It happened so fast you might not have noticed. I'm speaking of the 17th annual American Pie Council/Crisco National Pie Championships. The competition took place in Orlando earlier this month and was, as usual, held in conjunction with the Great American Pie Festival and the Never Ending Pie Buffet. It's a combined event that draws more than 32,000 pie lovers and features more than 87,000 slices. Pies are big these days.
There were 896 pies entered in the contest this year, meaning there were literally hundreds of losers. But there were winners too, including Miami local Naylet LaRochelle, whose "My Big Fat Italian Strawberry-Basil Wedding Pie" copped best of show in the amateur division of the Crisco Innovation category, launched this year in celebration of the shortening company's 100th birthday (no, we weren't invited to the party either).
"Naylet LaRochelle doesn't seem like a typical Italian name," I said in starting my phone conversation with the winner, whose day job is as a school psychologist.
"I'm not Italian, so you're right," she replied, no doubt impressed with my sharp perception in this regard. "I'm from Miami; my parents are Cuban." She grew up in Hialeah.
The challenge included incorporating at least a half-cup of Crisco All-Vegetable Shortening into the recipe. Naylet used Butter-Flavored Crisco Shortening in the crust. The filling was composed of Smucker's Strawberry Preserves, mascarpone cheese, whipped cream, unflavored gelatin, and chopped fresh basil. The prize: $2,000, a Crisco gift basket, and a big, shiny trophy.
"The whole idea was to do a wedding pie. It's always a wedding cake, not a pie. So that's where I started. I thought, If I were to have a wedding pie, what would I want in it? My idea was to use a new flavor and to do something elegant. I paired two of my favorite ingredients: strawberries and basil. That was my filling. I wanted the pie to have the visual appeal of white, so I made a white chocolate-vanilla bean mousse to complement the strawberry-basil. Then I did some white fondant flowers, which we typically see in cake decorating."
Asked if she plans to become a pastry chef, LaRochelle laughs. "In my heart I'd love to, but right now it's a hobby. It's definitely something I really like." She does a lot of cooking and baking at home. "But if it's one thing I really love, it's pies. No doubt about it. Absolutely."
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I was going to ask if this infatuation with pies might be tied to some deep-seated issues stemming from childhood, but instead queried about the $2,000 in prize money.
"Right now I'm going to put it in the bank for a little bit, until I think of a summer project." An old-time pastry chef probably would have answered, "a hell of a lot of Scotch," but that's another matter. Congratulations to Ms. LaRochelle for her impressive victory and for coming up with what sounds like a delicious pie.
Tomorrow: the winning recipe.