This story was underwritten through the generous support of The Nordic Ware Factory Store, home of first-quality cookware, bakeware, microwave and barbeque products, kitchen tools and accessories, as well as factory closeouts and irregulars.
Every so often, the staff of the Heavy Table gathers together, purchases several carloads of locally made pies, and eats itself sick. This autumn, we wanted to take a bracket approach to competitive pie-tasting, and we made an evening of it.
After assembling at the Nordic Ware Factory Store, we gathered up 16 different autumn-inspired pies from local cafes, bakeries, and restaurants. We broke the pies into two broad groups: pumpkin pies, and apple / pecan / other. Our idea was to set each group against itself, single-elimination bracket style, until a champion had been named, and then pit the two champions against each other to find the King of Autumn Pies.
We selected pies based on our collective knowledge; tips from friends, family members, and readers; and what we were able to actually obtain — Rustica, for example was only able to produce an apple cake for us; Salty Tart required more advance notice (48+ hours) than we could muster amid the chaos.
What we came up with was a collection of pies from all over the metro area, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Stillwater, Osseo (Wisconsin), and Hudson. We unwrapped and coded all our pies (A5, A7, P2, P3, etc.) so that our tasters were tasting completely blind.
The roster below includes the pie’s code number for the competition, the maker, the type, the surface area, the price, and the price per square inch (for comparison’s sake).
Our panel of judges included Joshua Page, Maja Ingeman, Becca Dilley, Brenda Johnson, Amy Rea, and Tricia Cornell from the Heavy Table. Also judging were Jennifer Dalquist, Bundt cake expert (and Director of Sales & Marketing for Nordic Ware) and Andrew Commers (junior Bundt taste tester and Principal of Commers Property Development, Inc.) LoAnn Mockler artfully carved each of the 216 pieces of pie that were sampled, and James Norton acted as waiter and wrote this story. Any math errors are his alone.
THE PIE ROSTER
THE APPLE-PECAN-ETC. BRACKET
A1 | Patisserie 46 | Apple Tart | 50 square inches | $25 | 50 cents / sq. in.
A2 | Bars Bakery | Apple Pie | 64 square inches | $24 | 38 cents / sq. in.
A3 | Sara’s Tipsy Pies | Chestnut Hill Apple | 50 square inches | 40 cents / sq. in.*
A4 | Birchwood Cafe | Stone Fruit | 64 square inches | $25 | 39 cents / sq. in.
A5 | Turtle Bread | Apple | 95 square inches | $20 | 21 cents / sq. in.
A6 | A Baker’s Wife | Pecan | 64 square inches | $14 | 22 cents / sq. in.
A7 | Knoke’s Chocolates | Chocolate Pecan | 50 square inches | $17 | 33 cents / sq. in.
A8 | Bars Bakery | Maple Bourbon Pecan | 64 square inches | $24 | 38 cents / sq. in.
THE PUMPKIN BRACKET
P1 | Norkse Nook | Pumpkin | 95 square inches | $22 | 23 cents / sq. in.
P2 | Sarah Jane’s Bakery | Pumpkin Chiffon | 50 square inches | $12 | 24 cents / sq. in.
P3 | Curran’s Family Restaurant | Pumpkin | 64 square inches | $9 | 14 cents / sq. in.
P4 | Rainbow Foods | Pumpkin | 39 square inches | $5 | 13 cents / sq. in.
P5 | Keys Cafe & Bakery | Pumpkin | 64 square inches | $19 | 30 cents / sq. in.
P6 | Baker’s Square | Pumpkin | 64 square inches | $11 | 17 cents / sq. in.
P7 | Franklin Street Bakery | Pumpkin | 50 square inches | $10 | 20 cents / sq. in.
P8 | Gigi’s Cafe | Pumpkin | 64 square inches | $24 | 38 cents / sq. in.
*We had hand pies; this estimated is based on the bakery’s full-sized pie.
THE APPLE-PECAN-ETC. BRACKET: TASTING ONE
A1 (Patisserie 46 Apple Tart — 50 cents / sq. in.) vs. A2 (Bars Apple Pie — 38 cents / sq. in.)
The first match of the evening was also one of the least typical: a case of the excellent triumphing over the merely delicious. The P46 tart was “nice and nutty,” with a “restrained taste,” that had “very little apple flavor” and a cream top that at least one judge “loved.”
Ultimately, though, the Bars apple pie carried the day by dint of its being a traditional workhorse with “thick, cinnamon-y apple” and “great apple flavor.” There was a general feeling that a cool autumn day called for a classic apple pie, and Bars delivered the goods.
WINNER: A2 (Bars Apple Pie)
A3 (Sara’s Tipsy Pies Chestnut Hill Apple Hand Pie — 40 cents / sq. in.) vs. A4 (Birchwood Stone Fruit — 39 cents / sq. in.) vs. A5 (Turtle Bread Apple — 21 cents / sq. in.)
We ran our second tasting as a threefer, so as to avoid a first-round apple-vs.-pecan matchup that would have been nearly impossible to judge.
The Sara’s Tipsy pie got dinged for a “bland,” “not good” crust that “might benefit from an egg wash,” but won points for being “perfectly sweetened” and having “nicely cooked apple.”
Tasters liked the “nice stone fruit flavor” of the Birchwood stone fruit pie and enjoyed both its tartness and its “balance of sweet and tart,” but faulted its “dense and doughy crust,” which was “overly thick.”
“WHOA — strong clove/mulling spice flavor,” wrote one judge about the Turtle Bread apple pie, which had “so much clove you could smoke it,” according to another. Overly crunchy sugar on the top crust and a “slimy at the bottom” texture also counted against it.
WINNER: A4 (Birchwood Stone Fruit)
A6 (A Baker’s Wife Pecan — 22 cents / sq. in.) vs. A7 (Knoke’s Chocolates Chocolate Pecan — 33 cents / sq. in.) vs. A8 (Bars Maple Bourbon Pecan — 38 cents / sq. in.)
The judges were wowed by the “nice big pecans” on the Baker’s Wife pecan pie, which was praised for its “nicely balanced” gooey / crunchy texture and “great, caramel-y crust.”
The “mini chunks of pecan” on the Knoke’s pie counted against it, as did their “stale taste,” and the fact that they “looked like walnuts.” “Boozy and old” noted another judge — and only two of the eight picked up on the chocolate flavor (one of whom wrote “chocolate?”)
“Too much jelly stuff” was the consensus on the “gooey” Bars maple bourbon pecan pie, which was also docked for having “not many nuts, which caused a big gelatinous layer with a thin pecan veneer.”
WINNER: A6 (A Baker’s Wife Pecan)
SEMI-FINAL TASTING: APPLE-PECAN-ETC.
A2 (Bars Apple Pie) vs. A4 (Birchwood Stone Fruit) vs. A6 (A Baker’s Wife Pecan)
In the end, the “all cinnamon” taste of the Bars pie was its undoing, and the Birchwood pie got dinged for raw, doughy crust. A Baker’s Wife pecan pie sailed through to the final throwdown.
WINNER: A6 (A Baker’s Wife Pecan)
THE PUMPKIN BRACKET: TASTING ONE
P1 (Norske Nook Pumpkin — 23 cents / sq. in.) vs. P2 (Sarah Jane’s Bakery Pumpkin Chiffon — 24 cents / sq. in.)
Words don’t accurately convey the level of emotion directed at the fluffy, technicolor nightmare that was the Sarah Jane’s pumpkin chiffon pie, but here’s an impressionistic sampling: “nasty,” “disgusting texture,” “unappealing color,” “pumpkin-flavored Cool Whip,” “extra-yuck,” and “hate it, hate it.”
Norske Nook’s pie fared wonderfully by comparison: “standard filling,” “crust is awful,” “really sweet,” “awful crust,” “crust looks nice but is gross,” and “definite improvement over P2.”
WINNER: P1 (Norske Nook)
P3 (Curran’s Pumpkin — 14 cents / sq. in.) vs. P4 (Rainbow Foods Pumpkin — 13 cents / sq. in.)
Local lore suggests that half the pies at Curran’s are made in house and are consequently quite good — this tasting suggests that the pumpkin pie is not among them, as tasters deemed it to have an “artificial crust,” “too much nutmeg,” and “CLOVES.”
The Rainbow Foods pumpkin pie fared well, even without taking into account its reasonable $5 price tag. Tasters liked its “good flavor” and its “slightly salty crust (in a good way!)” and praised its “beautiful color,” and “smooth and custard-y” interior. “Best yet,” noted another taster, underlining the words.
WINNER: P4 (Rainbow Foods)
P5 (Keys Cafe Pumpkin — 30 cents / sq. in.) vs. P6 (Baker’s Square Pumpkin — 17 cents / sq. in.)
This tasting was all about the crazy, gelatinous, Pie From Outer Space texture of the Baker’s Square pumpkin pie, which got dinged for being “squidgy,” “extruded,” “gluey,” and “toooooo sweeeeeet.” The “weak crust” didn’t help its case.
The Keys Cafe pie had some fans for its “good solid pumpkin flavor” and “great texture,” although one judge called out its “terrible crust — terrible, terrible crust,” even while praising its “texture and pumpkin flavor.”
WINNER: P5 (Keys Cafe)
P7 (Franklin Street Bakery Pumpkin — 20 cents / sq. in.) vs. P8 (Gigi’s Cafe Pumpkin — 38 cents / sq. in.)
This tasting turned into something of a philosophical throw down. The yellowish cast and zucchini-evoking flavor of the Franklin Street pie turned off several tasters even as others wrote “best crust yet,” “tastes like homemade from farm fresh pumpkin” and praised its “DAMN GOOD” crust.
Gigi’s got praise for its “great texture.” “Firm and creamy,” wrote another judge. Polarized tasters either liked the “nice bite” from its allspice-dominated flavor or thought the spicing to be “too strong.” Still, Gigi’s took the win with a 5-3 vote.
WINNER: P8 (Gigi’s Cafe)
SECOND ROUND TASTING #1
P1 (Norske Nook Pumpkin) vs. P4 (Rainbow Pumpkin)
Norske Nook advanced initially due only to its hilarious rival, the bright-orange nightmare pie; put up against the well-liked Rainbow pie, it collapsed, 8-0.
WINNER: P4 (Rainbow Pumpkin)
SECOND ROUND TASTING #2
P5 (Keys Pumpkin) vs. P8 (Gigi’s Pumpkin)
This face-off was decided quickly. Controversy over Gigi’s spicing paled before the dislike of the Keys crust.
WINNER: P8 (Gigi’s)
SEMI-FINAL TASTING: PUMPKIN
P4 (Rainbow Pumpkin) vs. P8 (Gigi’s Pumpkin)
This is the decision that split the table — contentious arguing, trash talk, and a 4-4 hand vote was the result of this match. The mellow, easygoing balance of Rainbow’s pie was lauded, but its gummy, trash-grade crust was its Achilles’ Heel. The pronounced spice blast of Gigi’s pie was loved by some and hated by others.
Ultimately, I was brought in to break the tie. The mellow, balanced filling of P4 won my heart initially, but the horrendous quality of the crust brought it down a notch for every chew after the first. And while the Gigi’s spice was oppressive at first, it somehow grew warmer and mellower as the pie was savored. And so …
WINNER: P8 (Gigi’s)
THE FINAL ROUND
A6 (A Baker’s Wife Pecan) vs. P8 (Gigi’s Pumpkin)
After the cliffhanger of P4 vs. P8, this decision was surprisingly uncontroversial: the universally well-liked A Baker’s Wife pecan pie sailed to a 7-1 victory over the divisively spiced Gigi’s pumpkin pie.
And so autumn has a new pie king: A Baker’s Wife pecan pie. And at 22 cents a square inch, it’s a bargain to boot.