Judges in Home of Economy-Herald Pie Bake-off looking forward to seeing the creativity of bakers
First round of the contest is Monday morning, when 16 bakers will arrive to have their pies judged by the four-person panel.
GRAND FORKS — Of the four judges in the Home of Economy-Grand Forks Herald Pie Bake-off, Marsha Johnson’s culinary biography is most like the resumes of the bakers she’ll be judging.
Johnson grew up on a farm and learned hints from her mom and seven aunts. She makes tasty cookies and darn good lefse (and a variety of Scandinavian treats), but claims no professional expertise. Instead, she bakes for the fun of it.
Or, as she said, for the “zen” of it.
“It’s relaxing and fun to carry on some of the traditional things I learned from my family,” said Johnson, who was raised on a farm near York, N.D. “My mom was a terrific baker, as many of those rural housewives were. Growing up back then, the communities were so much more active. At church, there would be big potlucks. You got a lot of exposure to food.”
Johnson, an administrative assistant at the Grand Forks Herald, will be among four judges deciding the fate of 16 bakers competing in the first-ever Home of Economy-Herald pie contest . And as Johnson this week recalled being exposed to food as a youngster, she and the other judges best prepare for a similar experience over the course of the next four weeks, since they’ll judge 30 pies before a champion is crowned on Sept. 12. The opening round alone will include 16 pies.
The four judges include Johnson; Kristen Whitney, executive chef at the Museum of Art Cafe; Lane Leech, head chef at Harry’s Steakhouse; and Jessica Rerick, owner of Craveable Kitchen and a culinary writer.
The contest begins Monday morning, when bakers will deliver their pies to the judging site at Home of Economy. There, the pies will be taken — two at a time — to be judged on their merits in three specific categories: crust, filling and presentation.
The bracketed tournament’s first-round matchups include: Tammy Schmitz (sponsored by Alerus) vs. Brenda Kovar (sponsored by Blue Moose); Lynda Kappel (sponsored by Wall’s Medicine Center) vs. Caitlin Olson (sponsored by Hope Church); Brityn Proulx (sponsored by Valley Senior Living) vs. Victoria Bouvette (sponsored by Bremer Bank); Amy Lents (sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce) vs. Alexandra Lunseth (sponsored by Northern Roots Boutique); Brenda White McCauley (sponsored by Altru Health System) vs. Jill Hanson (sponsored by Hugo’s); Brenda Dufault (sponsored by Toasted Frog) vs. Jeannine Lazur (sponsored by Harry’s Steakhouse); Rose Fuchs (sponsored by The Lighting Gallery) vs. Peggy Raddatz (sponsored by Ground Round); and Evan Andrist (sponsored by North Dakota Mill) vs. Mallory Handford (sponsored by American Crystal Sugar Co.)
Another local business, Greenberg Realty, purchased tournament-themed aprons for all of the bakers, while each baker also received bags of sugar from American Crystal; a bag of flour and scrapers from the North Dakota Mill; $25 gift cards to Hugo’s to pay for baking supplies, compliments of Home of Economy; and $10 gift cards to Happy Harry’s Bottle Shops, compliments of the Herald. (Prouxl, who is a teenager, was instead given a gift card to a fast food restaurant).
The overall winner of the event will have the choice of a $500 gift card to Home of Economy or a pie safe worth $1,400, also from Home of Economy. In addition, they’ll receive $500 from the Herald, in the name of their sponsor. The second-place finisher will receive $200 from the Herald, in the name of their sponsor.
A number of the contestants come into the contest with a high level of culinary experience. At least three have professional baking backgrounds, while another two are regular food bloggers who either broadcast or write about their cooking adventures.
Meanwhile, the judges have loads of culinary experience.
Leech, head chef at Harry’s Steakhouse
, has experience in the restaurant industry in Grand
Forks and Colorado, where she earned an American Culinary Federation-certified culinary degree from Pikes Peak Community college in Colorado Springs.
Whitney, executive chef at the Museum of Art Cafe on the UND campus , attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Cambridge, Mass., graduating with honors with an associate degree in culinary art and sciences.
Rerick has an associate degree in the culinary arts from Le Cordon Bleu and now is the owner of Craveable Kitchen , employed by US Foods, and is a personal chef. She is the reigning Mrs. North Dakota American, a writer for On The Minds of Moms magazine, and a former food columnist for the Grand Forks Herald.
And Johnson — again, like so many of the contestants themselves — learned the ins and outs of cooking and baking in a North Dakota farmhouse and by being immersed in traditional rural food cultures during her girlhood.
Whitney doesn’t create many pastries as the chef at the Museum of Art, but she had aspirations of being a pastry chef when she was young. An issue with carpal tunnel syndrome forced her to change her kitchen focus — she’s unable to adequately maneuver a pastry bag, for example — but she still “loves baking in general,” she said.
She’s excited about judging the contest and looks forward to seeing the creativity the bakers likely will put into their pies. She also has avoided the Herald’s coverage of the tournament, hoping to stay entirely objective about each pie she judges.
“It’s a cool event, seeing the different people and seeing how they’ll do creative baking,” she said.
Leech doesn’t necessarily have a professional pasty background either, although she was once a confectionery chef. Her mother is the baker at Harry’s Steakhouse, “so I was raised by somebody who bakes,” she said.
“This is something new and exciting for Grand Forks,” she said of the contest. “I expect it will be tough to narrow it down. We come from an area that has people with those types of (baking) skills, so I expect it will be a really tough competition.”
Rerick, crowned Mrs. North Dakota American earlier this yea r, this week is competing in Las Vegas at the national pageant. Since she’ll be traveling on Monday after the competition, she won’t be available to judge the first round of the pie contest.
Johnson, too, is looking forward to seeing — and tasting — the pies. She’s guessing rhubarb-based pies might be common in the opening round, especially since local apples probably aren’t yet ready.
“It’s going to be an interesting mix of traditional and nontraditional pies,” she predicted.