WEST BROOKFIELD, Mass. — Circles of red apple peelings curl over the breadboards of 10 busy cooks making their best apple pies to be baked in the huge, old-fashioned oven in a spacious, barn-like dining room at the Salem Cross Inn here.
This is a contest to find the best New England apple pie recipe. The cooks may use any kind of apples they like, choosing their favorite from the cold-storage supplies available in spring.
One requirement: The pie must be baked in the old brick beehive oven at this rambling colonial farmhouse, now a registered national historic place. The inn was built in 1705 by a grandson of Peregrine White, who was born on the Mayflower at Plymouth Harbor.
"The oven is historic, too, built around 1699," says Richard Salem, who owns the inn with his brother Henry and Henry's two daughters, Nancy and Martha. The oven was moved to the inn and rebuilt several years ago and is probably one of the few working beehive ovens of its type in the country.
"We started the oven fire early in the morning," Salem says. "After four or five hours of burning, it generates enough heat so we can clean out the embers and do the baking."
There's no temperature gauge for this huge dome, of course, and although Salem can determine the temperature by putting his hand inside and counting to 10, he thoughtfully puts the contestants at ease by using a commercial oven thermometer, which confirms his own estimate.
He is equally skillful at handling the long wooden peel on which the pies are placed for their journey in and out of the oven. It can hold as many as 14 pies at once.
The 10 cooks baking are the finalists out of 356 entries from all the New England states. Five previous cook-offs reduced the number to the top 10, Nancy Salem explains.
Baking a perfect apple pie is no easy matter. It takes more than just following a recipe. Many people think it's the perfect pie crust that produces the best apple pie. But others say it's the apple that is the secret.
A tart, fine-grained apple is important. Delicious, McIntosh, Jonathans, Romes or Granny Smiths may be popular eating apples, but it's a different matter when it comes to baking a pie. A pie apple needs to be tart--but not too tart. It needs to have just the right texture so it will hold its shape after cooking.
Baldwin apples are a favorite with several contestants who said they couldn't find them at their markets, but there are other good ones for pies. Cortlands, Northern Spies and Rome Beauties were used by most of the cooks.
Some of the bakers piled apple slices in their crusts wigwam fashion. Others made very even layers. Some used vegetable peelers; others their own paring knives.
One recipe had pecans in the edge of the crust--assurance that no pie crusts would be left at the family table.
Cooling by the Window
When the pies were done, they were removed, hot and golden brown, from the beehive oven. From there they went to a table by the open window to cool.
A panel of food judges from New England and New York rated each pie according to flavor, texture, nutritional quality, ease of preparation and overall appearance.
The winner was Clara Chalmers of Bedford, N.H. She used Baldwin apples and a well-worn pie plate that she has cooked with many times since it was given to her as a wedding present 50 years ago. Chalmers said she's been making three pies a week for years, along with a lot of scones, fruit dumplings and raisin squares.
Ellen Cheney, a teen-ager from Brimfield, Mass., was the second-prize winner. The Cheney family has been growing apples for four generations. Cheney uses Cortland apples, the favorite for pies of her mother and grandmother, whose recipe she used.
Third-prize winner was Ethel Astukewicz of Leicester, Mass., who used Cortland apples for her pie, but prefers Baldwins when she can get them.
CLARA CHALMERS'S APPLE PIE
2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup water
2/3 cup shortening
6 to 8 cooking apples
2/3 to 1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons half and half
Sift flour, salt and baking powder. Measure 1/3 cup of mixture and combine with water.
Combine remaining 2/3 dry ingredients and mix with shortening, rubbing together with hands. Roll both flour mixtures into ball. Divide dough in half and roll out 2 circles on floured board.
Peel and slice apples. Line 9-inch pie plate with crust. Add half of apples. Sprinkle sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon over apples.
Add remaining apples. Moisten edges of crust and cover with second crust, pressing edges together. Brush top crust with half and half and bake at 400 degrees 1 hour or until top is golden. Makes about 8 servings.
ELLEN CHENEY'S APPLE PIE
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
6 to 7 cups peeled, sliced Cortland apples
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
2 tablespoons half and half or milk