Eats: Award-winning apple pies celebrate autumn

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Not to be outdone by summer, autumn in Maine is a smorgasbord of comfort and familiarity, a feast for all the senses. Hillsides are covered with brilliant shades of yellow, red and orange, much to the delight of locals and tourists. School buses once again rumble through towns while mothers snap photographs in celebration at morning bus stops. A favorite wool sweater, fresh from the cedar chest, wraps us in warmth. Homes are filled with the scent of that first chicken roasting in an oven long dormant during the heat of summer. And, orchards yield spectacular varieties of tasty apples, ready to be sugared and wrapped in dough or eaten, fresh and crisp, directly from the tree.

Autumn in Maine also brings with it county fairs, festivals and other celebrations of the fruits – and vegetables — of our labors, providing locals with an opportunity to strut their cooking stuff for friends and visitors, and to experience one more “hurrah” before the snow files and we quietly slip into hibernation.

The Harvestfest and Chowdah Cookoff, always on the 3rd Saturday in September on the Village Common in Bethel, is one such event. As with other fairs and festivals, the Harvestfest plays host to a variety of contests, including but not limited to the apple pie contest, that quintessential and classically American autumnal culinary competition.

Each year, apple pie makers pit their pies against those of other bakers. According to Julia Reuter of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce, there are three categories.

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* Amateur (which covers two of the categories):

— Traditional apple pie: a two-crust apple pie consisting of apples, sugar, spices and no adjuncts.

— Nontraditional apple pie: an apple pie that does not fall into the traditional category.

* Professional:

— A pie made by anyone who works in a commercial kitchen and/or bakes for a living.

Pies are judged in a blind taste test based on appearance, crust, texture and flavoring. In Bethel’s “Traditional” division, 81-year-old Fred Coseglia of Harrison has impressed the judges for three years straight.

Coseglia, whose mother and maternal grandmother were both excellent bakers, developed an interest in cooking about 15 years ago, when his wife became ill. “The first thing I did was make a date nut bread from one of her recipes,” he said. After that, he moved on to cakes and cookies, and then, he says, “I decided to try a pie.” At first, he followed other people’s recipes, but now he just follows his heart.

Coseglia has always enjoyed attending the Harvestfest in Bethel along with his wife, and when they started holding the pie contest, he decided to give it a try. “The first couple of times I didn’t win anything,” but now, he says, “I’ve won the last three consecutive times.”

Several years ago, Coseglia also entered a contest in Cornish, but he dropped the pie as he was putting it into the car, breaking the crust and squashing his chances. “The following year I entered and I didn’t win anything,” but he also entered a pumpkin pie contest in North Conway and took 3rd place.

So, what’s the secret to his tasty success? “Well,” he says, “I don’t believe that I do anything different from anyone else . . . I think I’ve just been luckier than other people.”

For his crust, Coseglia uses Crisco, not butter. “I don’t consider butter to be a shortening,” he says, but “I use two or three tabs of butter on top of the filling before I layer the top crust, rather than in the crust itself, mostly to add flavor.”

To add moisture to the dough he uses water, but says that sometimes he uses a little bit of milk as well. Unlike the perspective held by us mere mortals, when it comes to making a good crust Coseglia says: “There’s really no trick to it.”

To make his filling, “I like to mix my apples . . . golden delicious, Macs, Cortlands and others that aren’t always available.”

“I like to get the sweet and tart mixture,” he says. “There are some who like McIntosh because it’s both sweet and tart, and you can find them anywhere . . . it’s a popular apple,” says Coseglia, adding, “I have a friend who likes Macs, and when I make a pie for him I also bake it longer so the apples will be softer.”

“If I have an apple spice I will add that,” but he primarily uses cinnamon and nutmeg to spice his pies.

“I like to make big pies,” he says, “and I use a 9-inch dish with about 2.5 pounds of apples . . . maybe a little heavier on occasion.” He uses an egg wash with both the yolk and the white, to give his pies a “golden finish.”

Debby Luxton of West Bethel has won the prize for the best apple pie in Bethel’s “Non-traditional” division for the past two years, splitting the prize with another baker last year.

Luxton makes a one-crust pie. Though she makes her crust using flour, sugar and butter – “butter because it’s better” – it is more like a cookie crust “where you press it into the pan” rather than roll it out.

She makes her pie with a “cream cheese middle and apples, mostly Cortlands, on top.” Last year, she says, “I added a few peaches and mixed them in with the apples” because she had them handy.

Like Coseglia, Luxton spices her pies with “a little nutmeg, a little cinnamon,” and a lot of love. “My mom, her mother (who is 83 and still makes pies) and her sisters were all good cooks, and I spent a lot of time cooking with them.” 

Plus, she adds, “We have our own small orchard with 13 to 15 trees and a couple different varieties,” so the apples she uses come from her own land.

Luxton is happy to share her recipes, adding “nothing I do has any secrets . . . it’s all pretty basic.” Basic and, apparently, award-winningly delicious!

Coseglia is too humble to share his recipes, but, he says, “I don’t rush, I take my time, I put my heart into it, and I just enjoy it.” And perhaps that is the best recipe after all.

Deborah Carroll’s time-tested two-crust apple pie

For the crust:

2.5 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

12 tablespoons butter

3-4 tablespoons water, iced

1-2 tablespoons cold milk

Sift flour and salt into a large bowl. Chop and add cold butter and cut into flour mixture using a pastry knife and then your fingertips until flour has a mealy consistency.

Gradually work water and milk into dough using just enough to allow pastry to stick together but not be doughy.

Divide into 2 balls and chill for 20 to 30 minutes.

Roll dough gently into a circle and put one circle into the bottom of a buttered 9-inch pie dish.

Set aside second circle to use for a top crust.

For the filling:

8 or 9 large mixed variety apples

1/3 cup white sugar

1/3 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 pinch nutmeg

2 tablespoons flour

Peel, core and cut apples into 1-inch pieces.

In a separate bowl, mix all dry ingredients.

Mix apples with dry ingredients and toss to coat apples evenly.

Fill bottom crust with apple mixture.

Top with the other crust. Pinching edges to seal. Cut holes in crust to ventilate.

Bake in a preheated oven at 450 degrees for 20 minutes. Then turn oven down to 400 degrees and bake for another 20 minutes.

Remove pie from oven, cover edge of crust only with tin foil to prevent overcooking.

Turn oven down to 350 degrees and bake a final 20 minutes until crust is lightly browned and cooked through. Total cooking time is 60 minutes.

Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Debby Luxton’s Bavarian apple torte

Crust:

1/2 cup butter

1/3 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Cream together and add 1 cup flour.

Press into a well-greased pie pan.

Filling:

8 ounces cream cheese

1/4 cup sugar

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Mix and pour into crust.

Then combine:

4 cups apple slices

1/3 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (optional)

Mix and pour over cream cheese filling.

Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes and then lower temperature to 400 degrees and bake an additional 25 minutes.

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