By AARON GETTINGER
Kenwood resident and chemist Amanda Houser won the grand prize at the eighth-annual South Side Pie Challenge on Saturday with her “Pitch-Perfect Key Lime Pie” on a year when the cream pie competition was so popular that organizers had to limit the number of participants for the first time.
“I’ve always baked. I just really enjoy it,” Houser said after winning the award. She first entered the competition three years ago: “I haven’t won two years in a row, so this year is big!”
Organizer Julie Vassilatos, who emceed the event and introduced a number of local musicians who serenaded attendees at the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club gymnasium, 5480 S. Kenwood Ave., said judges had been divided on the reward, calling the competition “fierce.”
“It’s kind of funny, because they’re all food professionals (and) trained chefs — they can say things like ‘I think this pie was baked on a stove,’ (or) ‘There’s a lot of alkaline in this crust,’” she said. “I don’t know how they do it.”
Entrants provide two pies each in disposable pans into the competition, which is divided into fruit, sweet potato or pumpkin, nut and cream categories. Slices were $4 apiece; there were 63 participants who paid $30 to enter.
Houser won the cream pie category; Lea Redd took first place for her “Bumpkin Pumpkin Pie. Chris Andrews won the fruit pie contest with “The Third One I Just Made,” and Olivia McMeel won with “Nut-Thing Compares To This.”
The Pie Challenge has raised over $30,000 for the Hyde Park & Kenwood Interfaith Council’s hunger programs since 2012.
Organizer Kate Agarwal first participated in an apple pie bakeoff in Bucktown in 2010 and conceived the first Hyde Park competition with Vassilatos.
“When we first did it, the whole reason for it was kind of like a harvest festival in the fall, as people go apple-picking, pumpkins, before Thanksgiving,” Agarwal said. “We talked to a bunch of people in the neighborhood, talked about seasons when people bake the most, and it just seemed like people bake a lot in the fall.”
While fruit pies are typically the most popular entry, cream pies were especially popular this year, “To the point that we had to cut it off,” said Agarwal, “because the judges can only handle so much as far as tasting the same kind of pie.”
Agarwal said cream pies are especially tricky: the fillings have to set. A few of the cream entries could not be served because they were too runny.
“You could make it either really, really great, or they could flop,” she warned.
Judges “are professionals in their field,” Agarwal said. “They either manage restaurants or are pastry instructors in cooking schools.”
Flushed with victory, Houser said her Key lime pie, a South Florida staple, included sour cream in addition to the traditional condensed milk; she baked Ceylon cinnamon into the graham cracker crust.
“I did a bunch of research. I figured I’d mishmash some recipes together, but I followed some basic steps,” she said. “I’m pretty nervous about baking for people — I never know if they’re going to like it, so it’s kind of nice to have that validation.”