Lodi, California sits off Highway 99 just south of the capital city of Sacramento. There is an image of the state that is all about beaches and surf but the tomato fields and almond orchards, rice fields and haystacks stretched out in the northern part of the state is my part of California. The Farmer’s Market in Lodi celebrates all the goodness and bounty of local produce all summer long, every Thursday, in a street fair like atmosphere.
The Lodi Chamber of Commerce is helping draw attention to the event and this year added a weekly pie contest during the month of June. It was announced on the daily TV show, Good Day Sacramento. With encouragement from my sister I decided to enter during my annual summer visit to the valley.
The pie contest, in its inaugural year, features a different category each week.
Week 1 – locally grown fruit
Week 2, Black and Blue showcasing blackberries or blueberries
Week 3, It’s the Pits, featuring stone fruit
Week 4, Anything Goes – cobbler, crisps, crumb toppings etc.
No cream pies allowed and with the exception of the final week, the pies must be traditional, two crust pies. My kind of contest! I sent in my entry form for week 3 – It’s the Pits and hoped there was not a residency requirement.
Upon arrival in the hometown of my youth, I set out to determine which stone fruits were ripe. The timing was right for apricots so I set my heart on entering an apricot pie. But I needed enough fruit to make three pies – two for the contest and one for my dad because how could I bake pies then put ‘a hands off’ sign on them? Besides, I HAD to taste it myself to make sure it was contest worthy. Right?
My niece Becky has an orchard on the farm where I grew up so I started in the backyard. Sadly, the early apricots were lost to a spring wind storm and lay on the ground, small, hard and green, shriveled to the pits. That’s the pits for sure!
Next on the list was my sister Suzan. She has one apricot tree in her yard but her tree had met the same demise. No fruit. Apricots do that sometimes – a bumper crop one year and a big fat nothing the next year. I had arrived with a vision of apricot pie in the wrong year.
Holding out hope I called my sister-in-law, Carol. Last summer I coached her over the phone in the making of apricot pie so I was sure I would hit a gold mine in her orchard. Nada. No apricots. All the trees in the county seemed to be taking a year off. Scarcity is a motivator- the harder it was to find tree ripened apricots the more determined I became to succeed.
There was one last place to check. Rose. A bowl of apricots on my mother’s kitchen counter led me to her. Mom’s friend, Rose, lives in town. Maybe her tree was protected from the wind by nearby houses, maybe it was a different variety of apricots, or maybe it was fate. Whatever the reason, it was Rose to the rescue! I came in one day to find that my mom had scored two flats of apricots. There would be pie!
When making a pie for a contest I am always torn about which crust recipe to use. The Army Wife recipe makes the most delicious crust but the traditional Crisco recipe seems to appeal more to judges. Throwing caution to the wind I decided on the Army Wife pie crust.
I’ve made some pretty bad apricot pies along the way and have learned a few tricks.
-First of all, cut up the fruit. Most recipes say to halve the fruit but if your apricots are big it’s better to slice each half into three pieces. The fruit will cook more evenly and when you slice the pie it’s easier to serve.
-Taste the fruit. Apricots can be really sweet. If they are sweet decrease the amount of sugar and add a tablespoon of lemon juice. If the apricots are tart, don’t add lemon juice or the pie might be too tart.
-Add a splash of cinnamon – a ¼ tsp will do.
-The fruit will cook down when it bakes but not as much as apples so don’t heap it too high or your pie will boil over.
-Cut vents in the top crust and crimp the edges to help prevent boiling over.
-I always bake my pies in a hot oven, 425 degrees. The crust may brown before the fruit is done so be prepared to tent the pie with aluminum foil.
– Whatever you do, don’t take the pie out of the oven too soon. The kitchen should smell like hot apricots and the filling should be bubbling up through the vent slits. If you aren’t sure, leave the pie in the oven another 5 or 10 minutes.
When making my contest pies for Lodi I followed all my own tips and one at a time pulled three gorgeous pies out of the oven. I could see the golden filling bubbling up through the cracks, the whole house smelled like apricot pie, heck, the whole county may have smelled like pie! The next day, following protocol, I sliced into one of the pies. It served up beautifully. So far, so good. I tasted it. Closing my eyes I let the flavors meld in my mouth. It was good. In fact it was so good that I told my mom, “I don’t care if I win a ribbon, I’m glad I made this pie just so I could eat a piece of it!”
I arrived in Lodi an hour early. When I walked up to the booth someone commented, “Opps, she brought two pies!” Apparently they changed the rules to require only one pie. Normally, I would have given them the second pie but the memory of my breakfast was still too fresh in my mind and before I knew it I heard myself saying, “That’s ok! I will take this one back home and we will eat it!”
The judging was scheduled to start at 6 pm so my sister and I began shopping the market. And what a market it was! Tomatoes, cherries, strawberries, even a few apricots! Squash, carrots and potatoes. Such bounty, such beauty!
At 6 pm we worked our way back to the pie contest for the announcement.
The first place ribbon went to a cherry pie with an “amazing crust”.
The second place ribbon was awarded to a man who enters every week. He made a peach pie that the judges declared his “best pie so far!”
And third place went to “a native daughter of the golden west, who now calls Kansas home, who entered an apricot pie”. It was me! I won a ribbon! There wasn’t a residency requirement and my apricot pie won a ribbon! Yay for Rose’s apricots!
Army Wife Pie Crust
3 Cups of flour
1 1/4 cup of shortening
1 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
1 T white vinegar
5 T ice water
Cut the shortening into the flour and salt. Mix the egg, vinegar and ice water and work into the flour until the dough holds together.
4 cups fresh apricots, cut up
1-2 T lemon juice (if needed)
3/4 – 1 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
2 T butter
Mix fruit with lemon juice. Mix flour, sugar, salt and cinnamon, then add to fruit. Line 9″ glass pie plate with bottom crust, pour fruit into lined pie plate, dot with butter, cover with top crust. Cut slits to vent and crimp edge. Bake at 425 degrees for 35-45 minutes (maybe longer). When the filling is hot and bubbly the pie is done.