Category Archives: contest

Chili Interview: Cookbook Author and Chile Expert Andrea Lynn

Andrea Lynn

Andrea Lynn is a freelance food writer and recipe developer, who spent a couple years as Senior Editor at Chile Pepper magazine, where she developed and tested recipes for the spice-obsessed audience. This spicy expertise landed her on Martha Stewart Radio discussing her recipe for Sriracha Wings and as a bhut jolokia expert on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Also, she wrote weekly blog posts on fiery food for Serious Eats. In addition to still contributing to Chile Pepper, her past gigs have included recipe editing for, plus editorial and corporate recipe development. She is the author of the recently released, The I Love Trader Joe’s College Cookbook.

Gina: Do you have any advice about using chili powder vs. fresh or dried chiles for making chili? Is one better than another?

Andrea: I think it can be a personal preference. I think the average chili competitor knows this but I think it should be pointed out that chili powder purchased in the grocery store isn’t what you’re looking for. It’s a combination of chiles—most of which you may not know the name or are just throwaways. At the end of the day, it just doesn’t have a ton of flavor.

I’m in love with New Mexican Red Chile powder, so I often reach for that if I’m making chile using chili powder. If I have more time for the chili recipe, I’ll most certainly use dried chiles—usually a variety of them—and then remove them after they are hydrated, remove the seeds, add them back into the base, and puree. I think that dried chiles add more of a complexity to the dish. Also, if you toast the chiles prior to using them in the chili, it adds even more of a layer of complexity, which I feel like is what you are after in a bowl of chili. When someone tastes the chili, they know it’s outstanding but can’t pinpoint what makes it so. As for fresh chiles, I’ll use them mostly to garnish the chili – depending on the spice level I want, I might pump it up with fresh chiles to top the chili.

Gina: Can you recommend any good online sources for chile peppers?

Andrea: Penzeys for dried chile powders; Santa Fe School of Cooking for dried, seeds, and powder.

Gina: What tools does one need to create one’s own chile blends?

Andrea: The first step is to know what you like. Taste a blend of spices and figure out what suits your palate. For me, I realized I like a little spiciness to be combined with the smoldering smokiness of spices like smoked paprika or chipotle powder. Experiment until you get a blend you like. Then, toast dried chiles just briefly in a sauté pan to deepen the flavor, and use a spice grinder (also known as a coffee grinder) to make a blend.

Habanero pepper

Gina: If one wanted to make “five alarm” super spicy chili, what would be the best chile peppers to use?

Andrea: Habanero or—if I dared—bhut jolokia powder.

Gina: Please walk me through the steps that you go through as a professional recipe developer when you taste a bowl of chili. What criteria do you use to evaluate it? Do you have a special technique for tasting? Is there a part of the tongue that’s best of tasting spice?

Andrea: As a recipe developer, part of it depends on the criteria of the recipe. Sometimes, it needs to be a bowl of chili made in a hurry or it needs to be under a certain amount of ingredients. But—no matter what the criteria—I always aim to make a bowl of chili that differs from ones I have created previously. It’s the name of the job—I always want to experiment with ingredients that are new to me or different techniques, which translates into eating a bowl of chili unlike what I have tasted or made before.

To evaluate, I think it’s important to keep two things in mind: Cleanse your palate with dairy products so the heat hasn’t built up and you can have an accurate measure of the taste. Secondly, get the feedback of others.

Gina: What are the health hazards of cooking with chile peppers and tasting chili and what precautions and antidotes do you recommend? Can a person die from ingesting too much hot pepper?

Andrea: When dealing with chile peppers, always make sure to wash your hands repeatedly (and, yes, I’ve been guilty of touching my eyes with chile residue on my hand and regretting it very much). If you are dealing with using a large batch of chiles, invest in a box of latex gloves for the kitchen and use them. Also, know your tolerance—both in terms of how much heat you can take and how your stomach reacts to it.

I use dairy products to ease the pain of a chile overload on my tongue—sour cream, buttermilk, yogurt, or milk. As far as I know—no, you can’t die from ingesting too many chiles. I wrote a post on it because I was very curious, but the doctor seemed to say that the worst thing that would happen is your stomach won’t be a happy camper.

Scotch Bonnet peppers

As far as an antidote, once I was using Scotch bonnets and vinegar to make a hot sauce. I had the window opened but I guess cross-ventilation is important because the fire in the air from the chiles was so strong that tears were streaming down my face. And my roommate and her boyfriend ran out of the apartment coughing and wheezing. Yeah, I can’t say they were too thrilled with me at that moment!

Gina: What are the most interesting “secret ingredients” you’ve come across in chili recipes? 

Andrea: Hmmm, I think peanut butter is a weird one that I’ve come across. (Of course, I’m not the biggest pb fan, so that could be why it sounds so odd to me.) Other ones are cocoa powder or chocolate, coffee/espresso, grape jelly (a man I interviewed swore by the grape jelly add-in), cloves, raisins.

Gina: What’s your personal favorite kind of chili?

Andrea: I made a Double Pork Chili (which has both chorizo and pork ribs) with Cornbread Croutons that is one of the favorite chili recipes that I’ve created.

I would say though when I first started working at Chile Pepper, the green chilies were a revelation to me. I had never been exposed to green-based chilies as a kid, and I fell in love with them. Nothing beats the nostalgia of a bowl of red, but green chili comes a pretty close second.

Gina: Why do you think people love spicy food?

Andrea: I think there’s a certain addiction when it comes to spicy food; you’re always striving for spicier, smokier, and/or that nasal-clearing burn. Whether it’s the tingle of a Szechuan pepper or the sting of a habanero, it’s all very crave-worthy.

Gina: So many people are passionate about chili. Why do you think that is?

Andrea: Everyone has a way they make chili—their own special way of doing it, their own blend of meat, the with-or-without beans factor, and a secret ingredient or two. It’s a source of pride—your own original concoction of ingredients that makes your chili the best.

Gina: Why do chili cook-offs matter?

Andrea: Throughout all the interviews I’ve done with chili cook-offs winners, the  things that appeared over and over were passion and camaraderie around the cook-offs. At some level, it became about so much more then just a pot of chili or perfecting a recipe to win, but it was about the friendships that had formed over the years.

Chili Interview: Writer Sharon Hudgins on Why Chili Inspires Passion

I asked McKinney, Texas-based food scholar Sharon Hudgins why she thinks chili inspires such passion. Here is her insightful answer:

Sharon Hudgins

“Chili in its purest—that is, Texas—form is easy and inexpensive to make, but when it’s done well, it has layers of flavors that provide both psychological comfort and gustatory pleasure. The meat protein makes you feel full in the stomach and powered up for whatever comes your way.  The chiles provide the heat that give the dish its capsaicin kick, setting off your endorphins and making you feel good on a higher level than just having a full stomach.

The subject of chili is as controversial as Texas is big.  Even Texans don’t agree about the ‘correct’ composition of this dish.  Those who like to add pinto beans (and even tomatoes) to it are shunned by the purists—but a substantial segment of the population persists in thinking (rightly so) that chili with beans is a pretty good combination, too. The real rub is when Texans are served chili from other places, such as Cincinnati chili with kidney beans (!) and spaghetti (!!).

And don’t even let a true Texan get near a bowl of  California chili, with its effete additions of black olives, avocado slices, shredded cheese, and sour cream.  In my humble opinion, I think this is a really seductive combination of ingredients—but I can’t admit it because I still have to live in Texas.  However, I do think that every time you add another ingredient to the basic recipe of meat, chiles, and onions, you’re diluting those fundamental flavors and creating a dish that’s different from what many Texans consider a true ‘bowl of red.'”


Sharon Hudgins is an award-winning author of four books and more than 700 articles published in magazines, newspapers, scholarly journals, and on the Web.  A former editor of CHILE PEPPER magazine, she has written several articles about chili powder and chili-the-dish. Currently she is the food editor of EUROPEAN TRAVELER and the food columnist for GERMAN LIFE magazine, USA. She also lectures on culinary, historical, and ethnographical topics on tours offered by National Geographic Expeditions, Lindblad Expeditions, Silversea Cruises, and other tour companies. Her travel memoir, THE OTHER SIDE OF RUSSIA: A SLICE OF LIFE IN SIBERIA AND THE RUSSIAN FAR EAST, is now in its third printing, and she is writing a sequel about her further adventures in Russia. So far, she has survived 35,000 miles of travel on the Trans-Siberian railroad and several servings of raw mare’s milk in Mongolian gers.

Chili Interview: Doug Downing, Veteran Chili Cook-off Judge and Creator of Double D's Sauces

Chicago native Doug Downing is the creator of Double D’s Sauces, a line of homemade hot sauces, spices, and salsas. His current products feature the intense heat and smoky sweet flavor of bhut jolokia (or ghost pepper), the hottest pepper in the world.  He has judged more than 10 chili cook-offs, including the Illinois State Cook-off.

Gina: What are your favorite peppers with which to make chili?

Doug: Jalepeño and ghost for my “homestyle” chili, but for competition, your main heat comes from powders, such as hot chili powder, cayenne, and chipotle.  On the competition circuit it is all about repeatability and that is not something you can get from fresh produce.  A good example is a jalepeño pepper–sometimes they are very mild and others can be very, very hot.

Gina: What are the important criteria to consider when judging chili?

Doug: Color, consistency, aroma, and taste.  Chili needs to be a deep red color.  If it is true competition chili, there should be no fillers (beans, rice, etc)–only meat, preferably steak cut into quarter inch cubes. It should have a great fragrance, a hint of cumin, that makes you want to taste it.  Once you do taste the chili, after letting it linger on your tongue, does it have the right heat? Flavor? Not too much cumin, which comes across as bitter.

Gina: What makes the difference between a good chili and a great one?

Doug: The right blend of heat and flavor.  Cumin in the right quantity is what makes a competition chili.  You can be first place one month and with the same recipe the next month you might come in dead last.  There are nuances to different regions.  Some like it hot and salty, some with more sweet, almost like BBQ sauce you just have to experiment.

Gina: What does it take to be a good chili judge?

Doug: An open mind and attention to detail.  You have to weigh the color, aroma, and consistency with what you find appealing.  Place even weight on each element so as not to exclude a great looking, smelling and textured chili just because it is a little sweeter than you like.

Gina: Do you have any tips for chili judges?

Doug: An open mind and consistency. Consistency brings credibility.

Gina: Do you have any tips for chili cook-off contestants?

Doug: Practice and hold true to your tastes.  It takes a while to figure out how to cube the meat correctly and how to make a nice, deep red gravy (what the liquid is called). You have to make something that tastes good to you, because you cannot make everyone happy. Produce a product you feel is great.

Gina: You’ve participated in a lot of chili contests. What are the logistical details that need to be thought through? What elements make for a great chili cook-off?

Doug: Have a good reliable cassette burner.  You have to bring and prepare everything on site with you (pots, spices, meat, measuring cups, spoons etc.). Be sure to do a run through so you know you can prepare it all with no outside help.  I once forgot olive oil and my wife drove frantically around some small Chicago neighborhoods to find it for me in a nick of time.  You can never be too prepared.

Gina: Why do you love chili?

Doug: It was a staple growing up and brings back great memories of fall days and family gatherings.  We weren’t eating competition chili, but when doing competition chili the other cooks become a small family. It really is fun and relaxing.

Gina: Do you have any favorite chili-related songs?

Doug: I hate to show my age, but anything heavy metal, 80s hair bands really says chili to me.




Chili Interview: John Raven, Chili Expert and Chili Cook-off Daredevil Stuntman

John Raven

John Raven, Ph. B (Dr. of Barbecue Philosophy) is a member of the Chili Appreciation Society International Hall of Fame. Born and raised in Taylor, Texas,  he founded and published a chili cook-off newsletter called Goat-Gap Gazette in 1974 and wrote for it for 24 years. For the past 12 years, he has served as the Southwestern and Texas style food expert for, where his articles are archived under “Traditional Texas Food.”   He recently won 1st Runner Up in the Texas Monthly Where I’m From Short Film Contest (scroll down to see his entry titled Lyndon’s Hills).

Gina: Approximately how many chili cook-offs have you participated in as a contestant and judge? What were your proudest achievements?

John: I have participated in hundreds of chili cook-offs. Starting as lowly, first time chili cook to being a finals judge at the World Championship at Terlingua.

I am proudest of having three trophies from Chilympiad, the Texas State Men’s Chili Cook-Off. I won the first one in 1974, which was for being in the top ten at the cook-off. There were probably 40-50 cooks in the competition. In 1980, I took 6th place out of a field of over 300 cooks and in 1985, I was in the top 20 cooks out of over 300 again. Chilympiad was the greatest cook-off of all time.

John Raven's chili booth was a fixture at Texas chili cook-offs from 1974 through the mid-1980s.

Gina: I gather you’re known for your great pyrotechnic daredevil acts at chili cook-offs. What kinds of things did you do and why?

John: I worked with explosives in my chili showmanship. The main shows were: The backpack rocket and The Diabolical Death machine. The backpack rocket was a homemade device that mostly just blew up without the expected space flight. The best backpack exhibition was done at the Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio in 1975, a photo of that has become standard for articles about Folklife Festival.


The best Diabolical Death Machine performance was at Traders Village in Grand Prairie, Texas. It started the only goat stampede ever witnessed.

John Raven in his backpack rocket.

The Diabolical Death Machine at Great Luckenbach World Fair circa 1970-something.

John Raven as Daredevil Bad McFad

Gina: I read  that you think chili cook-offs have gone down hill in recent years. What’s changed about them? What were the glory years and best contests?

John: Chili cook-offs with one or two exceptions have gone in the dumpster in the past 10-15 years. First reason for their demise was the fact that there were too many of them. They were no longer a novelty, you could find three or four within a day’s drive time every weekend. The cook-offs became too regimented. Too many rules and regulations that had nothing to do with making chili. People just love rules and regulations.

When the cook-offs lost their novelty they lost the media attention. In the early 70s any cook-off would get at least one representative of the local press on the grounds. A cook-off that was publicized would get a couple of local TV crews out to tape the action.

The first generation of chili heads loved to entertain crowds of people. They were very good at it. The present day chili heads don’t want any outsiders on the grounds, they want their own little, or big, private party. Their whole reason for being is to get to cook at the “Big Un” in Terlingua. I understand Terlingua still draws a few spectators, I imagine, hoping that the early R rating will still be working.

The “Glory Years” were from 1967, when the first Terlingua contest was held, until about early 80s.

Best cook-off of all time was Chilympiad in San Marcos, any year. Flatonia, Texas has been producing Czhilispiel for over 30 years and it still has some of the original feel to it.

Gina: Who taught you to make chili and how did your technique evolve?

John: I was taught to make chili by the people who were in the chili cook-offs when I started. They were all very helpful and never gave me a bogus tip. Through the years I developed a recipe that was good and improved slightly on the standard technique.

Gina: What makes the difference between a good chili and a great one?

John: Individual tastes. Not everyone likes the same thing. The chili or whatever wins a cooking contest is the entry that offends the least number of judges.

Gina: What’s your advice for cook-off contestants?

John: A competitive chili cook will be consistent. His/her product will not be good one time, awful the next. Find the people who win consistently and probe them for tips. Taste their chili and go in that direction. You will never get anyone’s “secret.” The chili that wins will be the one that has the best blend of spices and a consistent texture.

Gina: What criteria should a chili judge consider and do you have any tips for judges?

John: A food judge will use his/her taste to grade the sample . You will be told to rate sample on: Color, Aroma, and Taste.

Chili cannot be made from hamburger. The meat in real chili will be coarse or “chili” grind. The best chili is made with small chunks of meat roughly one-half inch square. It does not have to be square, any shape will do.

The first chili of the day that you taste will taste great. From there the ratings will bounce all over the place. That is why the judges all get a different sample to be their first taste. I bet you didn’t know that.

Gina: Chili seems to inspire extraordinary passion. Why do you think that is?

John: Chili is like an urban legend. There are thousands of stories about it, some truth, some fiction.

Chili takes us back in our genetic memory to the time we were squatting around the campfire. It is an ancient recipe.

The chili we know today grew up out of hard times. In the times when the basic food was skinny, tough wild cattle and whatever vegetables we could find. Somewhere along the way, meat and the chile met. It was the beginning of a long lasting romance. When cumin came to the new world with the Canary Island settlers in San Antonio, Texas it became the spice that has held chili together all these many years.

In the Great Depression the chili parlors, which served chili for a dime a bowl, kept many a poor soul from giving up.

The chili legend was kept alive by a bunch of guys who held a mutual respect for chili. When chili fell out of favor in the good times following WWII the guys came up with the World Championship Chili Cook-Off at Terlingua and generated enough interest in the peasant dish to have it nominated as “The National Food of the United States.” Papa John’s pizza will never get that far.

Chili Interview: Brooklyn Chili Takedown Founder Matt Timms

My agent gave me a heads up about the 2011 Brooklyn Chili Takedown yesterday and I was immediately smitten by founder Matt Timms’s assertion that “chili is a foul seductress, people” and that “this is a no rulez competition that says rules… are for Texans.” Much as I love a traditional Texas bowl of red, I have a soft spot for newfangled chili rebels and I’ve decided to feature the Takedown’s People’s Choice-winning recipe in my Chili Cook-Off in a Box.

Gina: So what’s your deal, Matt?

Matt: I’m an actor, a filmmaker, an artist, and a party promoter for my events at I throw amazing parties and occasionally someone will cast me in something and I act all amazing, or I will shoot something amazing.  I’m totally a self-taught cook–had to be in NYC–and I don’t give a truck about prochefs too much–I’ve had too much fun partying with home cooks like myself around the country.

Gina: How many food competitions have your thrown and what is your inspiration?

Matt: I guess I’ve thrown about 50-60 Takedowns over the years and across the country–been doing this for like a decade now!!! Chili, cookies, bacon, fondue, salsa takedowns–whatever.  The inspiration was totally assed up boredom, especially when I was a starving actor when I first got to NYC. I have this unquenchable desire to party very hard to the point of an explosion!

Gina: What’s the structure of your chili contest? How many competitors?

Matt: Pretty simple! People line up and try each of the 25 chilies–they get a tasting cup of each–and then they vote on the yummiest!  Judges do the same! Throughout the whole process, I play very brutal heavy music, which is important. Then there’s a big ol’ ceremony where the crowd meets the contestants, and the winners are named, awards given!

Gina: What’s the range of kinds of chili you expect people will enter?

Matt: I run a no-rules chili competition–because if you’re from NYC, the cowboys aren’t down with you anyway, so just have fun.   I see veggie chilis, all the different meat chilis, and then people go bonkers off the map–candy chili, ice cream chili… stupid fun stuff.

Gina Who will judge the chili and what criteria will they use to judge it?

Matt: I get local food writers, bloggers, and food personages to come party, but the major prizes are the People’s Choice. I am the benevolant leader of a tyranical democracy!

Gina: Do you have any tips for chili cook-off competitors?

Matt: Use your imagination and come to have fun.  Think of it like a party and not a competition.  The whole idea of a food competition should be about partying.  It’s a catalyst for hanging out. And a chance to show a wider audience how your food rips.

Gina: What do you think makes the difference between a good chili and a great one?

Matt: How much love you put in that shit.  You can follow a recipe to a T and it could easily be meh.  But people come to a Takedown to show everyone how insane their cooking skills are –and when you come with that attitude, you throw all your positive energy into that batch of chili, and people can taste it.

Gina: What sort of a space is the Bell House?

Matt: Bell House is a rock club, probably the best venue in NYC.

Gina: How many people do you expect to attend?

Matt: I keep it small. 200 is my magic number!

Gina: Why do you love chili?

Matt: My site was originally called–I was only throwing chili parties because they are the raddest.  Basically chili is the most important food group if you are starving.  You can make a huge pot of it, keep it in the fridge all week–and the best part is, it only get better and better over the week as the flavors wed! So when your friends ask you to join them at some re$taurant, you can say naw man I just ate.  And you can put all of that money into drinking.

I used to be a card-carrying member of the ICS (International Chili Society) and loved it, but the rules are pretty serious.  Meat has to be rough ground or cut into 1/2 in. or smaller cubes, no visible seasoning, spoon has to stand horizontally and fall slowly for best texture, blah blah blah. And ask any Texan, they’ll tell you about “no beans” “no tomatoes” etc. etc. I love those big competition chilis, but I didn’t want to see my chili parties like a chemistry experiment of closely monitored chili dumps. Chili is a fukked up improvisation! People should go nuts and throw in the kitchen sink!

July 10: Save the Date! WBCR-lp Berkshire Community Radio Benefit Anything Goes People’s Choice Pie Contest!

WBCR-lp Berkshire Community Radio Benefit Anything Goes People’s Choice Pie Contest
Sunday, July 10, 2011, 3pm
Place TBA
$5 to $10 sliding scale admission (no one turned away for lack of funds)

To celebrate the publication of my Pie Contest in a Box, I’ve decided throw a pie baking contest to benefit WBCR-lp, Great Barrington’s scrappy, spunky, fierce little community radio station. Pie and community radio have quite a lot in common. Both are ways for families and communities to unite on common ground. We may fight about politics and religion, but most everyone agrees that pie and free speech are good.

In the spirit of the all-volunteer radio station with its 80+ programmers, where both everyone and no one in charge, I’ve decided that everyone who attends will get to sample the pies and vote for the best one.

Anyone can enter any kind of pie that they like, such as: homemade pie, semi-homemade pie (store-bought crust OK), totally-not-made-from-scratch pie (like Candy Pie), farmers’ market pie (the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market will be in full swing), hardcore locavore pie (churn your own butter!), family heirloom recipe pie, vegan pie, regional specialty pie  (Southern Chess Pie, English Meat Pie), booze pie (think Whiskey and Buttermilk Pie, Slug-O-Bourbon Spiced Apple Pie), pie that is not really pie (Eskimo Pie, Whoopie Pie — just no Cow Pie), story pie inspired by the movie Waitress (“I Can’t Have No Affair Because It’s Wrong and I Don’t Want Earl To Kill Me Pie” — vanilla custard with banana; hold the banana), Turduken-style pie (pie baked inside of cake), Early 70s Women’s Lib ugly pie (dig out the vintage recipe pamphlets and explore gelatin flavors only vaguely rooted in nature), aphrodisiacs pie (fig, honey, pomegranate, etc.), or any other sort of pie you can imagine.

Enter the Pie Contest
Contestants will need to sign up in advance (by Friday, July 8th) and bring two sample pies of each variety they wish to enter (multiple entries A-OK). To enter, send me an email at ginahyams [at] that includes the type of pie(s) you’ll be entering. You will then need to drop off your pies at 2pm on the day of the contest.

Funky Apron Fashion Show
In addition, the event will feature a Funky Apron Fashion Show. If you would like to model and/or supply a fun apron for someone else to wear, please send me an email (or comment below) and we’ll figure it out.

Hope you can join us. It’s gonna be a fun time!


Interview: Pie Champ Adam Janowski on Literary Baking Adventures, the Wonder of Polish Wedding Pie, and Tips for Pie Contest Contestants

Adam Janowski’s Black Bottom Peanut Butter Mousse Pie won Grand Prize at the 2010 Zonta Club Best Blue Ribbon Pie Contest of Bonita Springs, Florida. His prize-winning pie recipe is featured in Pie Contest in a Box. He is a school library media specialist who learned to cook from his Polish American family in Detroit, Michigan.

Adam Janowski

Gina: I understand that you enjoy recreating dishes that you discover in books. What are some of your recent literary baking adventures?

Adam: My last creation was a “Waves of the Danube” cake which was mentioned in People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. It was absolutely decadent and delicious, but very time consuming. The cake consists of yellow and chocolate layers of cake dotted with tart cherries. As the cake bakes the cherries sink down creating the effect of waves within the cake. The cake is then topped with a rich custard and a chocolate glaze!

A recipe I’ve been wanting to try is Esther`s Orange Marmalade Layer Cake from The Mitford Series by Jan Karon. I think the tartness of the marmalade will go well with the richness of the whipping cream frosting. I am currently reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Early on there is mention of a Caramel Cake and I’ve been exploring recipes for the cake on the Internet.

Maybe I am in my “Southern” phase because I recently made a Texas Sheet Cake (chocolate and pecans), a Hummingbird Cake (bananas, pineapple and more pecans) and a Double Lemon Chess Pie (lemon, buttermilk and cornmeal).

My brother told me about a Torta della Nonna (Grandmother’s Cake) that he recently ate at an Italian restaurant. It has a rich, buttery pastry filled with a lemon pastry cream, topped with pine nuts and a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. That one sounds like a winner!

Gina: Is there a Polish pie tradition? Who taught you to bake?

Adam: My grandmothers and many of my aunts were really great cooks. I grew up in the Detroit area in the 1950s and 60s and our extended families were very close. We often visited relatives especially during holidays and for celebrations. Each household seemed to be known for a different specialty—Aunt Kay made the best sugar cookies at Christmas, Aunt Hattie made Angel’s Wings (Chrusciki in Polish), that were feathery pieces of fried dough dusted with confectioner’s sugar, and Aunt Sophie made the best jelly-filled doughnuts (Paczki in Polish) that are nothing like the ones you buy today. Paczki were stick-to-your-ribs doughnuts.

I can’t say that there was a real “pie” tradition in our family. My mom made a good apple pie from the neighbor’s apple trees, and my Aunt Kay made the best blackberry tarts. The wild blackberries were picked in a local woods in the morning and turned into tarts by the afternoon. I can’t recreate the fabulous taste that I remember using store-bought blackberries.

There was always fresh fruit available—rhubarb and strawberries in the spring, peaches and pears in late summer, and apples in autumn—so fruit pies were common. There would be an occasional banana cream, chocolate or lemon meringue, but no one made a fuss over them. I guess we just took pie for granted!

Gina: What’s your fondest pie memory?

Adam: Polish Wedding Pie—a plain pastry shell, plain custard, topped with a layer of strawberry pie filling and smothered in whipped cream. It wasn’t Polish but it seemed to be served at many of the weddings I attended in the late 1950s and 60s.  To me it was ambrosia—food of the gods! Polish weddings were such joyous times. One of my fondest memories was watching my father and mother dance together. They were such beautiful dancers that people would stop dancing and watch them glide across the floor.

About 10 years ago I started putting a book together that combined my memories and the recipes from my childhood—especially the Polish dishes. It took a couple of years, but I finally put it together and titled it Christmas on Florida Street: Recipes and Stories. My aunt, uncle and grandmother lived on Florida Street in Detroit and it was the scene of so many holiday feasts. Even a casual visit always included a bountiful and delicious dinner. Although I made copies for family and friends I never did publish the book. Lately I have started posting some of the stories and recipes on a blog, From My Family’s Polish Kitchen that I created.

Gina: Can you describe what it is about the process of baking that you find relaxing?

Adam: Someone suggested that I consider baking for money, but I just don’t think that I would enjoy it. I often make a complex pie that takes a long time to complete. If I had to take shortcuts to make the pie financially feasible to sell it just would not be the same. It sort of reminds me of some of the chain restaurants that feature “homemade” pie. Although the pies look good, they don’t taste “homemade” to me.

I don’t know if it is so much relaxation as satisfaction. I get such a good feeling watching a pie come together. The compliments that come my way when people ooh and ah as they sample my pies make me feel great. I rarely get to have a piece of my pie—usually I just lick off the knife! I can’t remember when I last had a disaster, maybe a pie that didn’t set as well as it should, or a bottom crust that wasn’t cooked to my standard—I hate a soggy crust, but nothing major.

This Thanksgiving I made three pies. Two were for a lady who was the winning bidder on a pie baked to order by me at a church charity auction. I was a little bit anxious as the pie price went a bit high—I don’t know how you gold-plate a pie! I ended up making a Pumpkin Chiffon Pie with a layer of caramel ganache in a gingersnap pecan crust. The pie was topped with whipped cream, caramel sauce and maple-glazed pecans.

Adam's Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

I also made an Apple Crumb Pie just because she might have had guests who wanted something plainer.

Adam's Apple Crumb Pie

For my own Thanksgiving Dinner I made a Pecan Pumpkin Pie.

Adam's Pecan Pumpkin Pie

I didn’t like the recipes for a Pecan Pumpkin Pie that I found on the Internet because most didn’t have much of a pumpkin custard on the bottom. I finally made do by adapting a recipe and adding a half cup of whipping cream to the pumpkin base and carefully spooning the pecan filling on top. It was absolutely fabulous and I will make it my Thanksgiving standard!

Gina: What is your favorite kind of pie?

Adam: That is impossible to answer. I really like banana cream pie, but when I can find fresh rhubarb in the spring I like a Rhubarb Cream Pie. An Apple Pie with a crumb crust and a dollop of good vanilla ice cream is a must in autumn, and that Pecan Pumpkin pie was mighty tasty at Thanksgiving. I had never tasted a Lemon Chess Pie until I made it for the Pie Baking Contest this summer and now I can’t wait until I make it again! I do have say that my Black Bottom Peanut Butter Mousse Pie is also mighty tempting!

Gina: How many pie baking contests have you entered and how many ribbons have you won?

Adam: I have only been entering pie baking contests the last three years.  My hometown of Bonita Springs, Florida puts on a family-style 4th of July celebration and the local Zonta Club sponsors the Pie Baking Contest as a fundraiser for their charities. The pies are judged and then sold either whole or by the slice. The first year I won a couple of ribbons, but the last two years I have won the grand prize. I think I know what the judges like—chocolate!

Gina: What’s your advice to pie contest contestants?

Adam: Find some critical judges that will sample your pie prior entering it in a competition. Ask for their suggestions. Sometimes I just observe and watch how people eat pie. Licking the plate is a good sign!

I also focus on the initial beauty of the pie. Judges are going to be rushed and will make a snap judgment in that initial moment that they see the pie for the first time. If the pie doesn’t make them go “wow” it doesn’t matter how good it tastes.

Pie Interview: Ruth Hanrahan, Director of the Pie Town, New Mexico Pie Festival

Ruth Hanrahan, 75, lives in Pie Town, New Mexico, where she serves as director the annual Pie Festival. She has personally garnered seven pie contest ribbons.

Ruth Hanrahan

Gina: Why do you love pie?

Ruth: Before we moved to Pie Town [from Boulder, Colorado], my specialty was gourmet cakes. I had a catering business and a small upscale restaurant. When we moved to Pie Town I had to switch to making pies.

Gina: What is your fondest pie memory?

Ruth: When in 2002, the second time I had entered the pie contest, I won Grand Champion with my Raisin Nut Pie.

Gina: What is your favorite kind of pie?

Ruth: Whichever fruit is in season, otherwise I love trying new pies of any kind.

Ruth baking.

Gina: What is the oddest pie you’ve made or seen, or heard about?

Ruth: The oddest pie I have made is an Apple, Green Chili, Piñon Nut Pie. I won second place in 2005.

Gina: Please tell me about your experiences participating in and judging pie contest.

Ruth: I have never judged any pies–just most years entering the pie contest in the Pie Town Festival. [It’s about] the thrill of anticipation and the hope to win, and cheering for your friends as well.

Gina: Do you have any competition tips?

Ruth: Test the pie you are considering to enter on your friends and family. Make sure it looks as good it will taste.

Gina: What criteria should pie judges consider? Is there a proper technique to tasting a pie?

Ruth: You judge the all over appearance, crust, and taste. The top of the crust should be golden brown, flaky, crisp eating, cut easily with a fork, hold shape, and not be runny. It should have a pleasant flavor, and the bottom crust should not be soggy.

Gina: What is the secret to a perfect crust?

Ruth: The secret to a perfect crust is not to work the dough too much. The less you fool with it, the more flaky it will be. The more you fiddle with the dough, the tougher it will be.

Gina: Do you think great bakers are born?

Ruth: First of all, you need to like what you’re doing. If you like to cook and bake anyway, you have a good start. Don’t make it a chore, have patience, and enjoy yourself. I do believe that you are born with a tendency towards certain things and a feeling to follow, like being a doctor or a lawyer–why not a wonderful baker?

Gina: Why does pie matter today?

Ruth: The smell of a pie baking brings back memories of times of the past. Pie baking is something you can do with your kids. Company always love pie for dessert. On holidays, you always have to have pie. You make points with your husband when you make his favorite pie. To make it very simple, pie has always mattered, and always will!

Pie Champ!

Pie Interview: Queen Esther on Winning the Roaring 20s Jazz Age Lawn Party Pie Contest, Learning to Bake on a Suzy Homemaker Easy-Bake Oven, Pie Crust as Waterloo, and the Connection Between Pie and Creativity

My friend Katherine Myers posted as her Facebook status the other day about how she loves it when procrastination works in her favor. This happens so often to me that I’ve come to believe that it’s somehow key to my creative process—that if I marinate a project long enough, when the time finally comes for me to really deal with it, I’ll have what I need and often as not, it turns out what I need wasn’t available during that earlier time period when I’d have been writing in a less adrenaline-driven sort of way.

The piece of the pie puzzle that I’d been pondering, but not acting on, was the contacting of pie contest winners to secure permission to include their recipes in my Pie Contest in a Box, which is due to my Andrews McMeel editor in a couple of weeks. I’d stumbled on many promising candidates during the course of my research, but there were still a few open slots. On a whim, I searched “pie contest” on Twitter and this message popped up:

“@queenesther I won the pie contest – “best savory” – at the roaring 20s jazz age lawn party today! *applewood smoked bacon apple pie* – yaaaay!
12:21 AM Aug 29th via web from Hamilton Heights, New York

This was every which way fortuitous, as I needed another savory pie recipe and this one sounded great and the Roaring 20s Jazz Age Lawn Party on New York’s Governors Island is totally fun and represents the new face of pie contests. Then I clicked on Queen Esther’s Twitter profile, where she describes herself as: “Negropolitan. Artist. Hillwilliamette. Dazzling urbanite.” From an editorial standpoint, we’re talking gift from God. She was just what I needed to balance the Iowa State Fair peach pie contest winner, the California vegan gluten-free apple pie champ, and the Georgia rancher with his blue ribbon chicken pie.

Queen Esther is a singer and actress, in addition to being a prize-winning baker and, as it turns out, a phenomenal writer. Here is her pie interview. You’ll have to buy the kit next spring to see her recipe.


Queen Esther performing at the Harlem International Jazz Festival, Apollo Theater, 2008.

Gina: How many pie contests have you entered and won?

Queen Esther: This is the first pie contest I’ve ever entered, and it’s the first one that I’ve ever won. I love to cook and bake, and entering contests is something I’ve always wanted to do – just for the fun of it.

Gina: What’s the scene like at the Roaring 20s Jazz Age Lawn Party? Did you go in costume?

Queen Esther at the 2010 Roaring 20s Jazz Age Lawn Party. Photo by Josh Lowenthal.

Queen Esther: The scene at The Roaring 20s Jazz Age Lawn Party is kind of like stepping into an ever-expanding time warp. The more you walk around, the more you take in, the more you see and do and explore, the further down the rabbit hole you fall, until it feels as though it really is 1920-something, and the people who aren’t dressed to the nines are the ones who eventually come off as though they’re totally out of place. It’s surreal – in part because there are so many participants who take it seriously.

Think of it. You, with your garters and stockings, your brightly colored paper parasol, your drop waist linen dress, your Marcellus waves in your hair, your vintage jewelry. You know quite a few of the tea dances and you take to the dance floor as often as you are asked to dance. The dress you are wearing is older than your grandmother. And the guy that you’re with, the one that’s wearing an impeccable seersucker suit and a straw hat tilted just so, you’re the ones who are in step with the now. At least that’s the way it feels when you’re surrounded by so many others who are dressed this way.

By the way: if you’re anything like me, it’s not a costume at all. It’s simply the clothes in your closet.

And that’s not all that’s happening at that party, that’s not the only element in the mix. There are vintage cars, vintage stores set up with all kinds of lovely things for sale, there’s a bake sale, tug-of-war contests, a hat parade, a bathing beauties contest, rumble seat rides, lots to eat and drink, dance lessons, a floor show, and a victrola that plays when the bands do not. And the bands play and play and play. There’s a big band and a smaller combo, all of the tunes faithfully in keeping with the original arrangements. Imagine all those songs you’ve heard in the confines of your little speakers, coming at you, live. It’s quite overwhelming, really.

Those picnicking hipsters who are gawking at you – they seem so unrefined, so ill-mannered, so clumsy, so…ordinary. Eventually, they recede into the backdrop and everything vintage comes into even sharper focus than before. It’s kind of trippy and so far for me, it’s never been a disappointment.

What did I wear? It was a vibrantly dark blue rayon dress with an ecru/ivory lace doily of a collar and a slightly a-line shape. I admit, it was more early 1930s than 1920s. The truth is, my body is anything but androgynous and I think it’s rather pedestrian to show up looking like a flapper. The 1920s was so much more than that. You’d be surprised to know how much research it takes to pull all the elements together and get the details right. I was recently cast as a jazz dancer in an episode of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, and sometimes I do it up and go to 1920s soirees. I’m also developing a one-person musical about performer-showstopper/songwriter (and nurse!) Alberta Hunter that delves heavily into her early years in cabaret, so I’m beginning to explore the options.

Gina: Do you have any tips for pie contest competitors?

Queen Esther: Only one – be yourself. Make it up as you go along, and more of you will be in what you create than you’d dare to think.

Gina: What do you think makes the difference between a good pie and a great one?

Queen Esther: Individuality and a flair for the bold. Taking a risk and coming up with something that’s completely unexpected. Doing something different with something traditional.

Queen Esther with Michael Ingbar, an infamous presence on the NYC swing scene -- and one of the pie judges that day. Photo by Mindy Haywood.

Gina: Please tell me about your artistic career and baking history. Why do you love pie?

Queen Esther: I grew up singing in the sanctified church as the middle child and the only daughter in the semi-rural environs of the Deep South, with six brothers, a four-octave range and an IQ that set me firmly in the gifted program for creative writing as a five year old. After studying and singing classical music in a prestigious performing arts high school in Atlanta, I drenched myself in the live music/blues scene in Austin, TX, thanks to an NFA/ARTS theater scholarship. Eventually, I relocated to New York City, finished a BA in Screenwriting from The New School, and flourished in the downtown alt-music/alt-theater scene.

My work as a vocalist, lyricist, songwriter and actor/solo performer and playwright led to creative collaborations in neo-vaudeville, alternative theater, various alt-rock configurations, (neo) swing bands, trip hop DJs, spoken word performances, jazz combos, jam bands, various blues configurations, original Off Broadway plays and musicals, experimental music/art noise and performance art.

I was raised in a traditional Southern household  – with a large, loving, extended family in Charleston, SC that included grandparents and great-grandparents –  so I learned how to cook and bake at an early age. I distinctly remember that I had a Suzy Homemaker Easy-Bake Oven when I was a tot. Unbelievable but true –it baked little cakes with a light bulb. You could look through the tiny oven door and watch the cake rise and everything. And there was icing! I can remember making my daddy a cake. It looked like a miniature hockey puck. And he ate it! He said it was delicious – and believe me, he wouldn’t have if it weren’t true.

By the time I was 10, I was running the kitchen to my entire immediate family’s watchful and overly critical satisfaction – especially my daddy, who would sometimes stand over me and watch me do my thing.

My mother made the best cobblers, dumplings, sweet potato pies and biscuits –bar none. I distinctly remember all of us kids – and quite a few that we played with in the neighborhood – habitually bringing her mounds of blackberries that we would usually pick and eat in the woods after she once off-handedly remarked that if we brought them to her, she’d make something good. And she did. They were the absolute best blackberry dumplings I’ve ever had, then or now. It was so effortless, so delicious, with very simple basic ingredients.

And therein lies my very personal problem with pie crust.

My mother couldn’t tell me exactly how much of anything to use when she made pie crust because she never measured anything. She would throw shortening, flour and water in a bowl and the next thing I knew, she was rolling the dough onto that flour dusted kitchen table. My grandmother, on the other hand, wouldn’t tell me how to make pie crust. Even now, whenever I ask, she just throws her head back and waves me off, with a short high laugh. She declares that if they had Pet-Ritz when she was a kid, she wouldn’t know how to make it now. As far as she’s concerned, I should stick to the Pillsbury pie crust that rolls out, right into the pie pan ready-made, and call it a day.

But I can’t. I have to make everything from scratch. It’s my thing. Pie crust, as it turns out, is my Waterloo.

Gina: Do you think there’s any connection between your singing and your baking?

Queen Esther: Absolutely.

Baking pie is a great escape. It’s a lovely way to get lost in my own home. When I bake, something clicks and I stop thinking – and that’s when real creativity tends to emerge. I usually leave the kitchen fortified with strong ideas for some project I’m working on that’s already underway.  Or bits and pieces of lyrics. Or a melody that’s sticking in my head. Baking pie is a great way to keep those creative juices flowing.

Queen Esther

I couldn’t possibly eat everything I bake, so I’ve developed this bad habit of foisting what I come up with on so many beautiful people in my life because frankly, there’s no way I could possibly stay this size if I didn’t.  So far, I haven’t gotten any complaints. And sharing everything keeps my pie baking skills in great form.

Baking pie can also be a handy distraction.

On the Saturday that I went to the lawn party on Governor’s Island, I had an audition in midtown early in the afternoon for an upcoming Broadway show – the lead role for the musical Sister Act.  There I was on the subway, dressed head to toe in vintage clothing surrounded by sunburnt tourists of every ilk, with fresh hot pie in my lap. Now that was quite a picture.

The problem was that my pie had to be on the judge’s table by 3pm. The audition started at 1pm. With the slower weekend subway schedule and a boat ride to get to the island – albeit a short one –  it could take an hour to get there. And there was more. When I got to the audition before 1pm, the place was packed.  I almost left when I saw someone walking around with the number 200 – but that’s the number they started with, so I stayed. My number? 239.  The question floated over my head all day, in neon: Would I make it?

Surprisingly, I did – with a little help from my friend Mindy.

After a flurry of text messages, phone calls and hand-wringing, Mindy swept into the audition like a superhero, and as she changed into her vintage attire in the restroom, she reassured me repeatedly that she would get that pie to the island on time. Believe it or not, I finally calmed down. (A little.)

What about the audition, she said, almost laughing, as she left. Oh, that! I remember thinking.

Here’s the thing about auditioning that most actors know and very few actors can pull off. You can’t care all that much about it. If you care too much, you’re desperate – and that’s never a good thing. If you don’t care enough, you’re ambivalent. That’s not good, either. You have to care, but not really.  It’s a delicate balance. I think that pie helped me find it that day, and that allowed me to go into the audition with confidence, have fun and do my best.

Pie! Who knew?

Gina: Why do you think pie matters today?

Queen Esther: Cake is one thing, but pie is something else entirely.

When I think of desserts, pie is the ultimate comfort food. Simply put, there is something about it that says home. And although home means different things to everyone, I think that instinctively you are reaching for your idea of what home is, and for that comfort, with every bite, even if you didn’t have a mother and a grandmother and a great-grandmother that baked, like I did, or even if home for you was a negative situation.

In the aftermath of 9/11, so many people that I knew stayed home and basically nested.  When it was time to socialize, potluck dinners became the norm. Everyone seemed to intuitively want what a restaurant or a bar strived for quite often but couldn’t ever really provide – comfort.

Nowadays, things seem to be shifting gears towards a less complicated approach to living well. Everyone wants to breathe clean air, drink clean water and eat clean food. Locally grown, organic produce and meats are all the rage, at least in my neck of the woods. When it comes to baking desserts, there isn’t much that encompasses the essence of this ideal more than pie does. It’s synonymous with nurturing and warmth and, well…love, I suppose. Perhaps this is true because making pie is so personal and because it can be served hot, and that warmth translates into so much more when it’s inside of you.

We all want to feel loved, don’t we. If it’s true that you put yourself in what you make and if there’s love in your efforts, perhaps inadvertently, that’s a part of what someone is experiencing when they eat pie.

I’d like to think that’s true of the pie that I make.

Pie Interview: John Phillip Carroll on the Allure of Pie, Baking with James Beard, the Importance of Texture, and His Pie Tattoo

Cookbook Author John Phillip Carroll

John Phillip Carroll has authored or co-authored more than a dozen books on food and cooking, including California the Beautiful Cookbook and The Bakers’ Dozen Cookbook, and numerous volumes in the Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library.  His articles have appeared in several publications, including Gourmet, Cook’s Illustrated, and the San Francisco Chronicle.  He also serves on the panel for the Taster’s Choice column, which appears weekly in the Chronicle Food section.  In addition, he writes copy and recipes for catalogues and commodity boards.  He is a past president of the San Francisco Professional Food Society, and served on the board of directors of the Bakers Dozen. His book, Pie Pie Pie, was published by Chronicle Books.

Gina: Why do you love pie?

John: Pie has a unique allure.  The aromas—sweet, toasty, fruity—are tempting, and they draw people into the kitchen—the place that can be the center of life, of the home, where family and friends get to know one another.  If that sounds like a lot to expect from a pie, just try it sometime.  Pie, like homemade bread, is a symbol of many good things.

Gina: What is your fondest pie memory?

John: Mastering a basic pie crust, when I was about fourteen.  I learned a lot about baking from my grandmother, and I’d make a few pies, but my crusts weren’t like hers. She used to plunge right into the fat and flour and mix with her fingers.  She didn’t use a pastry blender. Her favorite fat for pie crust was lard, but it’s hard to find good tasting lard now, so I use vegetable shortening.  And I still blend the dough with my fingers.  James Beard used to say that our hands are the best tools for mixing, because you develop a real feel for what you are doing.  He was right.

Gina: What is your favorite kind of pie?

John: Summer fruit pies.  You just can’t top the combination of a crisp, flaky crust and a sweet, tender fruit filling.

Gina: Shelley Handler told me that you worked with James Beard. What did he teach you about pie?

John: James Beard, despite his girth, didn’t have much of what you’d call a “sweet tooth” for pie.  He liked simple tarts, and not-too-sweet pastries.  I don’t recall ever making a pie with him, though we sometimes made fruit tarts at home and in his summer cooking classes on the Oregon coast.

Gina: What is the oddest pie you’ve made, seen, or heard about?

John: Mock Apple Pie.  It’s made with soda crackers, but the recipe used to be on the Ritz Cracker box as well.  I’ve made it a couple times, and you’d be surprised, the filling really does resemble apple slices.  It’s a very old recipe, and before produce was shipped around the country, cooks had to made do with what they had.

Gina: Have you ever participated in or judged a pie contest?

John: I’ve judged many pie-baking contests, but never entered one.

Gina: Do you have any competition tips for contestants or judges?

John: For the contestants, keep it simple.  In every cooking contest, no matter how many entries, one or two of them will stand out.   And they are usually straightforward, undemanding recipes.  Whatever you are making, remember that when combining ingredients, and adding flavorings and spices, less is more.  A good pie judge is impartial, without bias, and tries not to be influenced by any predetermined notions of how he or she thinks should be.

Gina: What criteria should pie judges consider?

John: Taste and texture matter the most.  Appearance is secondary.  A homemade pie will never have the look of a pie cranked out in the mechanical world.

Gina: Is there a proper technique to tasting pie?

John: Texture, meaning tenderness, smoothness, flakiness—those are probably a pie’s greatest attributes.  Beyond that, tasting is not something deeply cerebral, although some palates are more refined, or educated, than others.  And when judging something, you must keep an open mind.

Gina: What is the secret to a perfect crust?

John: There really are no secrets, just some good advice. Don’t be afraid, just get right into the dough, and use your fingers for blending. Vegetable shortening (I use Crisco) is the fat I recommend for producing a crisp, tender American pie crust.  It keeps at room temperature, it blends easily with the flour, and it is generally very forgiving of a little too much handling.  Practice a few times, and you will get the hang of it.   Butter makes a good tart crust, but that is something different.

Gina: What personality traits make for the best pie bakers?

John: Patience and perseverance, and consoling yourself with the knowledge that if your pie didn’t turn out just the way you want it right off the bat, that it will probably be better next time.  Forget what scares you about making pies, and start fresh.

Gina: What’s the story of your pie tattoo?

John: I wanted a tattoo, and I wanted it unique.  I’d thumbed through catalogues of tattoos at a neighborhood studio (in San Francisco’s North Beach), but I wanted something nobody else had.  I took a photograph of a pie from a major food magazine to one of the artists at the studio.  His name was Marcus.  He’d recently moved to San Francisco from New York, after college, and he had a background in art.   He redrew the pie so it would “read” better in tattoo form, and of course shrunk it, to about the diameter of a tennis ball.  It’s a two-crust pie, in a blue enamel pie plate, with hearts in the top crust.   I’ve been very happy with it.  I even went back later, so he could photograph it for his portfolio.

Gina: Why does pie matter today?

John: Because pie, whether you are baking one or eating one, is rarely a solitary occurrence.  Sharing it with friends is a tradition cloaked in nostalgia.  It is also a social experience, a way to bring people together.  Pie is rarely eaten alone, except maybe for breakfast the next day.

John Phillip Carroll on the Golden Gate Bridge

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