Eating pie is pretty much the best way to spend a Saturday afternoon, and at Saturday's Pie Social, there were plenty of celebrity pies to enjoy -- 14, to be exact. At first, as we judges waited around for a seemingly endless procession of pies to be brought to the table, it seemed a bit daunting to have to taste them all. Luckily, I started my day with a five-mile hike to get nice and hungry, and it turns out that I never tire of eating pie.
The Best of the Best
Proof? I went back for seconds of the pie presented by Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar, one of my three favorites. And I wasn't the only one; fellow judge Vermon Pierre also went back for more after turning in his scores.
Kraus' roasted cherry chocolate espresso pie was technically a tart (the pie's close cousin), but after one bite, I didn't care about definitions. It had a thick filling that was a marriage of custard and ganache, and between that and the crust was a thin layer of gooey dark cherry filling. Not only was it beautiful, but with well-balanced flavors, it tasted every bit as good as it looked. Fans of dark chocolate and espresso, or dark chocolate-covered cherries, will be in heaven if Crepe Bar adds this to the regular menu (please do!).
The two other standouts for me were the Pink Diablo by Virginia Senior of Urban Beans and the blackberry pie with blue cheese crumble by Brady Breese of Urban Cookies Bakeshop. The former was so good that all I wrote down was "wow!" An adventurous feat, Senior's pie combined a walnut crust, prickly pear cheesecake, lime curd, meringue, mint, and agave habanero sauce. The result was a semi-savory Southwestern pie just sweet enough to call dessert. The complex taste was like washing down spicy food with a prickly pear mojito. The mint was the perfect finishing touch, and all in all, this was the one I continued dreaming about all afternoon and evening. This pie was truly a strike of culinary genius.
For someone who taught himself how to make pie just in time for this contest, Brady Breese certainly fooled us with his unique creation and near-perfect crust. The blackberries were juicy and made up most of the flavor profile, and the blue cheese baked into the crumble on top added the right touch to make the pie a special twist on a classic. Blue cheese and blackberries belong together in a fruit and cheese course, so why not combine them in a pie? This isn't one that everyone will love, but anyone who likes the two main ingredients will want to make this at home. On that note, can we have the recipe, pretty please?
In general, the pies entered by the celebrity bakers were very impressive. There were quite a few fall flavors on the table, including three kinds of pumpkin. The most creative belongs in Gourmet Magazine's Thanksgiving issue: the pumpkin crème brûlée pie by Hyatt Regency's David Duarte (also a tough competitor in the Caramelpalooza). The gingerbread crust slightly overpowered the two layers of pumpkin (one pie filling, one crème brûlée) and the eggnog whipped cream, but that doesn't stop this pie from being one seriously incredible effort. Other pumpkin pies were by cake lady Tammie Coe, who made a simple yet stunning classic, and Honey Moon Sweets, who rounded out the pumpkin with maple and pecans (yum!).
By far my favorite of the traditional options was from Treehouse Bakery. You would never guess that the vegan bakeshop's apple cherry crumb was butter-free. It had robust flavors, lots of spice, and the right amount of apples and cherry to make both evident in the flavor profile. Anyone who likes fruit would be happy to wolf down a slice of that all-American pie. Monti Carlo, who made it to the top five in Fox TV's MasterChef and is now a local DJ for 103.9, brought another classic, but in miniature form. Her apple pie bites were certainly a safe choice, using easier techniques than a full-size pie requires. The caramel sauce was really tasty, but the small size didn't leave enough room for big, flavorful slices of apples. Another safe but delicious entrant was the bourbon pecan chocolate from Kristen Campbell of St. Francis. It was beautiful with three puffed-up autumn leaves resting on top of the pecans. The flavors were in perfect sync, and this is the kind of pie I would love to make (and eat all of) at home.
The best crust came from Winnona Herr of District American Kitchen and Wine Bar. Her butterscotch bananas foster was undoubtedly a hit, but I found the flavors a bit too muted and wished for more bang from the butterscotch. Although a worthy (and pretty) contender with flaky, tender crust, it got a bit lost in the mix of the other outstanding options. The same can be said of Slade Grove's limoncello custard with salted milk crust and Grand Marnier whipped cream. If served this on its own, I'd absolutely be in heaven (particularly since lemon desserts are a personal favorite) -- not to mention that it was the most impressive looking -- but it fell just shy of my top three. However, it has to be said that for its massive size, it had a light, refreshing flavor, and the orange zest and Grand Marnier made it a nice upgrade from a standard lemon. And, of course, I'd still like to eat more -- right now or any other day of the week.
Two of the pies I was most excited about, both pear varieties, were a huge letdown. Had the flavors been balanced correctly, they would have worked. However, both of them overwhelmed the delicate fruit with spices. The first was ambitious: pear cardamom pie with Gruyère crust from Vonceil's Pies. All three flavors are favorite ingredients of mine, but there was much too much cardamom, making the filling not quite jive with the delightful cheese crust. The second, a ginger pear pie with oat topping, came from Pie Snob Traci Wilbur, who swept the 2011 Pie Social, taking home four of five prizes for her apple chile pie. Well, you can't win them all, and surely this slip-up won't affect her stellar reputation (the name says it all).
The pie I just couldn't get into for a second was from another pie maven, Mamma Toledo, who operates a popular dessert-only food truck. She adventurously crafted a mango chili lime pie, which is not on her menu of 31 pies -- and should stay off. The flavors seem like they'd go together, but they just didn't. Maybe with some tweaking Mamma (Tonya Saidi) can make this one work. At least the pecan cookie crust had good flavor, and the key lime would be respectable without the extras clashing with it.
So, fellow pie tasters, which ones were your favorites? And -- since I was too stuffed to stick around for the community pies -- please chime in if any home-baked goods were worthy of a review.