Tips from a winner
1When making your own crust, remember not to overhandle it, or it will become tough. And remember: Don’t labor to create a beautiful pie crust if the pie’s fillings are likely to overwhelm it; Janowski uses a store-bought crust to create his Tropical Fruit Custard Pie. His favorite brand is Pillsbury.
2Planning to enter your pie in competition? Janowski suggests making more filling than you would do at home to give your pie a fuller look.
“Appearance makes a huge difference. It’s got to look like a prize winner,” he said. And get creative with the verbiage, too: Don’t call it “chocolate filling” when you could call it “chocolate ganache.”
3Gelatin is a secret weapon for competition, too. On his Black Bottom Peanut Butter Mousse Pie, Janowski dissolves a small amount and adds it to the mousse to help the pie hold its body throughout judging.
4There are more good food ideas for all kinds of dishes on his blog: www.apolishkitchen.blogspot.com
Adam Janowski is a pie guy.
Truth be told, he’s also a cake and cookies guy. Still, it’s not his skills with those types of tasty treats that earned Janowski a pile of ribbons; it’s his proficiency with pies.
At this year’s Best Blue Ribbon Pie Contest, a Fourth of July competition sponsored by the Zonta Club of Bonita Springs, Janowski’s pies earned two honors. His decadent Black Bottom Peanut Butter Mousse Pie took the grand prize, while his Southern Style Double Lemon Chess Pie placed third in the meringue division.
Janowski also took the contest’s top honors in 2009. That year, he competed with a Double Chocolate Double Mint Pie.
Is there a secret to baking a blue-ribbon pie? Absolutely, and it’s one Janowski is willing to share.
“I know what judges want,” he said, laughing. “They want chocolate.”
There’s much more to it, of course. Janowski is a treasure trove of sweet surprises, tricks and tips he has discovered through years of epicurean pursuits. Almost his entire family likes to cook and bake, including his siblings. One of his sisters just took second place in a Michigan cooking contest, Janowski said proudly.
“I’ve always baked pies. I’ve always cooked,” he said. “It runs in our genes.”
Growing up in the Janowski family’s Detroit-area household, there was plenty of authentic Polish food to savor, too. Janowski has compiled many of the family’s recipes and stories and has recently begun posting them on a blog, www.apolishkitchen.blogspot.com
Janowski admits he doesn’t remember all his own recipes nearly as well — including his pastry creations. He browses websites to find potential pies — Epicurious, AllRecipes and Cooks are three sites he likes. When he can’t discover exactly what he wants, he does a bit of recipe research to find something that will work as a mix-and-match.
For example, in his award-winning Black Bottom Peanut Butter Mousse Pie, the recipe called for peanut butter chips. Janowski decided to replace the chips with smooth peanut butter and powdered sugar to yield what he believed would be a more natural taste. He also decided to bake the Oreo crust, something the original recipe didn’t call for, because he likes the flavor of a baked cookie crust.
He’s careful about too many substitutions, though. That’s another secret rule of blue-ribbon baking.
“You do have to have the ability to follow directions,” he said. “There’s a lot of chemistry at work in baking. I don’t experiment a lot in my recipes.”
In his Bonita Springs home, the kitchen is simple — no mega-mixers or pantry stocked full of expensive, exotic ingredients. He prefers to use a hand mixer, since he feels it gives him a better awareness of what’s happening with the ingredients as he works. Most of what he puts into his pies comes from the shelves of Publix — and often, he uses the store’s own brand, too.
Pie, he explains, is not pretentious.
“This is just pie,” he said.
Nor, for that matter, is Janowski. He professes to belong to the Paula Deen school of cooking — a school that favors comfort food over haute cuisine — and confesses that one of the only dishes to defeat him was a boned chicken recipe from the pages of Julia Child.
“I’m not a chef. I’m just a cook. I’m not a gourmand. I like good food, but I don’t like food that’s prettier than it tastes,” he said. “I want good food. I want honest food.”
Janowski was so frustrated with that Julia Child cookbook, he ultimately threw it out. But pies are different, another reason he likes to bake them.
“One of the things that I find, for me, about baking is it’s a stress reliever,” he said. “This gets me out of myself. I can’t bake a pie in anger.”
Another pie perk are the delicious rewards of his labor. His Black Bottom Peanut Butter Mousse Pie is a rich, chocolate confection topped with a light and fluffy peanut butter mousse and finished with real whipped cream, chocolate drizzles and honey roasted peanuts.
It’s lip-smacking, fork-filling fare, the sort of pie that destroys diets with only a passing glance. And it could easily take a spot of honor in the window of a pastry shop.
But Janowski, who is a librarian at Naples High School, promises he has no plans to go pro. Baking for competition is one thing; it’s fun, which is why he does it, he said. Pies-for-profit simply wouldn’t be the same, he explains.
“I would never want to do this for a living. I do this for pleasure. I do this to sooth myself,” Janowski said. “As a job, it would take all the fun out of it.”