Douglas County's champion pie bakers have tips on how to make better pastries.
It's almost time to head to the 4-H concession stand at the Douglas County Free Fair to try some of the best pies in the county.
The fair, which starts at a slow trot Saturday with the 4-H Horse Show, begins in earnest at 7:30 a.m. Monday when entries are accepted for the President's Pie Baking Contest. And for pie-loving fairgoers it signals an opportunity to indulge.
Rita Lesser of rural Lecompton, last year's overall winner, and two of the county's other pie experts have a few tips and tricks for making perfect pastries.
The President's Pie Baking Contest is a daily open class event at the fair. Beginning Monday, Fair Board President Francis Thomas will judge the pies on appearance, texture, tenderness and flavor. Daily prizes are awarded, as well as an overall champion prize. After judging, the pies will be donated to the 4-H Food Stand and sold -- by the slice. Proceeds are donated to Douglas County 4-H Council.
Lesser entered the pie contest last year just for fun. Her husband, Chris, told her he'd drop off the pies at the fair on his way to work at Farmland Industries.
Lesser, who teaches family and consumer science classes at Perry-Lecompton High School, had some fresh blackberries from her mother's brambles and time to bake.
"The kids are in 4-H, and I knew they needed pies," she said. So she entered contest.
"It won first place," Lesser said. "I thought 'Oh, I'll make one another day.' One day led to another."
By the end of the fair, she had made three winning pies -- a blackberry, a peach and an apple -- and was declared the overall champion.
"Most of them were just plain, old-fashioned recipes," she said.
She narrowly beat out Aliene Bieber, Lawrence, whose pies have won the daily competition several times. LaDonna Wilson, rural Baldwin, slipped byBieber for a title the year before. The women shared their tips for perfect pies -- each starting with a perfect crust.
Judges, Bieber said, want a crust that is light and flaky.
"My mother-in-law taught me a lot about crust-making," Bieber said. "My husband tells me I make the best crust he's ever eaten."
She said she makes the dough by feel.
"I do it with my fingers," she said.
Bieber also uses cold milk instead of cold water. She adds dab of corn syrup to hold it together.
"You just pour a little bit in," she said.
Lesser uses a simple shortening, flour, water and salt crust recipe. She tries not to roll it too thin, keeping it around 1/8-inch thick. Lesser said she was taught to use cold water and handle the crust as little as possible. She recommends not rolling the dough out more than once.
Dough that's handled too much can translate into disaster for a pie.
"When you're working a pie crust, you can't work it to death," Wilson agreed.
Another common mistake that novice bakers make is using too much flour in the dough, Lesser said. That dries it out.
Instead, she said, bakers should use just enough flour so the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl while mixing. It should feel soft, she said, like Play-Doh. To keep the dough from sticking to rolling pins and counters when rolling it out, Bieber recommends employing a pastry cloth and rolling pin sleeve.
Wilson underlines the importance of also using a good shortening.
Top-notch ingredients throughout make a better pie, the three women said.
"It's very, very important to have top-quality products when you go to make a pie," Bieber said. "It's better to not skimp."
She and Lesser both suggest using fresh fruit. Freshly picked blackberries were the secret of Lesser's success for at least one of her winning pies. On the other hand, her biggest disappointment was not winning with her cherry pie.
"That was a real heart-breaker," Lesser said.
It's usually her most complimented confection. But that week she hadn't been able to find fresh cherries; she had to used canned. She thinks that made the difference.
When making a fruit pie, Lesser keeps her fillings simple. Most fillings end up being fresh fruit, sugar and flour.
"When I taste a pie, I always expect something sweet, so I use a lot of sugar," she said.
She thickens the pie filling with flour, just as her mother does.
"Some people use tapioca and some people use cornstarch, but I use flour," she said.
She also tries to keep the spices simple, if she uses any.
"Nutmeg and some of those things in a fruit pie, I'll usually get rid of," she said. "I'll keep the cinnamon."
Presentation can be as important as taste. Lesser said she wants an attractively browned crust and a firm filling.
"I think when it's sliced, it shouldn't run everywhere," she said.
She uses a trick to keep from overcooking her pie crusts.
"I precook the filling," she said. She mixes the filling and cooks it in a microwave oven on high for five to seven minutes, until is starts to bubble. "It'll start to thicken," she said.
Then she quickly transfers the filling to the waiting crust, works the top crust or lattice, and pops the pie in the conventional oven. The work has to be done quickly, she said, because the filling heats the crust and the shortening in it makes the crust slippery and harder to deal with. After the filling has been precooked, the pie only has to bake 30 minutes, keeping the crust unburned. The trick also keeps her fillings from shrinking from under her lattices or top crusts.
When asked if she'll enter this year, Lesser just said "I don't know," though her children all shook their heads "yes."
-- Felicia Haynes' phone message number is 832-7173. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.