The Great 2011 Upper Midwestern Autumn Pie Tasting

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

With the falling of the leaves comes the changing of the pies. Berry pies fade into apple pies; apple pies are supplanted by the fruits of autumn, the pumpkin and the pecan. It’s these last two pies that attracted our attention during the run-up to Thanksgiving and Christmas, and so we went on a mad pie-buying spree with the goal of discovering the best of both in the Upper Midwest.

HOW WE EVALUATED THE PIES

We tasted 18 pies made by local bakeries and restaurants: 10 pumpkin pies and eight pecan. We tried to purchase both varieties from all locations, but at some locations we could only get pumpkin. We also threw a homemade pumpkin pie into the mix to see how it would fare.

Moreover, we tried four pies from the North Shore that arrived too late for our panel tasting; we present them here with my own tasters’ notes but no scores or ranking.

We all tasted blind; only the organizer (who did not judge) knew which pie was which.

Our judges rated each pie on crust (0-15), filling (0-15), and overall balance / tastiness (0-20). Total scores varied from 0-50 per pie.

We threw out the lowest and highest score for each pie, building an average from the middle five scores.

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Becca Dilley Photography

Publisher’s Note: We’re deeply grateful for the sponsorship of Darla Kashian, Associate Vice-President and Financial Advisor at RBC Wealth Management — “Insight, Guidance And Integrity.” Without her assistance, this pie tasting would have been a shadow of its current form.

And now, without further ado, the pie.

THE LEADERS OF THE PACK (PUMPKIN)

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley Pies, Unincorporated
$7 for a 9-inch pie (price estimated, does not include about 30 minutes labor)

CRUST: 11 of 15 (all scores averaged and rounded)
FILLING: 13 of 15
BALANCE: 14 of 20

TOTAL: 38 of 50

In the interest of having a homemade reference point, we slipped a homemade pie into the mix, made by Heavy Table photographer Becca Dilley. It’s a simple affair (see the recipe here) — just pumpkin, an egg, a can of dulce de leche, and some spices. And yet, it swept away our judges, who praised its “silky, thick texture,” and “wonderful filling.”

Judges also called it “almost torte-like and moist,” proclaiming “silky, rich, creamy, YUM” and praising it as “caramel-y, and very rich.” The lone dissenter complained of a “gritty residue,” but the rest of the judges enjoyed the “straight-up pumpkin flavor” and noted that the crust — a Pillsbury affair straight from the refrigerator section — was “salty,” but “the salt is nice against all the caramel.”

We hadn’t expected that a simple-to-make homemade pie would trump the store options, but there you have it. (NOTE: Becca Dilley did not submit scores for her own pie.)

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Stockholm Pie Company 
N2030 Spring St, Stockholm, WI
$18 for a 9-inch pie
CRUST: 13 of 15
FILLING: 10 of 15
BALANCE: 14 of 20

TOTAL: 37

This “slightly salty” popular pie was seen, overall, as well balanced if a bit spice-forward — one judge complained of it being “heavy on spice, low on pumpkin,” and another noted, in a similar vein, “just spice, not pumpkin.” “With more pumpkin flavor  this would be great!” wrote a third judge, while another praised the pie for being “not too sweet.” While the trip to Stockholm is doable, it’s no picnic, but if it’s on the way, this is one pie that you could bring to a family Thanksgiving with pride.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Turtle Bread
Four locations (we went to the Longfellow location)
$19.99 for a 10-inch pie + $3 tin deposit
CRUST: 9 of 15
FILLING: 10 of 15
BALANCE: 13 of 20

TOTAL: 32

A definite cheesy note made the Turtle pumpkin pie one of the flavor standouts of the pack. There’s “some jungle funk and cream cheese to this,” noted one judge, who was echoed by another who said “tastes like cream cheese.” While one judge disliked the “funky, slightly sour” flavor, another praised the pie as “earthy, interesting, and unique,” while a third said that the “sourness brings a nice complexity.” A “hint of fresh ginger” set off the whole package, and making this a pie to remember.

THE MIXED VERDICTS (PUMPKIN)

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Keys Cafe & Bakery
Locations throughout Minnesota and in Hudson, WI (we went to the Spring Lake Park location)
$14 for a 9-inch pie
CRUST: 6 of 15
FILLING: 9 of 15
BALANCE: 11 of 15

TOTAL: 26

Inoffensive and genial, the steadily well-performing pies of Keys Cafe are typically a safe bet. Tasters liked this pie’s “fresher pumpkin flavor” and the “good balance overall,” and praised it for “tast[ing] like pumpkin.” But “bad texture” on the “thin, dense, floppy” crust counted against the pie overall.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

50′s Grill 
5524 Brooklyn Blvd, Brooklyn Center, MN
$11 for a 9-inch pie
CRUST: 8 of 15
FILLING: 9 of 15
BALANCE: 9 of 20

TOTAL: 26

The main challenge presented by the 50′s Grill pumpkin pie was one of memory — namely, many tasters had forgotten that they’d tried it moments after the bite had passed their lips. “Dull, not much spice, forgettable,” noted one taster, while another summed it up as “a bit bland, but squarely non-offensive, middle-of-the-road pie.” Another taster praised the “nutmeg a-go-go” spicing, but, overall, this was not a pie to remember. Neither was it, of course, a pie of unending horror. For those, read on.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Bakers Square
Locations throughout the Midwest (we went to the Highland Park, St. Paul location)
$10.99 for a 9-inch pie
CRUST: 6 of 15
FILLING: 8 of 15
BALANCE: 11 of 20

TOTAL: 25

Despite being a chain, in our last tasting we found Bakers Square putting some workmanlike effort into their pies. This time around featured more of the same. While tasters thought this pie “tastes oddly of peanut butter” and that the filling was “too dense,” it also received praise for its “yeasty, tender” crust. One taster noted that the “gelatinous texture sucks — it sticks to the sides of your mouth,” but added that the pie’s “herbal” flavor was “interesting.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Norske Nook
Four locations in Wisconsin (we went to the Osseo location)
$21.99 for an 11-inch pie + $6 tin deposit
CRUST: 4 of 15
FILLING: 9 of 15
BALANCE: 11 of 20

TOTAL: 24

Last time around, the famed Norske Nook took some brutal knocks for their blueberry pie; this time around, despite some criticism for a “bad, dusty crust,” the bakery’s “simplistic, straightforward” pumpkin pie won some praise for its “good spice flavor” and “great pumpkin flavor.”  Another taster summed it all up quite succinctly: “Dry crust that’s best left on the plate, but good, spicy filling.”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Rainbow Foods
Locations throughout the Twin Cities (we went to the Longfellow location)
$4.49 for an 8-inch pie
CRUST: 8 of 15
FILLING: 6 of 15
BALANCE: 9 of 20

TOTAL: 23

It’s always fun to see what the silly little mass-made pies of Rainbow Foods have to bring to the table — they’re the opposite of pretentious, they’re cheap as can be, and they (shockingly) give pie pros a run for their money. Case in point: Rainbow came within one point overall of the Norske Nook. “Too sweet — hurts my teeth,” said one judge, who concluded: “But good pumpkin flavor.” Another noted “too creamy, but nice salt level,” while another wrote “very pudding-esque texture, very little pumpkin flavor.” Not universal praise, but for less than five bucks, we’re putting this one in the “win” column for Rainbow.

THE PIE-GOATS (PUMPKIN)

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Sarah Jane’s Bakery
2853 Johnson St NE, Minneapolis, MN
$5.79 for a 9-inch pie (sale price)
CRUST: 5 of 15
FILLING: 5 of 15
BALANCE: 6 of 20

TOTAL: 16

“Dull, not much spice, forgettable,” said one taster. Another complained of a “Crisco taste” to the crust, while a third decried this pie as “just sweet.” In theory it would be great to love this independent Northeast bakery, but when the pie clocks in as “forgettable,” that’s a tall order.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Jerabek’s New Bohemian Bakery
63 West Winifred St, St. Paul, MN
$13.95 for a 9-inch pie
CRUST: 5 of 15
FILLING: 5 of 15
BALANCE: 5 of 20
TOTAL: 15

There was an 11-point drop between last edition’s triple berry pie from Jerabek’s and this edition’s not-well-received pumpkin. “Oh, God… oh, God…” exclaimed one taster, unhappily. “The longer it sits in my mouth… holy s@#!,” noted another. The problem? A “medicinal,” “strange,” “off,” “root beer-tasting” filling that one taster likened, not kindly, to Dimetapp. “Grapey cough syrup” isn’t a good descriptor for much of anything other than grape-flavored cough syrup, unfortunately.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Betty’s Pies
Two locations in Minnesota (we went to the Mahtomedi location)
$16 for a 9-inch pie
CRUST: 4 of 15
FILLING: 4 of 15
BALANCE: 5 of 20

TOTAL: 13

Compared to last edition’s “positively criminal” 4-point performance, this 13-point score is triumph for Betty’s. (For an unalloyed triumph, hold on until the pecan judging.) But that doesn’t mean we liked the pie. It “tastes like a Fig Newton, and not in a good way,” noted one judge, while another called it “runny, watery — can’t get past the moisture.” It’s “like a drink that’s congealed, in terms of texture,” said another judge, while another simply wrote: “Boo, hiss!”

THE LEADER OF THE PACK (PECAN)

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Betty’s Pies
Two locations in Minnesota (we went to the Mahtomedi location)
$16 for a 9-inch pie
CRUST: 10 of 15
FILLING: 10 of 15
BALANCE: 14 of 20

TOTAL: 34

We’re as surprised (or more surprised) as you are by the news that after bombing the berry pie and whiffing hard on the pumpkin pie, Betty’s pulled a straight-out win on the pecan… but there you have it.

We even double checked our pies to make sure that Betty’s and Stockholm weren’t switched by accident — they weren’t. People loved that this pie had “real nuttiness to it!” The “toasty caramel corn”-tasting pecans were “bacon tinged” in flavor, and “actually tasted nutty.” One taster wrote that the “nuts are smoky and nice, don’t love texture of crust, but like that I can taste butter.” The “challenging texture” of the gooey layer was a strike against this pie, but it’s a challenge endemic to the breed. Overall, a unanimous thumbs up, in a shocking turnaround for our favorite pie whipping boy.

THE MIXED VERDICTS (PECAN)

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Keys Cafe & Bakery
Locations throughout Minnesota and in Hudson, WI (we went to the Spring Lake Park location)
$14 for a 9-inch pie
CRUST: 8 of 15
FILLING: 8 of 15
BALANCE: 10 of 15

TOTAL: 26

Good ol’ reliable, middle-of-the-pack Keys is neck-and-neck with good ol’ reliable, middle-of-the-pack Bakers Square, making both the locations of choice to get a good (probably not great, but definitely good) pie in a pinch. Tasters didn’t have much to say about the Keys pecan pie except that one thought the pie “sugary” (well, no surprise) with “pretty good crust,” while another asked: “Are these nuts even toasted? They’re waxy and raw.”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Bakers Square
Locations throughout the Midwest (we went to the Highland Park, St. Paul location)
$12.99 for a 9-inch pie
CRUST: 5 of 15
FILLING: 8 of 15
BALANCE: 9 of 20

TOTAL: 22

The “tasty pecan taste” of this pie was savored by one judge, but another was put off by an aftertaste that they likened to “a dirty glass.” A third judge suggested that the pie had a “good buttery crust, but” was “otherwise meh.” But if it sounds as though sugar-shock pecan pie fatigue has afflicted our judging team, you ain’t seen nothing yet…

THE PIE-GOATS (PECAN)

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

50′s Grill 
5524 Brooklyn Blvd, Brooklyn Center, MN
$11 for a 9-inch pie
CRUST: 6 of 15
FILLING: 6 of 15
BALANCE: 7 of 20

TOTAL: 19

The “marshmallow-y overtone” on this “super fake” pie was its doom, and when one taster said that it “tastes like brittle,” it wasn’t meant as a compliment. The most positive comment that could be wrested from our tasters’ feedback was that “the crust complements the marshmallow-like filling,” but, as the scores suggest, this wasn’t particularly high praise.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Sarah Jane’s Bakery
2853 Johnson St NE, Minneapolis, MN
$14 for a 9-inch pie (sale price)
CRUST: 6 of 15
FILLING: 4 of 15
BALANCE: 7 of 20

TOTAL: 17

Three words best sum up this pecan bomb: “Salt Lick City.” “SALTY,” wrote another judge in all caps, while another complained “salt overload, good God.” “Salt lick!” exclaimed another, while a last — perhaps in a generous spirit — wrote that the pie was “so salty that it’s like a potato chip.” Potato chips are tasty, right?

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Norske Nook
Four locations in Wisconsin (we went to the Osseo location)
$25.99 for an 11-inch pie + $6 tin deposit
CRUST: 5 of 15
FILLING: 5 of 15
BALANCE: 6 of 20

TOTAL: 16

Counting tin deposit, we paid more than $30 for this pie, so we were expecting a lot. Fireworks. Action. Romance. Sophistication. But, no: “another sawdust crust, blech,” noted one taster, who was laser-attuned to this particular fault. The “tasteless” crust did nothing for the filling, which was described generously by one judge as a “mushy mess,” while another simply noted “snot.” Ah, Norske Nook. The recession has not been kind to you!

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Stockholm Pie Company
N2030 Spring St, Stockholm, WI
$18 for a 9-inch pie
CRUST: 6 of 15 (all scores averaged and rounded)
FILLING: 3 of 15
BALANCE: 3 of 20

TOTAL: 12

We had three shockers this time around: the overall triumph of a simple homemade pie, the (partial) redemption of Betty’s via a tasty pecan pie, and the (tragic) downfall of pie champ Stockholm via this pecan pie. Our pie courier sampled a piece of this on site (from a different-source pie) and declared it far better than the whole pie that we tried, which suggests a quality control blip much more than a recipe problem or generally bad ingredients. At issue: the nuts in this pie, which were described as “bad,” “off,” “not toasted,” and “maybe rancid.” One taster gave the pie a 1 overall, jokingly writing, “since you tried to kill me.”

We stand behind The Stockholm Pie Company overall, and we’re writing this off as a momentary blip, a stutter-step, a one-off. Unless it happens again.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Jerabek’s New Bohemian Bakery
63 West Winifred St, St. Paul, MN
$13.95 for a 9-inch pie
CRUST: 3 of 15
FILLING: 1 of 15
BALANCE: 2 of 20
TOTAL: 6

It’s probably time for us to give up on poor Jerebek’s after this “oh, the humanity!” disaster. One judge gave it a 3-point balance score “for getting the pan in the oven.” Another noted that it’s “like a slime monster decided to make a pie.” “Oozes like a wound,” wrote another judge while one particularly pitiless critic summed it up as: “Just bad. Really, really, bad.” Pecan pie’s a challenge, but there’s failing and there’s imploding spectacularly — this did the latter.

THE NORTH SHORE LATE ARRIVALS

Since our North Shore pie courier couldn’t make the delivery until well after we’d rolled the sugar-shocked carcasses of our tasting panel out the front door, we couldn’t properly assess the pies of the The Rustic Inn and New Scenic Cafe in context.

That said, I offer my own personal tasting notes, for what they’re worth.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Rustic Inn: 10-inch pumpkin, $18.95

This whipped, light pie had a great spice kick and, dare I say, refreshing aftertaste. The firm crust had little flavor, but the filling was surprisingly delicate and pleasing.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

New Scenic Cafe: 10-inch pumpkin, $25

Very heavy spicing — a lot of cloves, specifically — made this pie a bit of a drag on the palate, but the filling was creamy, rich, and satisfying. Not a home run, but certainly not a strike, either.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Rustic Inn: 10-inch pecan, $18.95

This terrifically good pecan pie tasted like pecan brittle: The nuts were toasted, crunchy, and profoundly nutty, and while the goo layer was satisfyingly sweet, it tasted natural and brown sugary rather than corn syrup-y.  From a personal standpoint, this was the best pecan pie of the lot, and it’s the only one that earned a place in the fridge after the tasting.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

New Scenic Cafe: 10-inch pecan, $25

An unusual spin on the pecan pie, a genre that needs some challenging and reinvention. The crimped butter tart-style crust contained a mixture that was through-and-through bits of chopped pecans, not a pecan layer over a goo layer as per usual. Non-traditional touches of cocoa and liqueur gave this pie a quirky, likable character.

DOLLARS AND CENTS

For the value section, we did two things. First, we calculated the square inches in each pie. Then we divided the price by the inches to yield a price per square inch to account for bigger pies having justifiably bigger price tags.

This yielded a list of pies priced out per square inch.

Pumpkin pie maker — Cost per square inch of pie (not counting tin deposit)

New Scenic Cafe — 8 cents
The Stockholm Pie Company — 7.1 cents
Turtle Bread — 6.4 cents
Betty’s Pies — 6.2 cents
The Rustic Inn — 6 cents
Norske Nook — 5.8 cents
Jerabek’s New Bohemian — 5.5 cents
Keys Cafe — 5.5 cents
50′s Grill – 4.3 cents
Bakers Square — 4.3 cents
Sarah Jane’s — 2.8 cents
Becca Dilley – 2.8 cents
Rainbow — 2.2 cents

Pecan pie maker — Cost per square inch of pie (not counting tin deposit)

New Scenic Cafe — 8 cents
The Stockholm Pie Company — 7.1 cents
Norske Nook — 6.8 cents
Betty’s Pies — 6.2 cents
The Rustic Inn — 6 cents
Jerabek’s New Bohemian — 5.5 cents
Keys Cafe — 5.5 cents
Sarah Jane’s — 5.5 cents
Bakers Square — 5.1 cents
50′s Grill – 4.3 cents

Then, we divided the price per square inch of each pie by the number of points it scored. The goal: Figuring out which pie got the best bang per buck.

The best performers in the pumpkin category were the homemade pie (which, to be fair, doesn’t factor in labor) and the Rainbow pie, which performed surprisingly well for its low price tag.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The best performers in the pecan group lagged far behind the pumpkin pies, which dominate the first five slots. Betty’s delivers the best bang for buck, followed distantly by Keys Cafe and 50′s Grill.

The worst performer in the pumpkin category? Betty’s, which managed to capture both top and bottom slots in the taste-off. And the worst performer in pecan group was the Jerabek’s pie, which also takes the unfortunate trophy of worst value overall.

BEST VALUE: Becca Dilley, pumpkin – .07 per point
Rainbow, pumpkin — .09 per point
50′s Grill, pumpkin — .16 per point
Bakers Square, pumpkin — .17 per point
Sarah Jane’s, pumpkin — .18 per point
Betty’s, pecan – .18 per point
The Stockholm Pie Company, pumpkin — .19 per point
Turtle Bread, pumpkin — .20 per point
Keys Cafe, pumpkin — .21 per point
Keys Cafe, pecan — .21 per point
50′s Grill, pecan — .22 per point
Bakers Square, pecan — .23 per point
Norske Nook, pumpkin — .28 per point
Sarah Jane’s, pecan — .32 per point
Jerabek’s New Bohemian, pumpkin – .37 per point
Norske Nook, pecan — .43 per point
Betty’s, pumpkin — .48 per point
The Stockholm Pie Company, pecan — .59 per point
WORST VALUE: Jerabek’s New Bohemian, pecan — .91 per point

SOME TAKE-HOME LESSONS

1. It’s just plain difficult to make a pecan pie. The gooey, tooth-meltingly sweet filling can easily get runny or otherwise out of hand, and the pecans themselves need to be properly roasted and handled.

2. The ease of banging out a high-quality pumpkin pie using canned ingredients and a pre-made store crust cannot be over emphasized. The Dulce de Leche pumpkin pie has changed our collective Thanksgivings.

3. A long drive isn’t a guarantee of quality. Stockholm’s inconsistency was disappointing and the Norske Nook has slipped seriously out of favor with our judges, although the North Shore pies made a good, if unofficial showing after the fact.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This story was compiled and written by James Norton. All math errors are his alone.

Thanks to Susan Pagani, Becca Dilley, Hannah Rogal, Emily Schnobrich, Maja Ingeman, Elizabeth Millard, and John Garland for completing the arduous task of tasting and grading 19 pies. You think I’m using “arduous” humorously, but I’m not. After four or five pecan pies, we had tasters casting nervous glances at the door, wondering if they could dash out and escape the rest of the gauntlet. Their escape was prevented.

Special thanks to Elizabeth Millard and John Garland for acting as pie couriers.

Extra special thanks to Susan Pagani, John Brewer, and Becca Dilley for acting as long-distance pie couriers (Stockholm, North Shore, and Osseo, respectively).

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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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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12 Comments

  1. The pecan pie at Yum Bakery in St. Louis Park is amazing.

  2. ABeerGeek11/14/2011Reply

    Most of those pies look like crap. I can do better.

    Pecan pie is hard? Really? Never had a problem with it.

  3. I think the mini pecan pies at Baker’s Wife are the best in town, short of the homemade ones a coworker used to bring by every Christmas.

  4. I appreciate great bakeries and baked goods as much or more as the next girl, but seriously–am I the only one who wonders who the heck is willing to pay ~$20 for a pumpkin pie (and who also thinks that charging $20 is annoying)? Five bucks worth of ingredients assuming I use all organic stuff and 10 minutes of prep time mostly because I make the crust from scratch.

  5. Making pie is just not that hard (including making the crust), and the rewards are vast: I guarantee that any one of my homemade pies would beat the holy hell out of all of these store-bought ones. If you like pie, you should learn to make your own. If you hate pie, well, there’s something wrong with you, but you are welcome to get yours from any of these over-priced purveyors of putrid pie.

  6. Maybe someone might buy an overpriced pie because they have a job or two, or more of a life to keep them occupied than blogging and posting smug-asinine comments to blogs. And some people like to support local businesses, lest they dry up and blow away as the result of all the self-sufficient bloggers making incredible pies in 10 minutes.

  7. The Surly/Surdyk’s discussion is creeping around this site, apparently. Thanks for your efforts. I’m now desperate for pie and wondering if I can just eat that for lunch. And where—I’m in downtown Mpls.

  8. Thanks for posting this fun pie article, especially the quirky descriptions by the tasters. Adam, your comment cracked me up.

  9. Thank you for yet another awesome pie round-up! Next time, would you please consider testing pies from the Birchwood and Salty Tart?

  10. Author

    Junita, absolutely – we always go to our readers for suggestions as to whose pies we should sample. Those sound like great tips!

  11. Love these reviews – the descriptions are too much fun. I know as a food-centered blog, most of us that read this wouldn’t even flinch at making our own pies, but as someone who works at a local bakery, you would be very surprised how many people would rather buy than bake! I found this both hilarious and informative, and I will be baking my own pies for the holiday! And I completely agree with Junita, some Salty Tart pies next time would be FANTASTIC!

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