Caitlin Olson's 'Blue Bird Pie' wins Home of Economy-Herald Pie Bake-off
Olson was sponsored throughout the contest by Hope Church of Grand Forks. For her win, she received a $500 check from the Herald on behalf of Hope Church, as well as the choice between two prizes from Home of Economy – either a $500 gift card or a pie safe worth $1,400.
GRAND FORKS — Caitlin Olson entered the Home of Economy-Grand Forks Herald Pie Bake-off with a singular goal.
“I would love to enter your contest and show how far vegan food has come in the past few years,” Olson wrote to the Herald in June, when she first applied to become a contestant.
Consider that goal achieved.
Olson’s vegan “Blue Bird Pie” scored 138 points in the championship round on Monday to edge Jill Hanson ’s “New Orleans Bananas Foster Dream Pie,” which earned 130 points from the four judges. The win in the tournament — which took four weeks to complete — gives Olson the title, but also helped her show that vegan recipes do indeed have merit in the baking world.
“I’m just happy the judges genuinely enjoyed the pies,” said Olson, of East Grand Forks. “Since (the pies) were vegan, I didn’t know how they’d be received or if they would be comparable with the traditional pies. I’m happy, but also surprised, that it worked out.”
Olson was sponsored throughout the contest by Hope Church of Grand Forks. For her win, she received a $500 check from the Herald on behalf of Hope Church, as well as the choice between two prizes from Home of Economy — either a $500 gift card or a pie safe worth $1,400. As of late Monday morning, she hadn’t yet decided which she would choose.
For second place, Hanson received $200 from the Herald, on behalf of Hugo’s, her sponsor.
Olson and Hanson compiled almost identical scores throughout the tournament. Through the first three rounds, Hanson had 351 points – just one more than Olson .
Hanson, of Newfolden, Minnesota, became known among the judges for her crusts; Olson had mostly received higher marks for her fillings.
In Monday’s championship, however, Olson received 56 points for her crust, while Hanson accumulated 51 points. With four judges in Monday’s final round – there were three judges for the first two rounds and four for the final two rounds – there were a possible 60 points available in the crust category.
Olson’s crust was a shortbread concoction, using vegan butter, powdered sugar, vanilla extract, flour and salt. The pie was topped with an ornate bird – made of the same material as the crust – and individual leaves. Some of the bird’s “feathers” were apparently baked a bit longer, to add different colors and textures in a sort of crusty bas relief.
The judges in the contest were Jessica Rerick , owner of Craveable Kitchen, author and a personal chef; Marsha Johnson, an administrative assistant at the Herald and an active amateur baker and cook; Kristen Whitney , executive chef at the North Dakota Museum of Art Cafe; and Lane Leech, head chef at Harry’s Steakhouse .
After what seemed a few minutes of the judges simply looking at Olson’s pie, they joked that they didn’t feel right actually cutting into it, due to its artistic appearance.
But then, “that crust melts in your mouth,” Johnson said.
“I think that’s her best crust yet,” Leech said. “It’s perfect.”
It was a blueberry-based pie, but also offered hints of white chocolate. It scored 56 points out of 60 for its crust, 44 points out of 60 for its filling and 38 points out of 40 for its presentation.
The championship round’s other pie also was a looker. Named “New Orleans Bananas Foster Dream Pie,” Hanson said she got the idea for its unique flavors after ordering Bananas Foster on a trip to New Orleans.
The pie exploded with banana flavors and was topped with eight large dollops of “stabilized vanilla bean topping” – taking the place of ice cream, which traditionally is served with Bananas Foster. Ice cream was not allowed in the Home of Economy-Herald contest.
The differences in the two final pies was notable. Olson’s “Blue Bird” was light and fruity and engaged the senses subtly with its blueberries, homemade white chocolate and use of lemon zest. Hanson’s pie was heavier, almost like a birthday cake, and more forthright. It included caramelized bananas, the unique homemade vanilla bean topping, candied pecans and a sweet sauce drizzle.
“It was difficult to judge the two different styles of pies,” said Rerick. “It was tricky.”
Hanson’s pie scored 51 points out of 60 for its crust; 43 points out of 60 for its filling; and 36 points out of 40 for its presentation.
“This has been really fun,” said Hanson, who baked 22 pies overall during the past month as she prepared and practiced. “I feel blessed. I got to reconnect with family and friends — I think they’ll have pie withdrawals.”
Bakers throughout the contest received $25 gift cards to Hugo’s, courtesy of Home of Economy, to purchase ingredients for each pie they have baked. They also received flour and scrapers from the North Dakota Mill, sugar from American Crystal Sugar Co. and aprons from Greenberg Realty.
Other bakers in the contest were Lynda Kappel , Rose Fuchs , Victoria Bouvette , Jeannine Lazur , Brenda White McCauley , Peggy Raddatz , Amy Lents , Brenda Kovar , Mallory Handford , Tammy Schmitz , Alexandra Lunseth , Brenda Dufault , Evan Andrist and Brityn Proulx . Andrist and Proulx advanced to the semifinals before falling to Hanson and Olson, respectively.
Along with Home of Economy and the Herald, sponsors of the event are Hope Church, North Dakota Mill, Valley Senior Living, Hugo’s, Wall’s Medicine Center, The Lighting Gallery, Bremer Bank, Harry’s Steakhouse, Altru Health System, Ground Round, Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce, Blue Moose, American Crystal Sugar Co., Alerus, Northern Roots Boutique, Toasted Frog and Greenberg Realty.
The contest, the judges said after its conclusion, showed how difficult it is to pick among the many bakers and their final products.
"It's tough when it's 16 people going head-to-head each week," said Whitney. "You weed out some people early on who maybe didn't have their best pie that day, but might have had some really good ones down the road."
Said Johnson: "I think overall, (the contest was) indicative of the baking in this region. It was nice to highlight the terrific bakers that are out there."