Perfection in a round
EAGLE – One of my girlfriends calls her husband “pie.” Her explanation? “What’s there not to love about pie?”I have to agree with her – her husband is pretty lovable – and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like the wholesome perfection of a freshly baked pie.Ever since I moved to this country 13 years ago and clumsily established one household after the other with hand-me-down furniture and larger-than-life dreams, I’ve been wanting to produce that crumbly circle of tart sweetness just like the ones outlaws steal off window sills in the movies.There is only one slight problem. I’m neither patient nor precise, two of the main ingredients needed to make a savory pie.You could say I’m as apple pie as I’m American, which is to say, I’m not. Still waiting on that latter and the former has eluded me successfully through the years, despite the many hopeful purchases of second-hand cookbooks and my loyalty to Martha Stewart Living magazine subscriptions.
After yet another failed attempt – one of my coworkers likened the look of my rhubarb/ginger pie to “barf,” while all other reluctant testers made various careful suggestions for improvement – I’ve decided to take my quest for the perfect pie to the highest authority in Eagle County – the Eagle Flight Days Bake-off competition.”Making pies is hard because that crust – I tell you, that’s something else,” Mary Jo Gerard tells me kindly while taking another dainty bite of a beautifully lattice cherry pie Saturday morning at the Eagle Town Park.Gerard, who has been judging pies at area fairs and festivals for more than two decades, is in the process of choosing the best of the best baked goods in the county – not a small job, judging by the foil-wrapped plethora of plates lined up before her. But the life-long Eagle resident is a professional. While her mother is presiding over the parade one street over, Gerard is methodically eating her way through more than 40 entries spanning the categories from cake to candy – all this while still having eaten granola for breakfast. “Well, that’s what I always have,” she says after making a joke about stopping at the beer tent after all this is over. In all seriousness though, she requires pickles for tasting jelly and bread with salsa – to clean the palate and distinguish one entry from another. And she thinks nothing of tasting 33 apple pies, like she did one year ago at the Garfield County Fair.
Her face remains unmoved while she gingerly tastes my entry – the aforesaid rhubarb/ginger concoction, which might easily win grand-champion award for ugliest pie ever.”Your pie needs a bit more flour or cornstarch,” she tells me while I survey my competition with a sinking feeling. “Good crust,” she remarks before moving on to the next result of someone’s tireless labor.I’m happy with that, though I don’t win any ribbons, I’ve at least made a passable crust – after making half a dozen crusts that were either too dry, too gooey or just plain unedible.As a consolation prize I treat myself to a small bag of Rocky Road fudge from the bake sale that benefits senior citizens in Eagle County. Chocolate always makes me happy.Making the perfect pie – that’s a pie with a golden-brown crust that’s flaky and not too gummy and a filling that strikes the right balance in taste and consistency – takes time, Gerard tell me.Likely not 10 minutes, more like 10 years.
I soon learn what a lifetime of baking tastes like, when Mary Lou Croisant, offers me a small sample of her cherry pie.Croisant is widely regarded as the master baker in the region. She routinely wins ribbons at various bake-off competitions and she organizes most of them, too. Needless to say she can keep track of dates by how many ribbons she won that year. Her pie is flaky and light, sweet and gooey all in the right places and looks pretty enough to be framed. Her pie is the kind hungry outlaws would steal even from a second-story window sill.Both women agree that pie crust making has become harder or even “close to not possible anymore” as Gerard puts it, because a type of lard, known as “leaf lard,” is no longer easily available. But both women have found ways around it – Gerard with half-and-half and Croisant with oil and milk.Both swear by Betty Crocker – the earlier cook books, not the new ones, I make a careful note of that and neither is opposed to pie and cake mixes, because “they’ve gotten so good at making them,” as Gerard says.
Maybe there is a future in pie making for me after all. If some of the ingredients can have bar codes on them, I can hold out hope.By the time Gerard is through all the sweet concoctions and has affixed all the ribbons, the Flight Days parade watchers are returning to the park to peruse the baked good. Shrieks and cheers rise, presumably from those who find a ribbon on their plate, while others quietly check for the name tags, presumably for competitors who fared better. Former Eagle County Commissioner Johnnette Phillips, acts like nothing has changed after learning her chiffon cake took second place, but she is smiling just a little bigger after admitting that she spent “all of yesterday” baking. She proudly presides over her other goods which are hot sellers over on the bake sale table. Pam Boyd, a spokeswoman for the Eagle County School District when she is not in the kitchen, is less shy about making her excitement over a first place in the bar cookie category known. But then again, Boyd isn’t known for her cool-as-a-cucumber demeanor.It’s readily apparent that this is a tight circle of friends and neighbors engaged in a friendly competition. Bakers beware. To make it into the ranks of the best takes time and endless tries. “There is something about having experience baking,” says Gerard. “After time, you can tell when you start a crust or a cake if it will turn out or not. There is no way around experience.”