Fulfilling pie-in-the-sky dreams at National Pie Championships

norske-nookIn the resort ballroom sit retired guys, moms and daughters, home economists, restaurant managers, girlfriends on getaways and many others – all waiting for their just desserts.

People who know each other aren’t at the same table, and the mix of pros and amateurs is deliberate, just like the mix of bakers whose masterpieces are paraded around us.

What we have in common is discerning palates and a hankerin’ for pie. We seek the best pie around and get to decide what this is during hours of eyeballing and sampling, slice by slice, rating appearance to aftertaste. The last question – Do you want more of this pie? – is not automatic by the time the volunteer work ends.

Within two days, we judge about 800 entries in the National Pie Championships, an annual American Pie Council event that began in the mid 1990s. At first, the pie only had to taste great. Now good looks count, too. So do factors like “mouth feel” – referring to the appropriate consistency of filling – and a complicated critique of crust quality (texture, flavor, flakiness, more).

About one-third of the 75 judges in 2015 were newbies like me who convinced event organizers of our worthiness and willingness to assign 1 to 9 points in nine categories per entry. “You have to not let personal preferences take over,” says Barbara Acimovic. She and sister Sylvia Geier are Kenosha natives who live in Florida and have judged pies at least eight years. They work the barbecue judging circuit, too.

Everybody signs a waiver before judging begins, and orientation is no-nonsense. Forget sipping coffee with pie; it masks flavors. No talking about a pie once it is presented. Everybody works completely independently. Don’t even show facial reactions.

What else? Sample the crust at the front and rear of a slice. Judge, but don’t analyze or try to guess what is in a pie. Provide comments that are helpful but not cruel; some bakers might change recipes because of what you say.

“Pie” means there is a filling that is contained in a crust, says Linda Hoskins, APC executive director. She laughingly reveals that she is not much of a baker.

Historically, a category or two requires the use of a sponsor’s product, such as Crisco shortening or Comstock fruit fillings. Another dozen categories have no such requirement but demand baker finesse and imagination.

Consider the blueberry pie entries, which included Blueberry Blackberry Basil, Blueberry Crumb, Blueberry Lemon Cream and White Chocolate Lemon Blueberry pies. In the baked dairy category: Raspberry Swirl Sugar Cream to Strawberry Vanilla Cheesecake pies. Competition happens in amateur, professional and commercial divisions.

At my judging table were 23 pies on the first day, 21 on the second. Whole pies, then slices appeared and disappeared in apple-pie order. By mid afternoon, I had my fill but nevertheless shopped for fancy pie plates, “pie police” caps and “slice of life” T-shirts.

Most contestants book lodging with a reliable oven (on the host resort’s grounds are 120 two-bedroom villas) in their quest for a $200 blue ribbon (or the $5,000 Best of Show prize). Lots are repeaters who have gotten to know each other; it’s a friendly bunch who love talkin’ pie, from planning the perfect pie buffet to why wedding pies are better than cake.

“People ask us if we visit Sea World or Disney when we’re here. We don’t – but we see Publix, Trader Joe’s and Target” for ingredients, quips Beth Campbell of Belleville, who has entered something annually since the contest’s beginning.

New to the 2016 competition is the first savory category, for chicken pot pie (one prize, $500), handcrafted artisanal pie (ingredients are made from scratch) and a Better for You category (for a blueberry, cherry or strawberry pie with two of these ingredients: oats, nuts, quinoa, ancient grains, any alternative fats or any alternative sugars).

The 2016 National Pie Championships are April 29-30 at the Caribe Royale, Orlando, Fla. To be considered as a judge, or to enter the competition, complete an application at piecouncil.org before March 25. Questions? Call 847-687-2722.

American Pie Council members pay $20 per entry in the professional categories and $15 in amateur categories. Non-members Non-members pay $35 per pie entered in any level of competition.

Judges are not paid for their time. Judges and contestants but may obtain a reduced lodging rate of $132 per night, but availability is limited. cariberoyale.com, 407-238-8000

Osseo-based Norske Nook, winner of 41 blue ribbons in National Pie Championships during the past 10 years, recently opened a new restaurant and bakery in DeForest, near Madison. A slice with coffee is $2.99 on Wednesdays.

The 2015 national winners were After Dinner Mint, Turtle, Cherries and Cream, Death by Chocolate and PB&J pies. norskenook.com, 608-842-3378