the mixture sit for 15-20 minutes.
    Then, mix the sugar and flour for crumb topping. Cut in the butter until the mixture has small bits of butter and an oatmeal-like texture.
    Pour the fruit into the unbaked pie shell and sprinkle the crumb topping over the fruit mixture. Set your pie pan on a baking sheet to catch any fruit that bubbles over.
    Bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes, then lower oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake until crumb topping is golden and the fruit is bubbling, which takes about 30-40 minutes.
    Let pie cool before serving with ice cream.
    This pie won a blue ribbon at the 2006 New Mexico State Fair for nontraditional apple pie.
    Pastry for 9-inch, deep-dish pie plate
    40 caramels, divided
    7 cups peeled, cored, sliced apples
    1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
    1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
    1 teaspoon granulated sugar
    1 tablespoon cornstarch
    1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
    1 teaspoon vanilla
    3/4 cup flour
    3/4 cup pecan halves
    1/4 cup sugar
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
    3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
    1 tablespoon water
    30 caramels
    1 large handful pecan halves
    1/2 cup chopped pecans
    Roll pastry and transfer to 9-inch deep-dish pie plate. Sculpt an upstanding ridge. Cut 10 caramels into quarters and place caramel pieces around the bottom of the pie shell and refrigerate. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
    Combine apples with brown sugar and lemon juice in large bowl. Mix well and set aside.
    Mix the 1 teaspoon sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon and vanilla in a small cup or bowl. Stir the mixture into the fruit. Scrape filling into chilled pie shell, smoothing the fruit to fill the dish.
    Bake on center rack for 30 minutes.
    While pie is baking, make the crumb topping. Combine the flour, pecan halves, granulated sugar and salt in a food processor. Pulse several times to chop the nuts coarsely. Scatter the butter over the dry mixture and pulse again until the mix resembles fine crumbs. Transfer the crumbs to a bowl and rub the mixture between your fingers to make damp crumbs. Chill until ready to use.
    Roast the 1/2 cup chopped pecans and whole pecans for the caramel layer by stirring them in a heavy saucepan over low heat until they just begin to brown. Set aside to cool until the last step.
    After 30 minutes, remove the pie from the oven and reduce the temperature to 375 degrees. Place the crumbs in the center of the pie and spread them evenly over the surface with your hands. Tamp them down lightly. Return pie to the oven.
    Bake for another 30 to 40 minutes until juices bubble thickly around the edges. After the first 10 or 15 minutes, cover the edge of the crust with a pie ring or aluminum foil to keep it from getting too dark.
    Transfer to a wire rack and let cool about an hour.
    While the pie is still warm, prepare the caramel sauce. In a double boiler (over, but not in, warm water), melt the caramels with the butter and water, which should take about 10 minutes. Stir gently. When the caramels are melted, whisk the mixture until smooth, then drizzle the caramel sauce over the entire surface of the pie.
    Immediately press the pecan halves into the caramel, then sprinkle the chopped pecans over the top. Let cool for another hour before serving.
-- From Rebecca Jo Dakota, adapted from the book "Pie"
Pie guide

    It's not as easy as pie. We all know there are several tricks to making a good pie.
    Well, the judges and contestants at this year's New Mexico State Fair— Patricia Aaron, Rebecca Jo Dakota and Donna Peck— are full of nice tips that can make the difference between a ho-hum pie and a blue-ribbon winner.
  • Don't over handle the pie crust dough. Over handling it makes it tough.
  • Don't cut fat into the flour. Use a fork and leave chunks. The fat causes the steam that causes air bubbles that make flakes. Liquid oils work similarly.
  • Cold water keeps the fat together.
  • At high altitude, pie crusts dry out, and it's OK to add more water.
  • Cut slits in the pie crust to allow steam out of the pie during baking.
  • To thicken a filling, use cornstarch or flour.
  • Pecan pies often boil over, so just scoop a bit of the filling out of the crust.
  • For a good meringue, beat it to soft peaks, use super-fine sugar and spread it on a hot pie using a meringue whip. Also, a bit of cream of tartar keeps it from bubbling out or weeping.
  • A little trick to making a crust flaky is to add a few drops of vinegar or red wine.
        For more advice, documentary filmmaker Rebecca Jo Dakota has produced the informative video "Pie Crust 101," which will be available through Code Pink at codepinkalert.org soon as a fundraiser for this organization.