Lauren Starnes, it turns out, didn't need a recipe to find the recipe for success.
The new Chattanoogan's experimentation with an old family dessert proved to be just the ticket for judges in the third annual Mainx24 Local Pie Tasting & Contest, held last week at Enzo's Market Cafe during the all-day-all-night block party.
Starnes' Chipotle Pumpkin Pie with Maple Meringue took the Golden Whisk first prize. And her Sour Cream Apple Pie was second.
"Honestly," says Starnes, 22, who moved to the city after attending Applachian State University for four years, "I never had made the [winning] pie before. It was kind of a risk to enter it in the contest."
The one requirement for the contest, according to Laura Snell of first-year contest sponsor Main Street Farmers Market, was that the main ingredient be locally produced. But no stipulation was made, she says, about where the locally grown ingredients came from, whether the farmers market or a back yard garden.
The six judges, she says, tasted each of the 12 different pies - submitted by 10 people - and ranked them based on taste and texture, and the final scores were added up to determine the winner.
Starnes, a "big supporter" of the local food movement locally as well as in Boone, N.C., where Appalachian State is located, says she chose her pies based on the ingredients she had on hand.
"I was nervous," she says. "This is my first cooking contest, so I was not expecting even to get acknowledged. It was a big surprise."
The Taylorsville, N.C., native says she learned many of her cooking skills from her great-grandmother, Rosa Walker of Wilkesboro, N.C., who died at Christmastime last year.
"She was the cook in our family," she says. "I decided to take her recipe and put my own twist on it. Pumpkin pie - that was her staple, the thing she was known for."
Starnes says she also cooked with her mother and, like her, doesn't measure things.
"But my [dishes]," she says, "are nowhere near as good as hers."
For the pumpkin pie, Starnes says, she "went off on a tangent," adding a teaspoon of chipotle pepper powder - before adding the eggs - to spice up her great-grandmother's basic recipe she knew from memory.
The required local ingredient, she says, was the pumpkin, which she had baked and pureed.
"So many people make pumpkin pies," Starnes says. "It wanted to make it a little more interesting.
"It was pretty risky," she says, "but it paid off."
Starnes says she's made meringues before, even with almond flavoring, and thought maple also might work.
"In my head, those things sounded good together," she says.
A teaspoon of maple syrup gave the whipped egg-white creation the kick judges must have liked atop the dessert.
"The meringue mellows out the spiciness of the pie," she says.
Starnes says her runner-up apple pie was based on a recipe "I kind of stole from" her mother.
She used Pink Lady apples from Sugar Loaf Orchards, local to her North Carolina home, "and threw a bunch of stuff in there - spices and stuff."
Starnes, who also won a Main Street Farmers Market tote bag in addition to her Golden Whisk award, says cooks shouldn't be afraid to experiment.
"When I bake," she says, "I cater it to how I like it. I taste as I go along. It's important to get a feel for it throughout the process. Taste as you experience."
The 2011 Winning Pie.
Combine 1 egg white and 1 1/2 cups finely ground nuts (not powdery) with a bit of flour and brown sugar.
Press the nut crust evenly into the pie plate(s). Cook at 350 degrees for about 8 minutes, then leave to cool while you make the filling.
Filling (Note: The filling is enough for 2 medium-sized pies or 1 really large pie):
1 1/2 cups roasted, mashed and pureed butternut squash
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1 cup light cream or milk
3 large eggs
1/4 cup melted butter
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
Heat oven to 400 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the filling ingredients until well blended. Taste the filling to see if it needs more brown sugar or molasses; add if needed. Scrape the filling into the shell and bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees. Then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 25 to 30 minutes. Part way through the cooking, when the pie firms enough to hold the streusel on top, sprinkle it on. When done, the top of the pie will have puffed a little, more so around the edges.
Mix brown sugar, flour, butter, cinnamon, pecans and walnuts together in whatever ratio you like.
- Melanie Mayo
The 2012 Winning Pie.
1 9-inch pie crust, recipe follows:
3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4-1/3 cup ice water
2 cups cooked and pureed butternut squash
1/4 cup sorghum
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoon coarsely grated fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup strong lemongrass tea (about 1 whole stalk, chopped and steeped in 3/4 cup hot water)
1/4 cup milk or cream or coconut milk
2 eggs, beaten
To make the pie dough, cut the butter into the flours and salt with a pastry blender or your fingers until the mixture resembles a coarse meal, with a few largish chunks of butter. With a fork, gently stir in the water until the mixture begins to come together. Press the dough together with your hands and form into a thick disk. Wrap with plastic and chill in the fridge for at least an hour. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll the dough out about 1/4-inch thick (or a little thinner). Fold crust and crimp. Put pie dish in freezer while you prepare the filling. Mix filling ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Pour filling into chilled crust and bake 40-50 minutes, until crust is browned and filling is set. Let pie cool at least an hour before serving. Best served chilled.
- Ann Keener
Contact Clint Cooper at email@example.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.