Lesley Ann Beck is a four-time pie judge at the Hancock Shaker Village Country Fair in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and serves as my personal pie judging coach. She also moonlights as a senior editor at Berkshire Living magazine.
Gina: Why do you love pie?
Lesley: Pie is a friendly dessert. There are so many different kinds of pie that it’s easy to choose one that suits my mood. How great is it that there are lemon meringue pies and blueberry pies and pumpkin pies and apple pies? It’s an infinite array of deliciousness.
Gina: What does it take to be a pie judge?
Lesley: It helps to be opinionated, and it probably helps to be tactful. But you have to have strong opinions and the ability to make decisions and stick to them. A lot of pie-eating experience is good, too.
Gina: Has your judging strategy evolved?
Lesley: Yes, it has. I learned that it is essential to take very small bites and pace yourself. And not to get too infatuated with the first few pies. Don’t set the bar too high at the outset; a really spectacular entry might be coming along towards the end of the contest and there needs to be room to move it to the top of the list. Just like the Olympics.
Gina: What criteria do you consider in judging pie?
Lesley: The pie should look tempting; a golden-brown color is the best. A pale pie is not an inviting pie. A decorative crust is nice, but not if it gets in the way of the flavor (cut-out leaves on the crust, for example, may look lovely, but if they are too thick, that bite might be tough or dry). The pie should not collapse when served. A fruit pie won’t hold up the way a custard pie does, but it shouldn’t be too wet inside, and I don’t like to see too much empty space between the filling and the top crust. I really like a full-flavored filling (use plenty of spice), and reasonably firm fruits, or firm custard. The overall craftsmanship is important; the filling should be assembled correctly and the pie must be baked properly. From there, it’s the creativity of the baker that makes the difference; either a clever combination of fruits or the addition of spices, or maybe a unique garnish or topping. I could go on and on, but the most important thing is that it should be delicious. Of course.
Gina: Is crust more or less important than filling?
Lesley: A good pie has a balance; good crust and good filling. It’s the contrast between the flaky-crusty casing and the fruity-sweet or creamy-soft center that makes a pie interesting. The filling is more dramatic, and it gets all the attention, but the crust is the framework that allows the fruit or the custard to shine!
Gina: Is there a proper technique to tasting pie?
Lesley: When I’m judging, I like to take a little bite of crust and then a little bite of the filling, and then the perfect combo bite. But it’s important to really taste each bite, let it sit in your mouth just a little longer than usual. Savor it; pay complete attention to the pie.
It’s a zen of pie.
Gina: What qualities make the difference between a good pie and a great pie?
Lesley: Creativity is important. A few years ago I tasted a cherry pie that had a very thin layer of marzipan between the cherry filling and the bottom crust, and it elevated a good pie to fabulous. Last year I had an apple/pear pie that would have been very nice with just that combination of fruit, but the baker had added raspberries, and that surprising twist made all the difference.
Gina: What is your fondest pie memory?
Lesley: Several years ago, I was having lunch on the terrace at the Mount. A visit to Edith Wharton’s home is always special, and this was a spectacular early summer afternoon, with perfect weather. We had strawberry rhubarb pie with an exquisite latticework crust that had me in raptures. It was the perfect pie.
Gina: What is your favorite kind of pie?
Lesley: It might be a very traditional pumpkin or it might be a phenomenal apple pie, made with three varieties of apple and lots of lemon zest in the filling. Or it might be blueberry at the height of summer …it’s hard to choose.
Gina: What is the oddest pie you’ve made, seen, or heard about?
Lesley: A mirliton pie. I used to live in New Orleans, and the mirliton, an odd green squash-like vegetable sometimes called an alligator pear, turned up in preparations, including in pie, that I had never heard of in my previous Yankee existence. Mirliton pie can be savory or sweet, apparently it’s a versatile vegetable.
Gina: Why does pie matter?
Lesley: It’s a universal gesture of hospitality and welcome. Bake a pie and take it to someone, or bake a pie and share it with your family: guaranteed to generate appreciation and pleasure. It’s just good.