This was a weekend of firsts for San Francisco resident John Smith.
He’d never been to a fair before coming to the Gravenstein Apple Fair in Sebastopol this year, and he’d never entered any kind of baking contest (or really, any kind of contest) before entering his apple pie into the 38th annual Gravenstein Apple Pie Baking Contest.
A U.S. Army veteran who discovered his passion for cooking after he left the military, Smith said he was shocked to be declared this year’s winner and grand champion in the pie contest.
“I was so surprised,” said Smith, “I focus on savory food actually and just dabble in baking and pastry.”
Smith said he used two types of Sonoma County apples — Gravensteins and Pink Pearls, an heirloom variety that has a pink interior — and he decorated the top of the pie with an unusual lattice top made of strips of different widths and a cluster of pastry roses.
“It was sweet, but not too sweet,” he said of his prize-winning pie.
The judges, who included chef John Ash, Sebastopol mayor Neysa Hinton, Santa Rosa Junior College culinary arts professor Shelly Kaldunsky and last year’s grand champion pie maker Rose Brennan, agreed.
“First of all it was beautiful,” said Brennan. “The apples were kind of pinkish which gave it a little pink hue, and the crust was really nice. His apples were cooked really well. That’s a big thing for me: often they’re overcooked so they’re mushy; and occasionally they’re under-cooked, so they’re crunchy, but he got it just right.”
Apple pie tips from two pie champions
“For me, there are two important factors: keep the pie crust flaky and buttery — use more butter than you should — and use less sugar on the apples,” Smith said. “Let the apples shine, since they’re the true stars of the pie.”
He said part of the art of making piecrust is to use as little water as possible to make the dough adhere together — which makes the pie flakier but harder to handle, something he struggled with in the creation of his prize-winning pie.
“The lattice kept breaking as I laid it out,” he said. “It was really nerve-wracking, but ultimately it worked out.”
Another secret: he rolls his lower crust a little bit thinner than the upper crust so that it cooks more thoroughly.
“I pull it out when the bottom crust looks done,” he said, which is why he likes using a clear glass pie pan. “I’m a pretty visual person, and I like to see what’s going on.”
Last year’s winner, Rose Brennan, offered a few apple pie tips as well.
“My big thing that I always do that I feel makes a perfect pie is that in the crust I always use butter and Crisco. That just makes a really flavorful yet flaky crust because butter adds the flavor, but Crisco adds the flakiness. Together they really make the best pie crust,” she said.
“And I always use apple brandy not only in the pie crust but in the pie filling—and in the baker,” she added with a laugh. “It adds flavor to the pie crust and flavor to the filling and you gain a little extra apple taste. It completely replaces the water in the crust.”
Smith said he felt honored to have won the competition this year. He said he was especially touched to receive an engraved pie plate with the date and name of the contest as a part of the package he got for submitting the prize-winning pie.
“I loved that,” he said. “This whole thing has been so exciting.”