Antique Apples: Montgomery Place Orchards’ Pie Contest
By Kathryn Matthews
Double crust or crumb top? A lard, shortening or butter crust? Wolf River, Ananas Reinette, or Hudson’s Golden Gem? These were among the tough decisions that contestants in Montgomery Place Orchards’ sixth annual apple pie contest had to make.
Not to mention: a panel of pie lovers, who have been recruited as judges, can be an opinionated, fickle lot. One man’s slice of pie heaven is what another might slip to the dog.
Yet, hope springs eternal. On Saturday, October 16th, I set my apple pie (#13) alongside 32 other pie hopefuls on a long table inside the Montgomery Place Orchards farm stand in Annandale, while spectators and fellow-contestants milled about in anticipation of the results.
My competition included veteran pie bakers, such as Judy Foote (right), 70, a retired accountant in Red Hook who has been baking pies for 50 years. “I baked 15 pies for my son’s wedding, and we never got to the wedding cake,” she confided, adding that she has also given “pie seminars” to two daughter-in-laws, various friends and former co-workers.
There were veteran contestants, too, like Rhinebeck lawyer Lisa Rosenthal, 50, competing in her fourth Montgomery Place pie contest. “I didn’t want the pressure of defending my title,” said Rosenthal, who won first prize for her double crust pie last year. Instead, she switched categories and entered two different crumb top pies, determined not to leave empty-handed.
Pie contests can spark friendly competition within families. The Rhinecliff Hotel’s executive chef, Brian Kaywork (left), 36, won first prize for his Crumb Top pie last year. This year, he tried his luck in the Double Crust category, where he competed against his mother-in-law, Vickie Lieb.
Four members of the close-knit Lowney-Dipper clan were also participants: Michelle Lowney (who has won a red ribbon for her crust) and her nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth of Red Hook each entered a pie. So did Lowney’s mother, Debbie Dipper, and her sister-in-law, Laura Dipper, of Elizaville. “My sister-in-law Laura was the first contestant; it snowballed from there!” said Lowney.
The pie contest was, in large part, a celebration of antique apples.
Talea and Doug Fincke (right), who have been growing fruit—and some produce—on 40 acres at Montgomery Place Orchards since 1986, also run its popular farm stand. (Historic Hudson owns the land that they farm and all buildings on the property, including the stand.). The couple’s son Adam, 21, and daughter Caroline, 23, pitch in, too.
The Finckes grow over 60 varieties of apples. Locally, they’re famous for their antique apples—heritage varieties that are obscure or non-commercial—that they began planting eight years ago. Come fall, they now harvest over 20 different varieties of antique apples, some with poetic names like Black Twig, Hidden Rose and Coe’s Golden Drop, as well as two of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite varieties, Newtown Pippin (of early 1700s Long Island origin), and Esopus Spitzenburg, first grown in Ulster County, New York, in the late 1700s. “We work on a historic farm, and we wanted to grow historic apples that Doug could also use to make hard cider,” explained Talea. Between September and November, five or six varieties of antique apples are usually available at any one time at the farm stand.
The contest began in 2004 as a fun, hands-on way for customers to learn about different heritage apples and which ones are best for pies. Pie contestants must use apples from Montgomery Place orchards, and when they sign up, they receive a half-peck of apples (their choice, a mix of varieties is permissible) from the Finckes for the competition.
There were two categories of pies: Crumb Top and Double Crust. Prizes, which included a $75 gift certificate to Mercato Osteria Enoteca in Red Hook; a $50 gift certificate to the Rhinecliff Hotel; and a $25 gift certificate to Warren Cutlery, were awarded to the top three winners in each category. The best part: after the winners are announced, the contest turns into an all-you-can-eat pie buffet for spectators and contestants alike!
Every year, the Finckes recruit judges based on a specific theme. Past panels have been comprised of chefs, pastry chefs, grandmothers, “Titans” (men over 300 pounds!) and local farmers. This year, the six judges—expected to “defend” their top pie picks—were all lawyers: Red Hook Town Councilman Bill O’Neill; Attorney for the Town of Red Hook Christine Chale; Kelly Mosher, Angela Lore and Kelly Flood-Myers, three Red Hook-based lawyers, and Barrytown weekender David Schulz of Levine, Sullivan, Koch and Schulz in Manhattan. “Not one single person turned me down for the job!” said Talea.
And the winners are……..
#7 Elizabeth Lowney
Apple Variety: Jonagold
#9, Kelly Schloemer
Apple Varieties: Suncrisp, Cameo, Cortland, Fuji and Empire
#12, Lisa Rosenthal
Apple Varieties: Pink Pearl, Northern Spy and Swiss Gourmet
#15, Vickie Lieb
Apple Varieties: Northern Spy and Jonagold
#16, Regina Viggiano
Apple Variety: Macoun
#6, Sara Stitham
Apple Varieties: Jonagold, Macoun, Suncrisp and McIntosh
After deciding to enter an all-antique apple pie in the double-crust category, I chose three heritage varieties: Northern Spy (a New York heirloom from the 1840s, which has been grown at Montgomery Place Orchards for over a century); Baldwin (of Massachusetts origin, circa 1740); and Cox’s Orange Pippin (England’s favorite dessert apple, discovered there in the early 1800s as a chance seedling).
My practice “test pie”, sampled by various friends, had been well-received, bolstering my confidence that the flavor of my 100% antique apple pie would hold its own.
Unfortunately, even the best-laid plans can go awry.
As I prepared to roll out my pie dough (all-butter crusts rule!) the Friday evening before the contest, I realized, in a moment of panic-stricken horror, that I had left my “lucky”—and only—pie plate back in the City. It was late. All stores were closed. Frantic, I called my neighbor, Nancy, rousing her from a deep slumber. She came to my rescue, kindly lending me her pie plate.
Turns out: it was ceramic and shallower than my glass pie plate. Type A anxiety engulfed me. How much longer would it take the pie to bake in a ceramic pie plate? How would I be able to tell if the crust was truly done? What if my apple filling didn’t fit?
Well, beggars can’t be choosers. I had no choice but to adjust. I rolled out and filled my pie, and slid it into the oven.
Just as the oven door snapped shut, I remembered—too late—that I should have added bits of butter to my apple filling before sealing the top crust.
Jinxed! I could only hope that my combination of antique apples would carry the day.
So, what were the judges looking for? As the results were being tabulated (three contestants with the highest overall scores in each category would receive prizes), I cornered two judges for answers.
“There’s a big difference between a good-looking pie and a good-tasting pie,” said David Schulz, who, after sampling 19 pies in the double crust category, noted that the best looking pies often disappointed in the taste department. His criteria? “I want to taste the apples—not a whole lot of other ‘stuff’. I like the apples to retain their shape and their texture—I don’t care for applesauce in a crust. And, very important: I like a flaky crust.”
Asked about the biggest challenge in judging 14 crumb tops, Christine Chale replied: “What challenge? I was eating pie!” Still, she has her gold standard for crumb tops: the flavor of the apple should shine through; the filling should retain its shape but not be chewy; the pastry should not be soggy; and the topping should be crispy and not too thick. Go light on the cinnamon and hold the exotic spices (like anise) and added flavorings.
After 2 p.m., Talea announced the results. Nine-year-old Elizabeth Lowney (right) won first prize in the crumb top category. And, with a squeal of delight, Vickie Lieb accepted first prize for her double crust pie; she had bested Kaywork, her chef son-in law (who did not place this year).
For her diligent, two pie baking efforts, Lisa Rosenthal was rewarded with third prize in the Crumb Top category. The crumb top recipe that she used from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Pie and Pastry Bible beat out the crumb top she made from Classic Home Desserts by Richard Sax. The difference? Her winning crumb top had a moister topping (melted butter, flour, brown sugar, ground walnuts and cinnamon) and a cream cheese-and-butter crust.
As for my pie? Other than adding two additional antique apple varieties (last year, I used only Northern Spy), I entered the exact same apple pie as last year—lightly spiced with fresh ginger and a hint of cardamom. In 2009, I won a red ribbon for “best filling”. This year: nada.
Not that I’m complaining: taste is subjective.
Congratulations to the winners!
Montgomery Place Orchards Farm Market
Route 9G (near the intersection of Rt 199)
Through October; Tuesday - Sunday: 9 a.m. - 6 p.m.; closed Mondays
November 1 - 24, Thursday - Sunday: 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.