The weather is cooling down and the ovens are heating up for pie competition season. Whether you’re thinking about entering a pie competition for the first time, you’re an old hat, or somewhere in between, it’s always worth polishing up on your pie knowledge. We spoke to Official Great Aussie Pie Comp Head Judge Mike French, and past pie competition winners Tommy Win and Adrian Apswoude about what it takes to bake a winning pie.
“Quality, quality, quality,” says Mike, when I ask him what makes an award-winning pie. “That and the skills to put it all together.”
Mike’s been judging the Official Great Aussie Pie Competition for 13 years, rising to the rank of Head Judge.
“It’s like a never-ending voyage of discovery. The pies… you just never know what you’re going to get and I mean that in the nicest way possible because nowadays there are so many gourmet-style pies, some of the flavours are just incredible.”
Mike says the pies have changed enormously since he started judging.
“You don’t just do a bit of curry powder in a pie anymore, you actually make your proper curry. Same with beef steak; you’ve now got chunky meat, which is totally different to the old days.”
“We try to take things to the next level and make things very gourmet,” he says.
“There are 20 to 30 ingredients in our beef curry Randang, for instance, so it’s a traditional Malaysian curry. You could put it on a bed of rice and serve it in a restaurant.”
Tommy Win, who has won The Official Great Aussie Pie Comp for the last two years running, agrees that quality is king.
“We make sure that all our meat is good quality and we have to make sure that the way we cook is nice.”
There are guidelines to read, criteria to reach and, depending on where you live, you might even have to fly across the country to enter one of these comps, so what entices so many bakers to enter?
There are two major drawcards: The first is the prestige and coverage that comes with winning a medal.
Mike says, “You look around the country and what the competition’s done for local bakeries. There are plenty of bakeries around with awards and they are known around Australia. The grey nomads talk about it when they travel, truckies know where to go… You ask anyone what’s a good pie shop and they’ll tell you, in any town.”
Tommy says for the month following Oven Crisp Bakery’s win last year, they had to run three shifts of pie making each day, and still sold out of pies.
“Everyone knows that we are doing good and they just keep coming back,” he laughs.
The second drawcard is the opportunity to measure your product against the industry.
Adrian says, “We’d like to maintain the standard of our product, so we’ll always enter competitions. That way we know the quality of what we’re doing is always at a standard.”
Mike says entering a pie competition is like running your car through a workshop.
“When people want to check out their pies they go to the competition — if they’ve got a good industry standard pie, they’ll at least get a bronze medal. That’s the basic standard, so if you’ve got a good product, anything above a bronze — silver and gold — is really top notch.”
Preparing for competition
On The Official Great Aussie Pie Comp website, you will find a presentation detailing the specifics of quality pie making, a presentation that Mike created.
“It gives you a head start straight away,” he says. There’s no secret squirrel stuff, it’s right there.”
He adds “Also, your local representatives around Australia who supply the industry, like flour millers, margarine companies… they’ve got trade representatives that are technical people and they know stuff, so just ask them.”
When judging, Mike says, “We scrutinise the whole pie; we cut it in half, we judge it cold, we judge it hot. We look at—particularly in the gourmet-style pies—the inventiveness. We look at all of that.”
The appearance of a pie in a competition, as it is in a pie shop, is of utmost importance, and has the capacity to earn you a huge amount of points at competitions.
Mike says, “You look at it from a consumer’s point of view firstly. If it’s in a pie warmer and you could just say, ‘Oh, I could do with one of those,’ then it tells you it looks good.”
Mike looks for an even colour all over the pie and deducts points for dirty marks or burnt or colourless spots.
“You go through the sections and look at whether the top’s baked, look at the lamination and the flakiness of the pastry. You look underneath and make sure it’s baked through properly.”
It’s important to get the pastry thickness right, and pies with pastry that’s too thick or too thin will lose points.
Tommy says, “With the pastry, they want it to look nice. So no sunken bits and it has to be cooked evenly.
He adds, “It has to be fluffy as well and it has to have layers in the top pastry.
To prevent pie shrinkage, Tommy recommends not rolling the dough too fast.
“You have to go nice and slow and mix it wet.
“You need to make sure that the dough is correct because if the butter is too hard and the dough is too soft, it won’t come out nice. It won’t be fluffy and it will have a lot of shrinkage.”
Mike recommends talking to your butcher or local training institute about the meat you’re using.
Gristle or tubing is not acceptable in competition and will lose you points. The colour of your filling is also a big judging point and Mike recommends making sure the inside of your pie isn’t grey or dull, or jet black. Judges are looking for a rich gravy colour as well as colours that reflect the filling, especially in gourmet pies.
Mike says, “For filling flavours we look at the aroma, the thickness of the gravy — it might be too runny, it might fall into your lap, there might be air pockets — there’s got to be a nice stability. We look at meat quality, the chewiness of the meat, the quality of the meat flavour, colour, all that’s marked cold and then hot.”
After the comp
“You get out of it what you choose to do with it if you do win,” says Adrian who won Australia’s Best Pie in 2016.
“We were lucky because it was the first time a non-meat pie had ever won the best pie, let alone a vegan pie and we were this Kiwi-style business. So Australia’s Best Pie was a vegan Kiwi pie — the media loved it.”
Adrian contacted newspapers and television show Sunrise, and watched as Ka Pies went viral on social media.
Tommy also enjoyed media interest in Oven Crisp Bakery after his win.
But perhaps even more important than media interest and an increase in sales, is the feedback, which is something Tommy finds invaluable.
“The judges help a lot and they do like to share the stuff that they know, so don’t be afraid. Give it a go.”