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Baking not my forte
Contest probably not best way to try out apple pie skills
apple pie pic1
Judges at the 12th annual Apple Pie Contest, held at the Stanislaus County Fair and sponsored by Dave Dubyak, dig into Journal editor Kristina Hacker's pie. - photo by KRISTINA HACKER / The Journal

Kristina's Tips for Baking an Apple Pie

1. There's no such thing as too much cinnamon

2. After spending an hour trying to figure out how to use the apple corer and peeler, you can do it the old-fashioned and painstakingly way until your husband comes home, takes pity on you and peels the remaining apples in 2 minutes flat.

3. No matter how "simple" a pie crust recipe says it is, it's lying.

4. If you don't understand what it means to "cut shortening into the flour" you can just stir it up and you get the same result.

5. A lattice crust topping is NOT easier to do than a whole pie crust topping.

6. It's normal to use a pound of flour spread throughout your kitchen counters, floor and ceiling when rolling out your pie dough — right?

7. If you can find someone who can adequately explain why there would be cheddar cheese in an apple pie, please send them my way.

8. If all else fails, turn your oven on, throw flour around your kitchen, then go buy a delicious pie from Latif's and throw away the box.

My fondest olfactory memories of childhood are of when my mom would bake cinnamon and sugar stuffed apples — yum!  So when local chiropractor Dave Dubyak called me with a desperate need for apple pie contest entries, I decided it was time for my own house to be filled with the mouth-watering smells of cooked apples and my most favorite spice, cinnamon.

Dubyak has been sponsoring an apple pie contest at the Stanislaus County Fair for 12 years now. Although he is fond of pie, the main reason for his continued support of this event is philanthropic. Each contest entrant must submit two pies, one for judging and one to be donated to the United Samaritans Foundation for their daily lunch program.

July is not the only time of year that the area's hungry get to taste a little home-baked goodness. Dubyak has sponsored a pumpkin pie contest each November for the past 20 years, with those pies also going to USF.

The two pie contests are vastly different, and not just with their featured ingredient. In November, entrants drop off their pies at Dubyak's Geer Road office and then a panel of community leaders judge the pies after business hours. The winners are notified by phone that evening. Dubyak said the pumpkin pie contest is a "more intimate" event, where the judges can really discuss the merits of each pie openly.

The apple pie contest, on the other hand, is traditionally held the opening day of the Stanislaus County Fair in the exhibitors building where the judges are front and center with the contestants and multiple fair goers watching their every bite and reaction.

I've covered both the apple pie and pumpkin pie contests in the past for the Journal, and even though the apple pie contest is definitely a more formal affair, to me it harkens back to a time when families gathered at the fair to see who can bake the best pie in the county.

As I said, the apple pie contest has been a tradition on the opening day of the fair for over a decade — up until this year. Two weeks ago, Dubyak got a call from someone who tried to enter the pie contest and was told by the fair that it was cancelled. This was news to Dubyak, who had been publicizing the event since early June.

After a few frantic phone calls to the fair office and a talk with CEO Chris Borovansky, it was determined the contest was mistakenly dropped from the schedule. The fair was able to get it back on the docket, but not until July 18 — thus prompting Dubyak's frantic call out for entries.

"It seemed like we really lost something," he said. "I didn't really realize that until I thought it was over."

This year's contest is also special because it is the 20th anniversary of the United Samaritans Foundation and the Foundation's board members were asked to be judges.

So it was with this especially historic contest that I decided to make my first attempt at baking an apple pie from scratch.

You might think it's a little odd to begin my apple pie baking career with a publicly viewed judging, but that's just how I roll! Or that's what I told myself so I wouldn't give up at 1 a.m. when I was on my third batch of pie dough. If you've never baked a pie from scratch, let me tell you — it's hard. Most baking is just following the directions. But with pie crust, it's almost like you have to check the atmospheric conditions, cleanse the kitchen of bad juju and then say a prayer to the baking gods, just to get a decent crust.

Because I'm a newbie at pie baking, I did a lot of recipe browsing. In the end, I took ingredients and baking techniques from a variety of sources to make up my own recipe. Of course, my pies also have a secret ingredient — cinnamon. Okay, so that's not very secret or unusual in an apple pie, but I tripled the amount of cinnamon most recipes call for because you just can't have too much cinnamon (at least I can't).

 Once I made it to the fairgrounds with my pies intact —one of  my biggest fears was dropping them while walking to the judging table —all I had to do was wait for the judging to start. Luckily (or not) my pie was the first one the judges graded.

Now, at each of Dubyak's pie contests, the judges are asked to rate each entry on five categories: overall look, texture of the crust, texture of the filling, taste of the crust and taste of the filling. When the judges started rating my pie, I got very excited because they ranked the overall look very high. I did have the one and only lattice crust pie, so that may have been a factor.

My excitement was short-lived, however, as the judges didn't think too highly of the actual taste of my pie. Let me tell you, I'm pretty thick-skinned when it comes to criticism, but watching five people publicly say my pie sucks was pretty humiliating.

I don't know what it says about my character, but I felt a little better when some other pies were rated below mine.

In the end, it was Marianne Foglia of Ceres and her apple pie the judges liked best. When the results were announced she jumped up and down and shouted, "I feel like I'm on 'The Price is Right!'"

I asked Foglia what the secret was to her award-winning pie. She said, "You have to make it pop." She also said that she used a pinch of almond extract for extra flavor.

Although I didn't win, I was glad that the best pie honors went to someone who obviously put a lot of heart and soul into her baking.