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Competition Pies

Open-Faced Double Strawberry Pie. Recipe via the Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum.

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Kitchen Mysteries is a weekly exploration of oddities surrounding cooking and food. They could be recipes that fail when they shouldn’t, conflicting advice from different sources, or just plain weirdness. If it happens in a kitchen, and you’re not sure why, send a tweet to The Food Geek to find out what’s happening.

The question that seems to be on all of my twitter friends’ minds is:

The more cynical among you might think, “Hmmm. Perhaps Brian is taking a moment out of his normal schedule to talk about this PieDown thing he was involved in,” and the more cynical among you would be right. Still, there’ll be some science here, especially about gelatin vs. alcohol, proper mixing techniques, and cookie crumble pie shells. So bear with me if any of that sounds interesting.

Quick backstory: Just shy of three weeks ago, I was publicly challenged on Twitter to a PieDown. The goal: to see who in Charlottesville makes the best pie. Within the hour we had four judges. Within the week we had rules, a web site, and a location. And within 16 days we had a winner. Sometimes life moves at you fast.

Readers with a long memory will recall that, two weeks ago, I was working on my pastry crust. At the time, I was thinking that a fresh strawberry pie would be ideal. After all, if I were to suddenly find myself on a reality TV show about cooking, I would say that my cooking style is “clean and simple, letting the natural goodness of the ingredients shine through,” or some other similar nonsense. I presume that the rest of you have your own line prepared in case you’re asked, because I would be worried were I the only one.

In any case, the fresh strawberry pie, while nice, wasn’t anything particularly special. You’d do better with a strawberry shortcake, and I couldn’t have that. So I listened to the wisdom of my wife, ignored my specially-prepared statement of food ethos, and complicated it up. The pie I eventually did, pictured above, kept the layer of fresh, local strawberries, which are fortunately in season in Charlottesville. Below that, there is a layer of cooked strawberries in a sugar and cornmeal solution, which provides the sugary hit. Below that, the secret layer, contains cream cheese, sour cream, and white chocolate, all mixed together. Did I write that it was a secret? Ignore that bit, then.

Aside from the multiple steps, and making the pie crust which we’ve discussed earlier, there were no real technical challenges to this one. Everything was pretty straightforward. Was it tasty? I have no idea. I’m pretty sure it was, but although I tasted the individual components, all of the pie was gone before I had a chance to try it. So it goes.

The second pie is where the science fun came in. This is a Bourbon Creme pie, and it’s…well, have you ever had homemade egg nog? Well, it was just like that, but a pie, and in a chocolate cookie crumble crust. And it caused me some trouble.

The first part came from the crust. I started out using the recipe for such a crust in Bakewise by Shirley Corriher, one of the first books I go to when I’m baking, and the inspiration for not only the Bourbon Cream Pie, but for buying The Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum, the book that the strawberry pie came from. 

The goal of Shirley’s cookie crust was to make it easy to cut, even when cooled. One of the tricky parts with most of these crusts is that they turn rock-hard, thus making it impossible to get a clean slice. I didn’t want that, so the recipe seemed perfect.

Still, there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing, and I wanted a thicker crust than this recipe allowed for, so I doubled it and made a double-thick crust. All well and good, except that it cracked after I baked it. Disaster! What’s to be done?

After consulting the other cookbooks, I settled on a recipe that was very similar, but with the addition of sugar. The sugar was left out of Shirley’s recipe because the sugar toughens the crust and makes it hard to cut. The sugar, when it bakes, becomes somewhat fluid. When it cools, it will crystalize, and form a nice, stable structure. We figured that, with the addition of a little sugar as King Arthur suggested, we could perhaps manage to avoid the cracking. It worked, and it wasn’t too difficult to cut, so a win there.

More fun was the filling of the pie. When I make eggnog, I take some egg yolks, mix in sugar, pour in some bourbon, mix with cream, and chill. This pie was very similar. Mix the sugar in the egg yolks, take some bloomed and dissolved gelatin, mix the gelatin and bourbon in with the yolks and sugar, then fold that into whipped cream. Chill. Ta da: Pie!

The first time I made it, I did not get the Ta da: Pie! I got the Ta da: eggnog in a pie shell. It didn’t set. There were three problems.

  1. Poor mixing. I skimped on the mixing of the sugar and egg yolks. Take a good mixer and blend them together until the egg yolks more or less double in volume and become several shades paler. 
  2. Poor folding. I skimped on the folding, just pouring the yolk mixture in the whipped cream and folding. One should generally take about 1/3 of the lighter material, in this case the whipped cream, and stir it into the heavier material. Then pour that into the lighter material and fold. Otherwise you get what I got, which was a ribbon of dark yellow material throughout the cream.
  3. Too much alcohol. I swapped 1:1 the bourbon for the rum. I knew it’d be trouble, but I didn’t listen to myself. Yes, I was sooo lazy the first time I made this, and because I was lazy, my pie was lazy. Because 3 tablespoons of bourbon contains the same amount of alcohol as 1/4 cup of rum, adding the extra alcohol likely prevented the gelatin from setting properly. So, after doing the math, I reduced the bourbon and tried again, mixing and folding properly as well.
So you know, if you make all of the mistakes that I did with the bourbon cream pie, all is not lost. All you have to do is stick it in the freezer. The alcohol that prevented the mixture from remaining fluffy at refrigerator temperatures will also prevent it from becoming ice-hard at freezer temperatures. Instead, you get what the Italians call a semifreddo, or a partially-frozen cream. It’s still tasty, and it’s a better treat for the summer. It’s important to have a versatile pie that will be changeable in any season. 
For those who are wondering, I did manage to win the PieDown, making me the Best Piemaker in Charlottesville. Though the event was a quick turnaround, I do have a signed certificate from Charlottesville’s Mayor, so it must be official, right?
All of the recipes as I had prepared them are available on my web site. You can find the recipes of my competitor, Master Pie Baker Marijean Jaggers, on the Cville PieDown site, or at her web site, STL Working Mom.



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