Minneapolis-St. Paul Pie Taste-Off: Summer 2015

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

This post is underwritten by Nordic Ware.

Every so often, we like to take a sampling of bakery-made pies in the Upper Midwest to see how piemaking, one of the most delightfully Midwestern of food arts, is faring. Based on our most recent sampling, which angled at premium pies with a summery theme, the state of piemaking is reasonably strong. As per usual, our pies were drawn from a range of businesses that aspire to baking excellence, and as per usual, we couldn’t get a pie from every business within the metro area that might put forth a decent contender — this group of 15 will have to do as a cross-section of the industry at the moment.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Our judges were Becca Dilley, Maja Ingeman, Varsha Koneru, and Amy Rea.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

LoAnn Mockler hosted us at the Nordic Ware Factory Outlet Store, and James Norton organized the event, removing labels and packaging and numerically flagging all the pies so that we were tasting blind.

nordic-ware-horizontal-pie-banner-2015Nordic Ware, now in its 69th year, is a family-owned, American manufacturer of quality cookware, bakeware, microwave and barbecue products, and specialty kitchenware distributed worldwide. The Nordic Ware Factory Store is frequented by home cooks, chefs, and restaurant owners and hosts twice-monthly evening classes. 4925 Highway 7, St. Louis Park, 952.924.9672, www.nordicware.com.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

The pies below (with the exception of our overall winner) are presented in order of price per square inch, our standard measure of pie value.

PIE MAKER | PRICE OF PIE | DIAMETER | PRICE PER SQUARE INCH | FLAVOR

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

A Baker’s Wife | $14 | 10″ | 18 cents | Cherry

There wasn’t much about this pie that tasters liked — one called it “an abomination,” saying its aggressively sweet and seemingly cocktail-ready cherries would taste better “added to some bourbon for an over-the-top sweet Manhattan.” “Needs some tart [flavor],” wrote another, milder-mannered judge. “Less sugar, more tart cherry,” concluded the fourth.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Lunds & Byerlys | $13 | 9″ | 20 cents | Strawberry-Rhubarb

The crust? “Overcooked, too sugary.” The filling? “Gelatinous, pectin-filled, too sweet,” and “syrupy.” Overall? “A sad fate for rhubarb.” Sometimes a good price doesn’t make for a good value.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Surdyk’s | $17 | 10″ | 22 cents | Blueberry-Blackberry

“Not too sweet” with an “almost astringent tartness,” the Surdyk’s pie pleased our tasters with a filling generally lauded as “balanced” and “fruit-forward.” The crust was deemed “too chewy,” and “soggy,” but the filling saved the day, on balance.

AWARD — BEST VALUE: We’re used to Surdyk’s charging a premium (and delivering value for that price), but the Surdyk’s pie was ultimately one of the least expensive we purchased, while still offering some noteworthy pleasant flavor sensations. — James Norton

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

AWARD — BEST WRAPPED: The Surdyk’s pie came to us wrapped in about 50 layers of plastic, enough to protect the pastry from an accidental fall or a direct hit from a Hellfire air-to-surface missile. Spectacular. — J.N.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Cocoa & Fig | $23 | 10″ | 29 cents| Strawberry-Rhubarb

This pie was our overall runner-up, lauded for a “not too sugary” crust that was “fine and structurally adequate,” and a filling that erred on the sweet side, but was ultimately “in balance.” “Would eat again 10 times over,” wrote one judge; another noted “too sweet, but not horrendously so.”

AWARD — MOST EVOCATIVE OF SUMMER: The small pieces of strawberry and rhubarb in this light, bright pie held their shape and texture and packed tart flavor that was nicely balanced with the sweetness of the dish overall. This is the pie that we’d choose to eat on the deck, while savoring the last of the August sun. — J.N.

AWARD — BEST PRESENTATION: We also liked Cocoa & Fig’s pie on a “judge a book by its cover basis.” Its thin, competently cut lattice crust offered regular windows into the cheerful fruit contained within. — J.N.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Sarah Jane’s | $14.75 | 8″ | 30 cents | Peach

The “puzzling” and “weird” sour cream in this peach pie left most of the judges confused … and about half of them pleased. Although it was “not summery,” it was lauded for being tart. “I think it works,” wrote one judge. “Really interesting pie — I like the mix of texture and tartness,” wrote another.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

AWARD — MOST UNEXPECTED FLAVOR COMBINATION: Although, overall, the flavor divided the judges, everyone agreed that putting sour cream in a pie with peaches was creative and a worthy experiment, an unusual alternative to using something sweeter, like ice cream. — Amy Rea

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

No Coast Pie Co. | $20 | 9″ | 31 cents | Lemon-Raspberry Chess

Newcomers No Coast wowed a couple of tasters with its high-octane, super sweet, super lemony flavor bomb of a pie. Critics noted “you shouldn’t need a steak knife to cut the crust,” and “starts tart, then hella sweet — leaves an aromatic finish.”

AWARD — BOLDEST PIE: This lemon bomb was a startling flavor revelation, yelling defiantly where most of our pies chatted or whispered or just sang sweet, syrupy nothings. It’s always fun to see a cook or baker go for broke, so we had a blast with this pie. — J.N.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Key’s Cafe | $20 | 9″ | 31 cents | Strawberry-Rhubarb

The mounded oatmeal crumble atop this pie made a real visual statement, but it was universally disliked for its amplitude: “waaay too much,” wrote one taster, while another noted “too much crumble, which given my love for all thing crisp- and crumble-related, I never thought I would say.” The “earthy effervescence” of the rhubarb won over a couple of tasters.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Birchwood Cafe | $25 | 10″ | 32 cents | Blueberry-Raspberry-Strawberry

Something went haywire in the baking of this pie, which was “undercooked in spots,” with a “weird flavor.” On the whole the pie was “very tart,” “so bitter,” and runny, save for a thick, grainy ball of what was, as best we could determine, some kind of thickener like corn starch.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

France 44 | $23.70 | 9″ | 37 cents | Strawberry

“Don’t be so stingy with the lattice crust!” wrote one taster; another wrote “fresh strawberry flavor, and I enjoyed this pie overall, but no one aspect had a wow factor.” The “real strawberry flavor” seemed to be the pie’s strong point.

AWARD — MOST TRUE TO FRUIT: This pie’s underpowered crust didn’t bring much to the table, but (mostly) no matter: the vibrant strawberry filling was easily the star of the show. We liked the still-present snap to the berries and light-handed sweetness: this one almost reminded us of the kind of lightly sugared, quartered strawberries one spoons atop shortcake. If you’re looking for real strawberry flavor — or really, a pie that legitimately tastes like the sum of its (fruity) parts, this one may be right up your alley. — Maja Ingeman

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Seward Co-op | $19 | 8″ | 38 cents | Cherry

“The crust has a terrible aftertaste and is too thick on one edge,” wrote a not-very-charmed judge about this cherry pie that was filled with what another judge characterized as “gross cherry jam.” Still another taster wrote: “Terrible … six sips of coffee later, and it’s still haunting my tastebuds.”

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Sun Street Breads | $20 | 8″ | 40 cents | Peach-Ginger

This pie’s crust was beloved (“firm but still tender!”), and while the filling was seen as “a touch too sweet” and underpowered vis-a-vis the ginger, the overall verdict was quite positive. “Delightful flavor” in the crust, wrote one judge, who also faulted the pie for a “weird” aftertaste that might have come from “old powdered ginger.”

AWARD — BEST CRUST: Before we took even a bite of this pie’s crust, we figured it would be good: a light tap of the fork yielded an audible flaky-crunch sound. The crust yielded easily to the fork, yet provided a crisp counterpoint to the texturally wimpy peach filling contained within. Flaky, buttery, and beautifully golden brown, this pie deftly outmaneuvered its competitors, avoiding the gelatinous goo and the tough-as-a-rock exterior we found in other pies. — M.I.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Rustica | $32 | 10″ | 41 cents | Fruit Tart

This fruit tart looked like a nightmare, its soft, custardy interior splatted around the box as though it had been hit by a tiny, localized tornado. But it tasted like a dream: “SO GOOD,” wrote one judge, with a “custard that has gorgeous vanilla flecks — creamy and wholesome.” “Not too sweet, with a great shortbread crust — buttery,” noted another taster. Expensive? Yes. But, we concluded, worth the price.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

AWARD — FAVORITE NON-PIE: One of the favorites of the night was Rustica’s “pie” that wasn’t a pie at all. We were skeptical that a fruit custard tart would be able to capture the fruit-forward, summery feel we were expecting (and it certainly didn’t win us over with its looks). But the custard was silky, filled with black specks of vanilla bean (so you know they used the good stuff), and paired perfectly with the buttery shortbread and the freshness of the strawberries. With 13 pies ahead of us, we were told to pace ourselves, but all four judges couldn’t help cleaning their plates. — Varsha Koneru

Salty Tart | $30 | 9″ | 47 cents | Triple Berry

Topped with a crumble described as a “sweet, thick, mealy goo,” this pie struck out with our tasters, who thought the fruit had a “weird,” but not “unbearable” aftertaste. Comments including “mushy,” “overcooked,” and “a non-starter for me,” mark this pie as the weakest value of the evening.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Patisserie 46 | $28 | 8″ | 56 cents | Raspberry Tart

The “great generosity” of raspberries atop this tart made for a charming appearance (“I perceive a mound of raspberries like this as value,” wrote one judge) and a nice fruit-forward taste. The tart’s custard was “eggy,” and “well-set,” but “a little gritty.” “Crackerlike crust — but I liked it!” noted another, who described the tart, the most expensive of the evening, as “good, but not great.”

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Turtle Bread | $23 | 11″ | 24 cents | Strawberry-Rhubarb

“The rhubarb is delicious and the texture great,” wrote one judge of this pie, which another taster hailed for its “good balance of sweet and tart” and yet another liked for its “great taste overall.” While our tasters didn’t like the chunky bits of sugar atop the crust, the rest of the pie won plaudits.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

AWARD — BEST OVERALL: Turtle Bread accomplished what several other bakeries couldn’t: they managed to keep the filling from being too mushy, and they highlighted the sweet and tart aspects of the strawberries and rhubarb to great effect, without toppling over into sugar insanity. With less sugar on the crust, this would be the perfect summer pie. — A.R.

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

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One Comment

  1. Declan 08/26/2015

    Wow, nearly $30 for an 8 inch tart? C’mon Patisserie, that’s highway robbery.