Cover Story Plant Life Northwest Living Taste Now & Then


Blue-Ribbon Pie
What does it take to make a winner? The answer is quite simple

Fresh peaches are the key to making pies like this one, a winner whether served at home or competing at a county fair.

Thirteen years ago this month, I watched my first pie judging. I was at the San Juan County Fair on San Juan Island, covering the event for the local paper. In those days, the baking contest entries were displayed on the second floor of the old fair building in a space that felt something like a hayloft. Half the area was devoted to food, half to sewing and quilting. Sunlight filtered through windows high on the wall, and fairgoers looking beyond the baked goods could see other fairgoers milling around exhibits on the floor below.

Volunteers brought the pies to a table where the judge held court with a pitcher of water on one side and a stack of paper plates and plastic forks on the other. The judge, one Jean Swift, had earned her credentials at a county extension office, and she took her job pretty seriously. One by one, the pies were placed in front of her and she carved a slice out of each. First, she sampled the crust, then she sampled the filling. Finally, she sampled both together. With the tines of her fork, she lifted an edge of the crust to get a good look at the underside of the pie and gauge its degree of brown-ness.

Makes one 9-inch pie
3 pounds ripe peaches
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1. Prepare the butter pastry (see below) and chill it in the refrigerator while you make the pie filling.

2. In a large pot over high heat, bring a gallon of water to a full boil. Fill a large mixing bowl with ice water and set aside. Drop the peaches into the boiling water; after one minute, use a slotted spoon to lift them out and put them in the ice water. The skins will slip off.

3. Slice the peeled peaches and combine them with the sugar, cornstarch and lemon juice.

4. Roll out one round of the pastry into a 12-inch circle. Fold the circle into quarters and place the folded pastry in a 9-inch pie pan, the point of the folds in the center. Unfold the round of dough in the pan and press it into place, letting the excess dough hang over the sides. Put the peach filling into the pastry-lined pie pan.

5. Roll the second piece of dough into a 12-inch circle and, using a pizza wheel or a sharp knife, cut the dough into 1-inch-wide strips. Lay half the strips of dough over the filling and fold every other one back on itself to the left. Starting at the right edge, lay a strip of dough at a 90-degree angle from the first strips you laid and unfold the strips that were folded back. Fold the strips that were not folded the first time and lay another strip. Repeat this process to create a lattice top over the surface of the pie. Press the edges of the dough around the edges of the pan and trim off the excess.

6. Put the pie pan on a baking sheet to catch any overflow. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven 55 to 65 minutes. The crust should be well browned and the filling should be bubbling up between the seams of the lattice top. Cool the pie on a rack for at least an hour before serving so the juices have time to set.

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For one 9-inch lattice-top pie
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, cold, cut into bits
1/3 cup cold water

1. Combine the flour, salt and butter in a food processor or large mixing bowl and process or work with a fork until the mixture is crumbly; the butter should be about the size of small peas.

2. Add the water all at once and pulse the food processor on and off until the mixture comes together to form a ball of dough. Do not over-process.

3. Without handling the dough any more than necessary, divide in half and press each half into a disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate while preparing the fruit.

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"This pie," she said of one, "really needed to spend more time in the oven." Occasionally, she would cluck her tongue or make some quiet observations. "Too runny," or "Nice job on the crust," but mostly she played her cards pretty close to her chest.

A little crowd had gathered, and as she tasted and made notes, the crowd, mostly the pie bakers, held their breath or made little noises of encouragement. Swift tended to ignore them, focusing instead on the pies. When a 12-year-old boy burst out "That's my pie!" Swift looked up only long enough to shoot him a glance that hushed him right up. She proceeded to probe, taste and swallow without further interruption.

"The people who trained me," Swift confided, "said not to swallow. But I don't like the alternative. I just drink lots of water between bites." The water flowed freely as she tasted blueberry, blackberry, cherry and pear. She sampled apple pie galore. In San Juan County, more people enter the apple-pie contest than any other. But I was less interested in the apple than the peach. I had an entry in the category, and as it turned out, mine was the only one.

My pie was made with peaches I bought the day before off the back of a truck parked on Spring Street right there in Friday Harbor. The all-butter crust was woven into a lattice top. The edges were straight, no fancy crimping. The filling was straight, too, basic peach, with no cinnamon, nutmeg or almond extract to mask the flavor. Swift cut a slice. I was sure it oozed too much. Then she lifted a corner of the crust and took a tiny nibble. Next she tasted the filling. She wasn't nodding or frowning or sending any clues. She made some notes and went wordlessly on to the next pie. I would just have to wait.

I joined my wife and wandered around the fairgrounds, feigning interest in the photography contest, taking in the flowers and the produce, wondering all the while if the ribbons had been awarded in the baking section. I had lunch at the vendor's row, listened to the local musicians, watched a chicken race. Late in the afternoon, I made my way back to the baking section, and there it was — a blue ribbon on my little peach pie. The old wooden fair building gave way to a new one, and other judges took their turns at Jean Swift's job. I earned ribbons for jams and jellies and a chocolate cake, but never another for pie. Nonetheless, I know what it feels like to win one, and I know deep down what it takes. Flaky crust that tastes of little more than browned butter and flour, a juicy filling that glistens in the light, these are the qualities that distinguish a great pie.

Greg Atkinson is executive chef at Canlis restaurant. Barry Wong is a staff photographer for Pacific Northwest magazine.

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