Sunday, September 27, 2009

September Fair

I love September. I wonder, do all people especially love the month of their birth, as though something reawakens in them when their constellation rises, or is this just a coincidence for this one Virgo? Or maybe my September love is just the coming of the cool weather, the coloring and crisping of the leaves, or the opportunity this allows for cozy sweaters and corduroys. Maybe I'm ready for the variety of shapes, colors, and flavors of winter squash and pumpkins lining the stands at the market, ready for me to infuse both savory and sweet flavors into them. Or perhaps it is the nostalgic excitement of the county fair, which does (wouldn't you know it) happen to always fall on the week of my birthday. Whatever it is, I love all these things and am giddy when it's time to flip the calendar page to that first fall month.

The Cabarrus County Fair

I remember visiting the old fairgrounds when I was a little girl, walking through the craft barn with its dusty red-dirt floor, running my eyes over stitched kleenex boxes and fancy fly swatters and waiting as my parents bought etched glass with a Clemon tiger paw. I was always entertained by the freakishly large vegetables and the pen of goats and sheep there for my petting. We ate country ham biscuits sold by one of the local churches and never left without a candy apple (I liked to pick the candy off and leave the apple), a block of fudge, or an elephant ear with cinnamon and sugar (or sometimes, all three!).

The fair has moved to a bigger location, now, with nice air-conditioned exhibit halls instead of barns and a concrete midway instead of dirt. But I'm still drawn to the same old things: folk crafts, fuzzy and feathered animals, odd-looking vegetables, and sweet things. In all my 27 years, I haven't changed a bit.

After Paul's parents attended my annual Pie Day, his mom insisted that I enter the pie contest at the county fair. Even with a dozen pies, she went back for seconds of my peach-blackberry. It was a sure winner. She printed me off all the forms and some extras for other entry categories that she thought Paul and I both would be interested in. Linda has taken the blue ribbon with her apple pie before. She knows pie. There is something about Linda that reminds me of my Granny, and that makes it hard for me to tell her no.

As the time got closer, I got more and more excited. This year, I was going to be a part of it - not just the one walking the aisles, looking, but the one with things on display, right alongside those kleenex box covers, intricate quilts, and macaroni art. I was so happy that I was going to be a part of this display of community, tradition, and self-sufficiency.

Paul and I entered several categories. We both submitted photos from our travels, and aside from pie, I also entered some Verabelle clothing into several of the sewing categories. When I turned in my sewing, I thought I didn't have a chance. There was some really beautiful work there, by women with many more years with a needle in their hand than in mine.

I didn't turn my pies in until the next week, half-way through the fair, so that they could be tasted and judged on the spot. This was much more nerve-racking than just dropping off my photos and clothing and leaving. The pies had to be perfect. There were no second chances, no seam ripper for pies in my pocket. If the pie didn't come out of the oven looking just right, there would be no time for baking a new one. And since I had to take the whole pie in for judging, I couldn't even taste it! What if I accidently switched my cinnamon and cayenne pepper?! I'd never know! I devoted the entire day to baking my pies, taking my time with each one, reading and rereading my recipes and giving myself plenty of time to prep the ingredients, roll out the crusts, and let each pie cool to just the right temperature.

Besides Linda's favorite lattice-top Peach-Blackberry, I also revised a few of my favorite pies from past Pie Days, and made a new Butternut Squash Pie with Orange-Streusel Topping.

Paul and I packed the pies up and headed for the fair. Of course, we got caught in some fierce 5 o'clock traffic and were worried we were going to be zigzagging through the farris wheel and graviton, oven mitts and pies in hand, to get to the main stage in time. We made it with about 10 minutes to spare. Then they couldn't find my exhibitor number. I waited. They looked. There was no trace. So with a few minutes left, Paul and I hurried into the exhibit hall to climb under the ropes into the sewing booth to find it. Both his and my parents met us there to find out the results, and we all awaited anxiously as the pies were cut and served to the judges.

There were some beautiful pies, with crusts much beyond my simple lattice top - dainty crust leaves and elaborately piped whipped cream. Appearance counted for 25% of the judging, but I had faith in the flavor of my pies, which was 50%. The other 25% went to texture. There were four categories - nut pies, fruit pies, custard pies, and other pies (which my butternut squash was in) - but the judges didn't know the flavors of what they were eating within each category. This means they didn't know know they had squash in their mouths, and they didn't expect orange zest or orange liquor flavor. Oh boy.

Pie judging at the main stage.

Me and my fellow fair contest enterer. Poor Paul didn't win any ribbons with his photos, though we all believed he would! The photos from his hiking trip to Colorado and Utah are amazing.

Our parents watch with us. My parents are in the orange and yellow, and Paul's are in the lavender and red.

Unfortunately, I think my pies were just too much for the judges. The ribbons went to simple, traditional creations, like cherry and chocolate fudge. But I didn't leave the fair without satin in my hands! One of my photographs got 2nd place - a photo of a cactus in Bumblebee, Arizona, from my dad's and my monthlong roadtrip out west. Sophie's Sunshine Skirt also took a 2nd and Atticus' Shady Weather Cardigan got a 3rd place ribbon! My pies went home without any colors, but for my first year, I was happy.

Butternut Squash Pie with Orange-Struesel Topping

Pie Crust:
1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 t. salt
1/3 c. shortening
4-5 T. ice water

1. c. mashed, cooked butternut squash*
1 c. heavy cream
1 c. sugar
3 eggs, lightly beaten
3 T. Harlequin Orange Liqueur (made with cognac & brandy)
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 t. salt

Orange-Strusel Topping:
1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 c. packed brown sugar
1/8 t. ground cinnamon
1/8 t. ground nutmeg
zest of 1 orange
2 T. butter
1/4 c. chopped, toasted walnuts

For streusel topping, mix together flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Stir in orange zest until well coated in flour. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in toasted walnuts. Set aside.

For pie crust, mix together flour and salt. Cut in shortening until pieces are pea-pized. Drizzle in 1 T. of water at a time, mixing with a fork after each addition until all the dough is moistened. Shape into a ball and roll on lightly floured surface. Transfer pastry to 9" pie plate and crimp edges.

For filling, mix all ingredients together using a hand mixer on low to low-medium speed. Beat until well blended. Pour into lined pie plate. Bake for 10 minutes in preheated 425 degree oven. Reduce temperature to 300 degrees and bake for 30 minutes. Remove pie from oven and sprinkle on streusel topping. Place back in oven for an additional 15-30 minutes, until filling is set. Remove and let cool before slicing.

* I cook my butternut squash the night before and refrigerate it so that any liquid drains off. Slice squash in half length-wise and place in deep baking dish. Fill dish to top of squash with water. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 30-45 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a fork.

Blackberry-Peach Pie

2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 t. salt
2/3 c. shortening
6-7 T. ice water

4 large peaches, cored & sliced
2 pints blackberries
1/2 c. sugar (divided)
3 T. flour
2 T. butter

Mix together peaches, blackberries, and 1/4 c. sugar. Cover and refrigerate overnight so that juices will drain from fruit.

For pie crust, mix together flour and salt. Cut in shortening until pieces are pea-pized. Drizzle in 1 T. of water at a time, mixing with a fork after each addition until all the dough is moistened. Shape into 2 balls and roll each on lightly floured surface to make your top and bottom crusts. Transfer first pastry to 9" pie plate, leaving edges in tact. Cut second pastry into 1" strips to use for later.

Remove peach and blackberry mixture from refrigerator. Pour mixture into colander and let drain. Mix with a spoon to remove any access juices. Once drained, transfer peach-blackberry mixture to a bowl. Stir in the remaining 1/4 c. sugar and flour. Place mixture in lined pie plate. Dot top with butter. Use pastry strips to create a lattice top, by weaving the strips in and out. Trim edges of pastry and crimp.

Bake in a preheated 425 degree oven for 20 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 30-40 minutes, until crust is golden brown.

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