• Video: Best apple pie contest.
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Each of the eight pies selected as finalists for the Omaha World Herald's search for the best apple pie featured a little something special.
Shredded cheddar cheese, for example. Or sour cream, red hot candies, Limoncello, melted caramels, apple cider or freshly ground grains of paradise (which no one, including the judges, had even heard of before trying them in Brad Price's pie).
But Val Fennell's winning recipe proved that sometimes, you can't improve on a classic.
The 67-year-old grandmother has been perfecting her apple pie — which includes two kinds of apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon juice and a tender, flaky crust — since she was a young mom in rural Illinois.
She didn't know how to cook when some Mennonite women who lived nearby delivered a basket of apples to her doorstep.
“When I was a girl, everything was either burnt or bloody,” she said.
So, she packed up her 2-year-old and walked to the closest neighbor's house to say thanks and to ask for help.
There, she found a group of women quilting and cooking. As it turned out, Fennell's Mennonite neighbors got together twice a week to do their sewing and baking. Fennell eventually joined in. Among the recipes that most impressed her was their beautiful apple pies. The only problem: The women baked in bulk and seemed to just toss ingredients together.
“They didn't have a recipe for anything,” said Fennell, who didn't dare try to improvise on her own.
Eventually, one of the women took a stab at writing a recipe to share with Fennell. She followed it carefully and, with her new friends' urging, entered a pie in the fair.
The pie won a ribbon and Fennell won some baking confidence. Since then, she's made the recipe countless times, for family holidays, birthdays and sometimes just because. One summer, she gave a Girl Scout troop repeated lessons on the art of apple pie baking. She's since heard from those girls, now adults, many with families of their own, that they still make the pie.
And whenever a family member gets married, Fennell gives the bride a small book of family recipes.
“The apple pie recipe is usually the first page,” she said.
The judges praised the taste of the filling, which was tart and allowed the apple flavor to shine through. But they were especially blown away by the crust, which was flaky, golden-brown, dusted in sugar and adorned with crust cutouts shaped like autumn leaves.
“It's like the picture that you think of when you think of apple pie,” said judge Tina Tweedy, the pastry chef at M's Pub.
Other pies impressed as well. Brad Price's Four-in-One apple pie, which included four kinds of apples, was the runner up, and got the best-apple-flavor vote from judge Lyle Ditmars, who owns Ditmars Orchard in Council Bluffs.
Ditmars was also impressed with the apples in Bill Hall's Juiced Apple Pie.
“If I'm going to have an apple pie, I like to taste the apples,” he said (for Midwest apple pie bakers, he recommends using Jonathan apples).
As the judges deliberated, the bakers waited, trading tips and stories and tastings the various pies. The contestants agreed that the bakers of the eight finalists — selected from 35 entries — were a talented, creative bunch. Carol Jeppesen baked red hot candies into her Apple Cinnamon Pie. The candies gave the pie a kick; they also made the filling a festive bright red, which Jeppesen showed off with a lattice crust.
Instead of serving her Apple Cheese Crumb Pie with a slice of cheddar, Sandra Rost baked shredded cheddar right into the crumb topping.
But Fennell's time-tested family recipe reigned supreme.
And while she may not have had any unexpected ingredients, she did have a secret weapon: her freezer. Fennell always has both butter and butter-flavored Crisco in the freezer, in case the mood strikes to bake.
“I even keep the bag of flour in the freezer,” she said.