Since I registered too late to snatch up a coveted oven time and had to book a hotel room with a kitchen elsewhere, I decided to make the most of my Friday in Orlando by doing a little sightseeing. I’m sure I’ve mentioned the list of “207 Things to do in Orlando” that I dug up…and I highlighted a few that seemed interesting and plausible alone (as much as I wanted to “experience the thrill of stampeding buffalo at Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede Dinner & Show,” it’s just not something I’m brave enough to do by myself). I actually really wanted to see manatees at Blue Spring State Park, but I understand the manatees have left for the season…so I settled on Gatorland, the self-proclaimed “Alligator Capital of the World,” and finding my birthday in the tile floor at The Mall at Millenia. (I also thought getting a psychic reading at the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp sounded kind of quirky and fun…but the website scared me off.)
However, when I went downstairs this morning, the hotel was abuzz with professional bakers and that really made me feel like it would be foolish to waste my day with alligators and shopping. It’s funny – seeing women with bags of aluminum foil inspired a strange mixture of terror (competitiveness?) and a notion that I finally found my place. I was actually in the elevator with another Linda who bakes pies…and at first I was completely intimidated by her…but she started up a conversation with me and was super-nice.
I even saw the Michigan Apple Queen! One of my coworkers (I could call him Chris and resurrect an old joke, but I fear that time has passed…) had asked me to take a picture with my phone if I saw anything really great so I could send it to him right away. I briefly contemplated snapping her photo…but her dad was there and even though a couple of guys approached her to have their photos taken, I feared somehow it would be too weird if I asked to have my photo taken (or perhaps worse – to just be a random stranger on the sidelines taking a picture of them taking pictures?) , so I waited until everyone was listening to the chairman of the American Pie Council talk about judging…and snapped a picture of the crowd – back of the Michigan Apple Queen, included. (Perhaps if you zoom in, you can see her tiara.)
My mother had suggested I call the hotel with the oven to see if I could perhaps check in early…and that’s just what I did. They said they had a room, so I merrily made my way to the Residence Inn. On the way, I spotted a Winn-Dixie and was feeling quite content, indeed.
I stood in line…approached the front desk…and initiated the check-in process. Then, just in case, I said, “I’m participating in a pie-baking competition. There’s an oven in this room, right?”
And, to my horror, the woman said, “No, ma’am, just a stovetop. The only rooms that have ovens are my two-bedrooms…and I’m afraid I don’t have any of those available.”
I had a tiny heart attack. “But the woman assured me when I booked this that there was, in fact, an oven,” I pleaded.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have anything available,” she said.
BUT…before I could freak out completely, the man behind me said, “You will soon. I’m checking out.”
“Yes, but all the rooms are booked again,” she said.
His response? “We were booked through Tuesday. But friends of ours had a baby, so we have to head back.”
My heart soared! Another sign that this was meant to be!
(He said his name was Matthew while he was checking out…and even though I already told him he saved my life…one more time: wherever you are, Matthew, thank you! And congratulations on the baby!)
So…I made my way to my new hotel room (with oven!) and unpacked my pie-baking materials.
Then I went to Winn-Dixie (not freaking out about directions because I knew exactly where it was…and feeling practically like I’d lived in Orlando for ages). I looked for apricots, but couldn’t find any fresh ones, so I settled on the canned variety I already had (which means my suitcase might be a tiny bit lighter going home)…Winn-Dixie did, however, come through with flour, sugar, cornstarch, Crisco, butter and a bag o’ party ice. (I remember taking the bucket to the ice machine was one of the first things we used to do at hotels when I vacationed with my mother and grandmother as a kid…but I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find the ice machine or some such drama would come to pass…and I know without a shadow of a doubt that one of my aunt’s pie-making secrets is to use ICE water…so I didn’t want to take any chances. Then as I hauled in my groceries and my bag of party ice, I thought how it would be too bad if any of my neighbors saw me in that moment as they might think I was a young punk planning a big to-do with my party ice. Sadly, no…just crust-making.)
I threw a dishtowel over my shoulder (I always cook with a dishtowel over my right shoulder) and was ready to begin. And I was thinking…maybe it’s for the best that I’m doing this by myself. If one of my friends had actually come with me, I’d be worried about them having a good time…and it’s also hard for me to be myself around – well – anyone really…and I’ve never really baked in plain view of anyone…so perhaps the pressure of baking in front of a friend who traveled a long way with me for my debut in the pie industry would have been too much to bear. (And this way I can blog and blog…although my mother advised I go swimming or take a walk or something to blow off some steam…she’s probably right…but I may wait until all the kiddos vacate the pool…)
One good thing about baking in a hotel is cable. I had the Food Network on the entire time!
You’ve likely already read me freaking out about my first crust…I was able to regroup and put on my game face and create a crust that did the job. (I even found myself channeling my inner football player with a big, intimidating pre-game grunt toward the end of my pep talk to myself – see? Another reason it was good I was by myself…) In the end, my first crust wasn’t perfect exactly…but it was good enough…and there was even a little dough left over to patch some of the more imperfect parts. (Perhaps there’s a lesson in there somewhere…)
Luckily, the Residence Inn provides cutting boards as that’s the one thing that was not in my 62-pound suitcase.
And…as I was placing foil on the baking sheet (both of which, for the record, I brought from home), I remembered another one of my aunt’s tips: shiny side down. That’s because the shiny part of foil attracts the heat (I think) and the other side deflects it. I don’t have to remember that rule so much now that I have my pie crust shield (she’s still something of a die hard and still puts foil around the edges), but…just in case, I put the foil on the baking sheet shiny side down.
As soon as Pie #1 went into the oven, I was terrified the fire alarm was going to go off and the entire hotel would have to be evacuated. That might sound a *bit* paranoid, but I’ve definitely set off fire alarms before and firemen have definitely showed up on my doorstep and I have definitely had to very apologetically explain that it was all a big mistake. The firemen in Brooklyn were very nice about it…I don’t know if firemen in Orlando would be the same way. (Can you imagine all the guests at the Residence Inn out in the parking lot…?)
Two things surprised me: the apple pie (Pie #1) did not leak; and I think it was done in under an hour. I probably kept it in a little too long just because it was hard for me to believe that a pie could be done in under an hour…then I remembered I don’t really “know” the oven I’m using and it’s a big’un, so it’s probably a little more powerful than the tiny, trusty one in my beloved Brooklyn studio.
I was also perplexed by the amount of water I had to add to the crust. Usually I don’t use all of the water that the recipe calls for…usually it comes together with plenty to spare. So…perhaps this is kind of like the time I thought my cat was static-y because I was feeding him wet food, but the only thing I could think of was maybe the weather (or the altitude??) is different here and that would affect how much water I need in a crust? Either that or I was totally paranoid about creating a sticky crust and subconsciously wanted to use less water than usual.
Creating a “pretty” crust was also a battle. Normally I’m giving pies to people who will sing my praises no matter what and who couldn’t possibly tell me that my crust is ugly. This time, however, I had to create at least a top crust that was visually appealing. In the end, I went through an entire 5-pound bag of flour and another mini tub of Crisco…
The apricot crust proved particularly troublesome. I finally came up with one that was round(-ish), but I must have put the slits in weird places because I ended up with two gaping holes…and then tried to patch them with scraps of crust (water acts like glue!), but that gave it a very patchwork-quilt-kind-of-feel and I had a sneaking suspicion the judges were looking for something a bit more – oh, I don’t know – perfect…so I made another crust with the very last cup-and-a-half of flour that I had…and I think I thought about it less as I was doing it the last time because it was actually round and it did actually go on top more of less without a hitch.
I imagine apple will be by far the most popular choice tomorrow…and so perhaps I have less to worry about with apricot as there is less competition…but I still feel less comfortable with apricot. My aunt’s recipe says “1 to 2 cups of sugar” and “1/4 to 1/2 cup of corn starch” and I just haven’t made enough apricot pies to know how much sugar is good and how much corn starch is sufficient. So I had to give it my best guess. And…apple requires bits of butter throughout – is the same true of apricot? I had seen Paula Deen on the Food Network earlier in the afternoon – she added a tablespoon or two of butter to something just for the heck of it and so I figured, “Eh, butter’s never a bad idea, is it?” and added bits of butter to my apricot pie, too.
And, again, I was terrified the pie was going to leak all over and so I was obsessively watching it, peeking in at 15-minute intervals (or less!)…and it, too, seemed to have browned quickly…so I took it out in less than an hour as well. I hope this doesn’t mean the innards will be raw tomorrow…
I also had the vent on the entire time, so as far as I can tell, the room does not have much of a fresh-baked pie smell.
Argh. Now I have to do the dishes. And it’s almost 11:00 (although I think the time stamp shows what time I started the entry…which was a long, long time ago…). And tomorrow’s an early day.
Registration begins at 6:30AM! But it goes on until 9…and the pie brunch doesn’t start until 10. I don’t know what to expect…do I just drop off my pies in that two-and-a-half hour window and return at 6:45 to hear whether or not they passed muster? Or will I have to stand around and defend my pies?? I guess I should probably go to the pie festival at Lakeside Park – wherever that is… – so that will certainly keep me out of trouble.
One last worry: I didn’t really realize until tonight what a big part of my life April 20 has been for the past few months. And I’m not really sure what I’m going to do now that it’s almost over. Sure, I can pitch stories…and continue to make desserts for my coworkers…but I guess I’ve just put a lot of stock in tomorrow changing my life and I’m not quite sure what I’m going to when midnight strikes and everything goes back to normal…