Late Summer Pie Tour

The Late Summer Pie Tour started when Pretty Boy and I drove down to Jordan and Belle Plain, MN on a weekday afternoon in search of apples.  I wanted apples for baking, but that early in the season (mid-August), there weren’t many local apples available yet so we thought we’d try Emma Krumbee’s Orchard and Bakery in Belle Plain, MN and Jim’s Apple Orchard and Yellow Barn/Jordan’s Largest Candy Store (no contact information) in Jordan, MN.  It was a beautiful day: sunny and warm without being hot, just a touch of crispness in the breeze hinting at the fast approaching fall.  We went to Emma Krumbee’s first, a mecca for small town knickknacks and caravan tourists, where I bought a 1/2 peck of the fresh picked Redfree apples at the produce/plant stand.  We also wondered over to the giftshop/ultimate home of ridiculous knickknacks.  The lack of focus was a little overwhelming: textiles, souvenirs, fresh cut and arranged flowers, ice cream fountain, bakery, coffee shop, fudge, pick your own raspberries out back, and more!  With Pachelbel’s Canon in D playing on repeat overhead.  Definitely not an appealing destination for me and Pretty Boy, so we hung around just long enough to purchase an apple pie and head back up the road to Jim’s Apple Farm.

I’d heard a few comments that Jim’s Apple Farm or the Yellow Barn or Jordan’s Largest Candy Store or whatever it’s called, has pretty good pies.  Nothing from any especially credible sources but enough to make it on the list.  We stopped at the Yellow Barn on our way back north to see what they had for apples and to try a pie.  I was super surprised to see they had 5 varieties of apple out already (I’d only seen the Redfrees at Emma Krumbee’s and Zestar and State Fairs at Twin Cities Farmers markets at that point).  The variety that excited me the most was the early Haralsons.  Haralsons are my first choice pie apple but are one of the latest varieties that usually don’t make it to the market until mid-September.  The early Haralsons that Jim’s was selling were small and green but I couldn’t pass them up.  We grabbed a 1/2 peck of the early Haralsons, an apple pie, a salted peanut roll, and a caramel apple for Pretty Boy’s mom.  The apple pie was still warm out of the oven but strangely already wrapped tightly in plastic wrap.  I tore off that plastic wrap as soon as I paid, and we were on our way back home.
Both pies had crust bearing the hallmark signs of mass production, but I held off judgement until tasting.  We tasted the Emma Krumbee’s pie first.  Everything about it was pretty nondescript.  Filling didn’t have much flavor or texture to speak of, certainly nothing negative, but nothing really positive either.  Same with the crust: it wasn’t quite crispy or flake-y or soggy or tough or flavorful or anything, it just was there.
The pie from Jim’s Apple Farm proved rather more interesting.  Despite being warm, the filling was not running but still never got gooey even after cooling completely.  The crust also stuck to the bottom of the pan in a manner I have never encountered in all of my pie baking and eating years, including the really early, failure-wrought years.  The flavor of the filling was pretty good.  Dr. Sam thought the apples were undercooked (which I didn’t really agree with), and Pretty Boy liked it.  I thought the filling had a really weird lingering finishing taste on the back of my tongue that I just couldn’t get over.  Almost like an acrid taste.  The crust had decent flavor but had a biscuit-like crumbly texture.  Both pies were what I’ve come to expect from commercial pie establishments: palatable but not quite remarkable or special.  We ate a few pieces out of each pie and gave the rest away.
A quick note on the apples: the early Haralsons were too sour for pie.  Usually Haralsons are wonderfully tart but these ones might have been too early and too sour to make good pie apples.  The Redfrees had a tasty sweet caramel-ly flavor in pie which I like but the sweetness almost overshadowed any apple flavor.  They did not hold their texture well and cooked to mush quickly.  The Zestars made a solid apple pie with good texture but lacking the “extra punch” I get from a tarter apple like a Haralson.  My choice for the best early apple pie: a combination of half Redfree and half Zestar.
A week and a half later, Pretty Boy was racing in a Friday night county fair motocross race on the border of Illinois and Wisconsin, and it gave me the opportunity to really round out the Late Summer Pie Tour.  We left early Friday morning to accommodate a number of pie stops before Pretty Boy would be racing that evening.  Our first stop was Norske Nook in Osseo, WI.  As tempted as I was to sit down for breakfast, we still had a lot of miles to cover and a lot of pie to eat, so I opted for three slices of pie to-go: rhubarb, apple, and peach praline.  We tasted the rhubarb first.  The filling was super sour but not in a good way.  The rhubarb pieces were cooked tender and still held their shape (a plus!) but they were covered in an opaque, almost gritty filling that seemed undercooked (definitely not a plus!).  The undercooked filling took on all the sourness of the rhubarb but none of the tart, fruity flavor I love in rhubarb.  The crust was on the mushy side but had okay (and detectable) pastry flavor.
The apple pie was much better.  The filling was nice but not much more remarkable beyond that.  The crust was very soft and tender with the same okay pastry flavor as the rhubarb but not crispy enough for my taste.  But we at least finished the whole slice of apple.  We did not finish the other two.
I was excited about the peach praline even though I hear peach pie is one of those things that just shouldn’t be messed with.  It was the biggest let down of the three offerings from Norske Nook.  The whole thing was a mushy mess.  What should have been a crunchy crumble topping was mushy.  The crust was mushy.  The peaches in the filling didn’t go with the pecan crumble topping flavor at all.  It was sad.  And made me glad I didn’t decide to stay for breakfast, although I bet their breakfast would have been much better than the pies.  So the apple was decent, but given the other two disappointing offers, I wouldn’t make a special trip back.  The Norske Nook has fared well in the American Pie Council competitions, and after tasting their pies, I definitely think I should venture down and enter mine sometime.

Further down I-94 in Wisconsin Dells is the Cheese Factory Restaurant.  It came up in my online Wisconsin-pie research and was conveniently located so it made the tour.  The bakery dessert menu on their website listed “Pie of the Day” next to a picture of a lattice covered fruit pie, but unfortunately, on the day we went, the pie of the day was Dutch apple pie which is a whole different species of baked apple dessert than a traditional apple pie.  We got a slice anyway as well as a slice of cheesecake (it’s called the Cheese Factory Restaurant after all).  And here’s what we thought of the not-quite-pie portion of the tour: delicious!  Though I think its unfair to comment on these super different dessert species in the same place, they had cheesecake and Dutch apple pie so that’s what we tried.  The “pie” had really good filling, the apples were in chunks, not slices, cooked soft but still with a little crunch in the center.  They were well spiced and sweetened.  There was a tasty crumble topping and a tasty bottom crust which was like a nice biscuit cookie.

The cheesecake was excellent.  Its so rare that I go for cheesecake so every time I get a good one, it really knocks me off my feet.  The cheesecake was creamy with just the right amount of fluff: it wasn’t super whipped or super dense but just right.  It also had a lovely and pronounced cheese-y tangy flavor so that the cherry topping that came on the side wasn’t even necessary (we still tasted it; it wasn’t bad).  The crust was a crumb crust, made with something similar to graham which had a great complimenting flavor.  My only critique was the crust could have been crunchier because the textures of the crust and cheesecake melded together and weren’t distinct enough for me.  Aside from the desserts, the restaurant was super cute and I really wanted to stay and eat.  It was quaint without being country (think the opposite of Emma Krumbies), with a menu that could cater to the small children of Midwest families but also to Midwestern urbanites with more sophisticated palates but without seeming pretentious.  Quite the feat!  And they serve Lattes.

The next two pie stops were both in Madison: Monty’s Blue Plate Diner and Nick’s Restaurant and Bar.  I wasn’t so sure about Monty’s because all I had to go on was an un-credentialed internet recommendation, but I’m so glad we went!  In a cute neighborhood between the two lakes right in the middle of Madison, it has so much charm and character.  Much like the Cheese Factory Restaurant and maybe even more so, it comfortably straddled quaint, traditional diner feel and hip, urban trendiness with vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options and local ingredients.  Pretty Boy was ready for a real meal and I was in need of a snack, so we ogled the pie case on the way to a pair of seats at the blue counter and ordered a sesame chicken salad, a side of french fries, and a house made biscuit sitting fresh baked on a tray across the counter from us.  Pretty Boy loved his salad: all the veggies and dressing were good, he liked the crunchy wonton strips and said the chicken was super tender, juicy, and flavorful.  The fries were pretty standard, unseasoned, but freshly fried and a solid offering.  And the biscuit!  The biscuit was like soft, fluffy heaven which we covered in butter to make soft, fluffy, buttery heaven.  Tender but not overly crumbly.  Biscuits, like cheesecake, are another thing I rarely eat, so when they’re good, man, do they make me happy.  After the food, I wanted to try all the pies but we limited ourselves to a slice of apple and a slice of blueberry.  I wasn’t sold on the blueberry, but it was the only double crust fruit pie in the case so it made the cut.

Monty’s apple pie was the best of the day!  I was skeptical of the topping because it just looked like tan-colored, granulated sugar, but it ended up having a really nice contrasting texture and sweetness that finally gave me some of the crunch I’d been looking for without being granulated-sugar crunchy.  The filling was well done with good texture and flavor.  The crust on the other hand did not have pronounced texture or flavor but it carried the pie acceptably.

And the blueberry: the filling left a strange dry feeling after each bite that was rather unpleasant, and while the top crust was dense, it held its own next to the filling and was the only crust of the day to really have a nice saltiness to it.  The look and mouthfeel of both the top and bottom crust of the blueberry slice were strangely smooth though not necessarily completely unpleasant.  After we tried them, I read that the pies were vegan which might explain some of the crust strangeness going on, but still, I’d definitely go back for the food and probably order pie.

On a main pedestrian drag of Madison near campus is Nick’s Restaurant and Bar.  It was another less-credentialed internet find (initially from a brief Heavy Table mention) but it made the tour.  We got to the restaurant midday, after the lunch rush but long before dinner so the place was empty and definitely did not seem like an establishment accustomed to people coming in just for a slice of pie to-go.  But the friendly waitress hooked us up with a slice of apple pie (the only pie they had) and she said it was “still made by their mom,” but who “they” are, I’m not sure.  The filling was strangely spiced, strong nutmeg and Christmas-y taste.  The crust was tough and dense and glazed shiny and slick.  It was a few notches better than what I’d expect at a “dive bar with soul,” but nothing I’d order again.

After that, poor Pretty Boy was pie-ed out (a condition I’ve gratefully never suffered from), and it was time to think about racing.  At the fair, I was initially pretty reserved towards the track and organizer (it was my first fair race), but once the racing started, I definitely warmed up to the organizer at least.  It was a night of super fast and thankfully clean racing in Pretty Boy’s classes, and he had fun and raced well.

He and I made it though so much pie on this tour and found some cool places along the way.  We are at points in our lives that we are super appreciative of any “quality time” together that we can squeeze out of our crazy schedules so even if it wasn’t the best sampling of pie, Pretty Boy and I thoroughly enjoyed our Late Summer Pie Tour.

3 responses to “Late Summer Pie Tour

  1. Pingback: Fika, Apples, and Morning Roundup « The Heavy Table – Minneapolis-St. Paul and Upper Midwest Food Magazine and Blog

  2. Finally! Someone who found out like we did that Jim’s Apple Farm buys pies from Sara Lee. They are not home made. A pie wrapped in plastic! Gross!

  3. Pingback: Late Winter Pie (and other treats) Tour | Pretty Pies by Lindsey

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