Gina Hyams Author

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.

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