These are excerpts from How D’ya Like Them Apples? by Michelle Turner, originally published in The Monthly, June, 2003. Reprinted by permission.
Taste tests have become something of a tradition here at The Monthly. Last year, we happily sampled barbecued pork ribs, and since passions run high about barbecue and how it should be prepared, it turned into a very lively forum. This year, when it was decided that fruit pie would be on the menu, I thought, well, pies are nice, but ho-hum.
Who would’ve thought that pie – sweet, friendly, innocent pie – would inspire such heated debate?
Turns out pie is indeed controversial. Everyone, it seems, has very clear ideas about what should go in the middle of a pie shell. Our first tangle was over type. The fruit had to be in season for both our April tasting and for our June publication date. That eliminated cherry, berry, and peach.
We settled on good old apple. Although primarily harvested in winter, apples are easily stored and available year-round. Apple pie can be found in most bakeries and, unlike, say, strawberry-rhubarb, everyone at least likes apple pie.
Apple pie occupies a special place in American culture. We’ve all been endlessly reminded of its partnership with other icons of Americana – baseball, hot dogs, etc. – but, really, where pie is concerned, the cliché is apt. Baseball may leave you cheerless, hot dogs may turn your stomach, but everyone can get behind dessert.
Still, loving apple pie wasn’t enough. We needed an authority, someone who could speak expertly, not just loudly, on the subject. Alan Tangren, one of the pastry chefs at Chez Panisse, graciously agreed to step up to the plate, as it were, and serve as our resident pie expert.
He and our 11 volunteer judges were in for some surprises.
Fat Apple’s, Walker’s Pie Shop, Lois the Pie Queen, Montclair Bakery, Hopkins Street Bakery, Grand Avenue Bakery, Virginia Bakery, and Crixa Bakery donated pies for the blind tasting. Pies were judged on a scale of one to five (one being not so great, five being the very best ever). We mulled over the following elements for their individual qualities: Fruit (taste and texture), Filling (everything besides the apples, e.g., the use of spice), Crust (Is there enough crust? Too much? Flaky?), Overall Flavor, Appearance (including how well the pie held together when sliced), and Texture (firmness or mushiness of fruit and crust). An overall score was developed by adding everyone’s three favorites and an average rating from each individual category.
The pies were served, the coffee made, and we were ready to dig in. Here’s how it sliced up:
Crixa’s pie was not only the largest (“Pizza sized!” exclaimed one of the judges), it was also rated the number one overall favorite by the tasters. It was also the favorite in the fruit, crust, and topping categories. Elizabeth Kloian, owner of Crixa and the granddaughter of Russian and Armenian immigrants, grew up in a household where baking was commonplace. “I didn’t know how to bake in small amounts – boiling 12 heads of cabbage was typical,” she laughs. “This was good training for a career as a commercial baker.”
Kloian likes to shop for her apples at the Berkeley Bowl. What kind of apples does she use? “Pippin, pippin, pippin!” she exclaims. “Those are the very best for pies. As a child, I wasn’t even aware that there were any other apples until I went to Safeway and saw all the Granny Smiths.”
Kloian also says that she’s against crunchy apples in pies and would rather have a mushier pie then a crunchy one, a characteristic noted by three of the tasters: “Mushy but good,” commented one. Overall, the judges loved the fruit. One wrote: “Soft apples, supersweet yet tart, good salt, apples hold shape.”
Manager John Marks has been making pies for over 20 years. “We start with tart apples – pippins or McIntosh. Then we sweeten them up to an appropriate level. Then we add lemon juice. The crust is made with vegetable shortening.”
Fat Apple’s tied for second place with Crixa in the best filling category and was second place in the best flavor category. One of the tasters thought that the filling had a “nice, spicy flavor.” Another disagreed and remarked on a “weird spice combo” in the filling.
As for appearance, the pies at Fat Apple’s are famous for their towering height. One judge said that the slice had a “nice triangular integrity.” Marks says that apple pie has a universal appeal. “Not many people don’t like apples. You can’t offend anybody with an apple pie. Apple pie is quintessentially American, like baseball and Chevrolet.”
Lois the Pie Queen
Well, with a name like that, it’s obvious that we’d have to include this esteemed Oakland eatery. Although the legendary Lois has departed this earth, I think she’d be happy to know that the pies at her namesake restaurant won for best filling, best flavor, and best appearance, and tied with Montclair Bakery for best fruit. They also won second place for overall favorite.
One tester judged the fruit, the filling, and the crust to be “perfect.” But of course, this being America, someone had to disagree. This person deemed the crust “pedestrian.” But later this person opined that the pie looked the most “yummy.”
Davis says the butter and shortening crust is handmade. One taster noted that the pie had a “pretty glaze and color” and gave the pie high marks for appearance. Lois is celebrating its 51st year, and owner Chris Davis says that the secret of the pies isn’t necessarily the apples, but “the love that we put in the filling.” The spirit of Lois lives on.
“For me, baking was always a hobby,” say Montclair Bakery owner Cheryl Lew. For her pies, this self-taught baker prefers to use a combination of apples. “We normally like to use Sierra Beauty, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, and pippin.” Lew says that she likes creating a blend because each apple has its own distinct attribute. “Granny Smiths are more tart, whereas Golden Delicious have a nice melting texture when cooked.”
Montclair Bakery tied with Lois the Pie Queen for first place in the best fruit category. One judge thought the fruit was “very nice and tart.” One didn’t like the crust, calling it “dry in places, mushy in others.” Three people gave this pie high marks for appearance. Someone else described the filling as “nice and tart; the filling is integrated slowly.”
Grand Avenue Bakery
Bob Jaffe bought one of Northern California’s only full-service kosher bakeries last year, but he started baking his famous black-and-white cookies in earnest back in 1998. This small but popular bakery also bakes cheesecake and “zillions of macaroons.”
One judge really liked the Grand Avenue Bakery’s “very crisp fruit and naked apple taste.” Another thought the apples in this nondairy pie were too crunchy. This was the only pie that had raisins in the filling, a touch that was appreciated by one of the panelists. Another panelist thought the filling tasted “starchy.” One judge rated this lattice-crust pie second in appearance and another noted that the sugar-sprinkled crust had a “great taste – I love the sugar crystals; not too sweet, very flaky – despite the fact that it falls apart a bit, it has a great scrumptious taste.”
Walker’s Pie Shop
This venerable Albany restaurant has been packing them in for 39 years. Of the pies we tasted, Walker’s is the only one that uses canned apples rather than fresh. “That way the pie is consistent all year-round,” explains manager Jorge Sandoval. “We did try to use fresh apples but people didn’t like the change so we went back to using canned.”
Our Chez Panisse pastry chef gave the fruit—and remember, the apples were canned—a rating of four out of five. “The apples are good, nicely spiced,” Tangren said. But another panelist begged to differ, saying that the apples lacked a “prominent apple flavor.” Someone remarked that the pie “held well and looked tasty.”
Sandoval says the shortening for the crust doesn’t really matter. “Shortening, lard, butter, whatever you use, the most important thing is that the best crusts are made by hand. If you use a press machine to make the crust, the crust becomes hard and you can really tell the difference,” explains Sandoval. Walker’s tied for third place with Lois the Pie Queen for best crust.
John Erdmann, manager for 27 years of Berkeley’s Virginia Bakery, says he really has no preference for the apples that they use in the pies. “We only require that they’re fresh.” One panelist liked that the apples “weren’t too sweet – they have a nice even flavor.” Another disagreed; she decided that the apples had a “strange flavor.” For appearance, one person said that this pie was “nice looking,” while another wrote that the crust was “too pale.” One panelist wrote that this was his second overall favorite.
According to Erdmann, the key to a successful crust is “not mixing it too much.” What does he feel is the appeal of apple pie? “Well, it’s part of our culture,” he says. “It’s a part of being American – Fourth of July and all that.” And what is his favorite pie? Erdmann laughs. “Actually, I’m not really a big pie person.”
Easy as a Pie Chart
We tasted eight apple pies baked by some of the East Bay’s best-known bakeries. While there wasn’t a bad apple among ’em, here’s how they ranked as overall favorites.
Hopkins Street Bakery
Hopkins Street Bakery owner Felicia Yam uses Granny Smith apples for her apple pie and thinks that the secret for a perfect crust is to use only butter. Apple pies are a perennial favorite at the bakery. “People like that the pies have a light taste, not too heavy, not too sweet. We have very devoted customers who appreciate our bakery because we have a balance.”
Hopkins scored third place overall. Some said the pie had a “great sweetness, firm, slightly crisp, nice texture.” Five judged the fruit as “nice” or “good.” One had this to say about the apples: “Yum! Can taste all the flavors of the filling. Lemon, apple, and spice.”
As far as appearance, someone thought it was the most appetizing looking of all. One taster however, proved once again that taste is subjective: “I thought the texture was mushy – it tasted like something I would make.” Another was impressed by the homemade appearance of the pie, and described it thusly: “Nicely browned, old-fashioned, and irregular shaped.”
Michelle Turner is an Oakland-based freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in the East Bay Express and Urban View.