National pie champs have rural roots

pie-cutTwenty years ago, Caroline Imig’s world started crashing. Her husband was killed in a farm equipment accident, leaving her as a single mother with five children. She tried to sell 350 acres and a herd of 120 cows, only to have a land contract buyer abandon the property without her knowledge.

“They left me in a mess,” she says, adding that the farm was sold three times before the deal was complete. She carries a wallet-sized photo of the acreage as she knew it. Then, a shrug. “I got through it,” she says, and Wayne’s Restaurant in Oconto gets credit for helping to make that happen.

When owners Jim and Karen Thompson needed a pie baker, Caroline applied, and this month she earned her 21st and 22nd blue ribbons at the National Pie Championships in Orlando.

The Perfect Apple Pie and Pumpkin Pecan won their categories at the annual American Pie Council event. They were two of her eight entries. “I love making pies,” the longtime farm wife says. “It’s relaxing” and a challenge to develop new recipes. (When a pie earns a blue ribbon, the recipe goes public and can’t be entered again.)

Caroline makes 75 to 100 pies per week for Wayne’s, a family restaurant that is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. One of her 22 grandchildren seems destined to follow her footsteps.

When the APC had a junior competition for pie making, granddaughter Emily Pearce won for a raspberry chocolate entry. Now she’s age 19 and already teaching an occasional baking class. “She got good at it,” says mom Sandy Pearce; cheesecake and kringle also are specialties.

The matriarch especially likes experimenting with apple pies and prefers to start with pure lard in the crust. Cranberry apple, pumpkin apple, caramel apple and almond apple pies are among those that have appeared at Wayne’s, off of U.S. 41.

“Those pies are wonderful, and Caroline is awesome,” says co-owner Karen. “You can tell that they’re made with love.”

Time your visit right, and the championships baker just might be testing a new pie for next year’s contest. waynesrestaurant.com, 920-835-4262

Wisconsin is well represented at the National Pie Championships in part because Osseo, population 1,700, decades ago put us on the map for good pie. The Trempealeau County community is home to the original Norske Nook, which this year earned blue ribbons for five of six pies entered, and that makes 41 national wins as an independent/retail baker. The fourth Norske Nook opens in DeForest, near Madison, before this year ends; others are in Rice Lake and Hayward. The pies also make the menu at Northwoods Brew Pub, Eau Claire.

Ongoing publicity about the Norske Nook’s success inspires other professional and home bakers in Wisconsin to enter the contest. Consider David Harper of Richland Center, a stay-at-home dad with four children; the youngest is named Duncan (yes, after Mr. Hines). David’s Savory Cranberry Lasagne won the Warrens Cranberry Festival recipe contest in 2012; this month he entered 14 pies in the Florida competition for amateur bakers, and the Happy Go Lucky Lemon Raspberry Pie was judged best citrus pie.

Tops in cherry was the Part Tart Very Cherry Pie from Beth Campbell of Belleville. She and husband Charlie both entered; his recipes included an orange, dark chocolate and peanut butter combo. “It sounded totally disgusting to me,” said his wife, with a shake of the head. These annual pilgrimages began 21 years ago, with her mother. “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.

This year’s Norske Nook pie winners were Cherry Cream Cheese (single fruit and berry category), PB&J Pie (peanut butter), Death by Chocolate (chocolate cream), After Dinner Mint (open category) and Turtle Pie (open, cream). Wins coincide with the release of “The Norske Nook Book of Pies and Other Recipes” by Jerry Bechard and Cindee Borton-Parker (University of Wisconsin Press, $29.95).

In the hardcover book are dozens of pie, other dessert and Norwegian recipes. This one in 2003 won the Norske Nook its first national blue ribbon. norskenook.com, 800-294-6665

Banana Cream Pie
(Makes one 11-inch pie)

1 graham cracker crust
1 batch vanilla pudding, cooled (see below)
5-7 bananas, sliced
Frozen whipped topping, thawed, or fresh whipped cream (optional)

Spread a small amount of the cooled vanilla pudding evenly over the bottom of the crust. Add a layer of bananas, then the remainder of the pudding, being sure to cover the bananas completely, or they will turn dark. No bananas should show through.

Cover the pie with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve. Served with whipped topping or whipped cream, if desired.

Vanilla Pudding
(For one 11-inch pie)

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 large egg yolks
3 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon salted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a saucepan, combine the sugar, flour and cornstarch, and nix together with a whisk. Add the egg yolks, but do not mix yet. Gradually add the milk, and stir all together thoroughly.

Cook over medium heat until thick and smooth, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula. Remove from heat, and add the butter and vanilla. Stir well and cool.

The National Pie Championships happen annually in Orlando. For details about winners, recipes and how to enter next year: piecouncil.org. In “America’s Best Pies” by the American Pie Council with Linda Hoskins (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.95) are almost 200 winning recipes.