Pamela Phelan isn’t a big pie-eater; nor had she ever made a pie from scratch. But that didn’t keep her from entering the pie-baking contest that was part of Fridley ’49er Days over the weekend.
Phelan’s husband, Ross, on the other hand, is hooked on strawberry-rhubarb pies from Bob’s Produce Ranch. “There’s always a half-eaten pie in the refrigerator,” Pamela said.
As the Fridley couple brainstormed pie possibilities, Ross decided to sign up himself, though not in the same category as Pamela. That was “strictly forbidden,” he said.
It made for an interesting time in the kitchen, as they tested their creations in separate shifts and “tried to stay out of each other’s way,” Ross said.
The festival’s second annual pie-baking contest took place Saturday at Medtronic’s Rice Creek Campus. At stake was a grand prize of $1,000, along with $100 awards for top scorers in each of three categories — “original/creative,” “cream” and “fruit.”
“Original/creative” was Pamela Phelan’s target. To come up with her concept, “I went to the Internet, like I do for everything,” she said. She gravitated to pies involving ice cream, chocolate, coffee and dulce de leche, a type of caramelized milk, and set out to combine them.
She found that “the logistics of keeping the ice cream solid is the hardest part.” The trick was to get it to melt enough so that it was malleable, but not so much that it wouldn’t hold its shape, she said.
Her final product was a caramel macchiato ice cream creation, flavored with an instant coffee blend from Tanzania. Phelan dubbed it “A Mid-Summer Daydream.”
“I was driving into work and thought, ‘Who doesn’t want ice cream in the middle of the day during the summer,’ ” and then the Shakespeare reference came to her.
As for Ross, he settled on a cream pie that borrows ingredients from his favorite childhood dessert — which in his house was called, “Just Plain Yummy.” It’s sort of like a smoothie or a shake, with vanilla ice cream, banana, milk, amaretto and chocolate blended together. His dad used to serve it in a tiny port glass.
To re-create it in pie form, Ross tried to find similar recipes, but his search was fruitless, so he improvised.
Looking for originality
Event chair Mandy Meisner said the contest reinforces the small-town feel of Fridley. “When I think of county fairs, church functions and other similar events, nothing says all-American wholesome more than pie,” and the prize money is a big draw, she said.
Last year, the contest was open to anyone across the state, but it was too overwhelming, with 55 entries. This year, Meisner narrowed the pool to people who live or work in Blaine, Columbia Heights, Coon Rapids, Fridley and Spring Lake Park. She also created the categories and capped participation at 15 for each.
Fridley City Councilwoman Ann Bolkcom, state Sen. Barb Goodwin and Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo served as community judges, while several Bakers Square representatives led the process. Bakers Square has a scoring system for pie-baking contests. Presentation, originality and taste are some of the criteria. Meisner said. She noted that one judge dieted for several days to prepare for the contest.
Blaine resident Holly Larkin, a judge from Bakers Square, said originality gets weighted the most. “We look for something creative, that’s out-of-the-box — something you don’t see frequently,” she said. “It’s about putting your own special unique twist on it.”
Last year the winner was Tammy Kane-Nyene from St. Paul with a tiramisu pie, something that Larkin had never seen anyone do. “It was a great idea. It stood out,” she said.
Minneapolis resident Danika Peterson, a news director at North Metro TV in Blaine, was a participant, entering an Oreo peanut butter cream pie.
She made a couple of practice pies, which friends taste-tested, filling out comment cards about each one. That helped her tweak certain aspects of the “real pie.” For example, she overdid the peanut butter in the first pie but struck a nice balance in the second, her friends agreed. “One person was insistent that the other, Pie A, was better, but we told her that she was wrong,” Peterson said.
Mandy Dircks, a second-time contest participant, used a 100-year-old peach pie recipe that came highly recommended from her mom. It hearkens back to pioneer days. “Nothing too fancy,” Dircks said, adding, “I like the nostalgia of it.”
The crust recipe has been handed down in her family, and it involved lard, which was tucked away in the meat aisle at the grocery store, she said. The result is simple yet flavorful. “The natural juices from the peaches together with the crumble on top makes everything good,” she said.
And on Saturday …
The big day came, and everything went smoothly — until just before the winners were announced, event chair Meisner said.
At that point, a sudden storm with heavy rain and strong wind flooded the contest tent. “Thank goodness we memorized the four winners, because the paperwork was blown away,” Meisner said. Everyone made a mad dash for their cars after the results were announced.
By then, Pamela Phelan had learned that her Mid-Summer Daydream was a winner: It had captured the original/creative category and finished just one point behind the grand prize winner, a blueberry cream pie by Jackie Bollinger of Fridley. Patricia Hendrickson and Andrea Olson won the cream and fruit pie categories, respectively.
As for Ross Phelan, he didn’t place, but he wasn’t discouraged. He said he’s already looking ahead to next year.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance journalist. She can be reached at email@example.com.