Pie Eyed

If an apple must fall, at least let it fall into a pie. A really good apple should be treated with respect, says Carole Walter, renowned cookbook author, serious baker, and unabashed fan of American apple pie.

Walter puts her love of pies to work each October as judge of the annual pie-baking contest at Sickles Farm, where about 70 entrants vie for the honor of best apple-pie baker in the land—or at least in New Jersey. “Apple pie is pretty special,” says owner Bob Sickles Jr. Indeed it is. And, Walter says, “There are some terrific bakers hiding out there.” But, she warns, pies are challenging: “Sometimes a pie that looks so terrific can end up a bomb,” Check sicklesmarket.com for winning pie recipes.

Al Roker came and made a fuss for the Food Network. A pie-loving military pilot made a U-turn when he saw the red barn, and now pies go off to Afghanistan and Iraq for all the holidays.

The attention doesn’t faze Evelyn Penza. These pies, after all, allow her to keep the red barn that belonged to her grandfather (he came from Sicily) and keep the family together (her 91-year-old mother is in charge of quality control).

Her customers are grateful for the generous portions (the biggest pies weigh in at seven pounds) and the freshness. Whether the pie is apple, double-crusted apple, apple crumb, apple-blueberry, pumpkin, or pumpkin-ricotta, all the produce is local and all of it is fresh.

“We start baking for the holidays in August, with the new apples,” says Penza. The ovens are small—they make only 24 eight-inch pies and 16 ten-inch pies at a time. So they fill freezer after freezer for the holiday demand.

“We take our time,” says Penza. “A little at a time, and we get there.”

The tales of pie-related exploits at Delicious Orchards are legendary. There were the years when throngs of people lined up to buy Thanksgiving pies, some filling their orders at $7 each and then going outside and scalping them for $25. Another year, a repairman put on an asbestos suit and climbed inside the 375-degree oven to fix it, avoiding downtime while the oven cooled and then reheated.

Today’s stories are no less impressive. This is the place that bakes more than 60,000 pies in the five days leading up to Thanksgiving; the place where Queen Latifah shops; where Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, Don Shula, and Bill Parcells have been spotted.

But the real legend here is the apple pie made with the secret 1950s recipe of Janet Barclay, the store’s original owner. Store president Tom Gesualdo will tell you only that it uses about three pounds of fresh apples, absolutely no filler, and that part of the secret is in the crust. It’s a closely guarded recipe, he says—very closely guarded.

No matter. Gesualdo guarantees that you, too, can have one of these legendary pies, even on the day before Thanksgiving, no advance orders necessary. (Delicious Orchards bakes only five types of pies for Thanksgiving—apple, pumpkin, mince, cherry, and pecan, for $10 each. The store does take advance orders for sixteen or more.)

Gesualdo figures more than 360,000 people to date have had a slice of a Delicious Orchard pie. “We’re pretty tired at Thanksgiving,” says Gesualdo. “But it’s a good feeling.”

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