Local bakers put their pies to the test

Twenty-three home cooks and chefs entered this year’s Cville Pie Fest competition. Photo by Rammelkamp Foto Twenty-three home cooks and chefs entered this year’s Cville Pie Fest competition. Photo by Rammelkamp Foto

“I love the way an empty pie crust shell looks like an opportunity,” says local food writer and amateur baker Jenée Libby. “Are you going to make a sweet pie? A savory one?”

Libby recently made a sweet pie—a sweet potato speculoos pie with a gingersnap crust, to be exact—to nab top honors at this year’s Cville Pie Fest, held on October 9 at Crozet Mudhouse. She was one of 23 home cooks and chefs who submitted two pies apiece—one to be judged on overall flavor, crust, presentation and originality/traditionality; the other to be eaten by less-discerning pie fanatics.

The Cville Pie Fest’s humble beginnings stem from a 2008 “pie down” between Brian Geiger and Marijean Oldham. Each baked two pies and presented them to a panel of three judges. “I get…a tiny bit competitive, so after I won that competition, I decided it would be best to avoid temptation and just judge from then on,” says Geiger, who helped found the official contest in 2009, and notes that getting to taste all of the pies is the best part of being a judge.

But the hardest part is tasting all those pies, he says. “If you’re not careful with portions, those last 10 or so pies can be very dangerous.” 

Libby’s pie, adapted from both Patti LaBelle’s Washington Post sweet potato pie recipe and Emily Hilliard’s Nothing in the House sweet potato speculoos pie, was “a well-balanced pie that tasted fantastic,” Geiger says. Turns out speculoos—spiced shortcrust biscuit—spread blends nicely with sweet potato. Kai and Quinn Fusco took home second place for their local wineberry with blackberries pie, and Priscilla Benjamin’s Banana Treat Pie was named the contest’s best gluten-free offering.

As for Libby, she’s already thinking about next year’s contest. She wants to enter the Lonely Chicago Pie from the movie Waitress (cinnamon, spices, sugar, melted chocolate and smashed berries), or maybe Mollie Cox Bryan’s Lovey-Dovey Red Velvet Pie. She also has an idea for an Arnold Palmer Pie, but hasn’t quite worked out the logistics yet. “That’s the thing with pie,” Libby says. “The only limit is your imagination.”


Sweet Potato Speculoos Pie

2016 Cville Pie Fest Winner

Start to finish: About 3 hours (1 ½ hours active)

Makes one 10-inch pie

Baker’s note: I used organic butter, local sweet potatoes, organic heavy cream, and pasture-raised eggs, and spices from The Spice Diva.


For crust:

2 cups gingersnap crumbs

5 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon sugar

Pinch of kosher salt


For filling:

3-5 large orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, scrubbed (enough for 3 full cups of purée)

Pinch of kosher salt

7 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs, beaten

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon ground Vietnamese cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2-3/4 cup of speculoos (cookie butter)




Set oven rack to the middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pour gingersnap crumbs in a bowl and add melted butter, sugar and salt, stirring until well mixed.

Pat the buttery crumbs into a 10-inch pie pan, pressing mixture into the bottom and sides to form a pie crust.

Place in the oven and bake until crust is lightly browned, about 10-12 minutes.

Place on a cooling rack and let cool to room temperature before adding filling.



Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat.

Add a generous pinch of salt, then add the sweet potatoes. Reduce heat to medium and cook until the sweet potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife, about 30 to 45 minutes.

Drain the sweet potatoes, letting them fall into a colander, then run the sweet potatoes under cold water until cool enough to handle. Discard the skins and transfer the cooked sweet potatoes to a mixing bowl.

Use a hand-held electric mixer to blend until creamy and smooth. You’ll need 3 cups for filling; if there’s any excess, scoop it out to reserve for another use. Add the 7 tablespoons of melted butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, eggs, heavy cream, and spices, and beat on medium speed until well incorporated. Pour the mixture into the crumb crust, smoothing the surface.

Warm the speculoos in a spouted measuring cup in the microwave for 20 seconds—no more! It should have the consistency of thick pancake batter, enough to pour easily, but not runny. If it’s too runny, stick the cup in the freezer for 3-5 minutes to firm it.

Now starting from the outside of the pie, pour the cookie butter in a spiral, working inward to the center. Probably two spirals total for a 10-inch pie. Then take a chopstick and drag it through the pie from the outside to the center like you’re making a marbleized cheesecake or brownies. Don’t be afraid, the surface of this pie should turn out rough like the soft rolling mountains we live in.

Bake in the middle rack until a knife inserted in the center of the filling comes out clean yet the filling still jiggles a bit, 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely, then cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Recipe provided by 2016 Cville Pie Fest winner Jenée Libby, who adapted it from Patti Labelle’s Sweet Potato Pie (Washington Post) and Emily Hilliard’s Sweet Potato Speculoos Pie (Nothing in the House blog).

Eat your viddles

Look up “viddles” in the Urban Dictionary and you’ll find this definition: “Southern slang for vegetables or any other food that gives vital nutrients.” It’s precisely what siblings Shannon and Rob Campbell are offering at Croby’s Urban Viddles, newly opened in the Southside Shopping Center, next to Food Lion. Chef Shannon and manager Rob say they always wanted to have a restaurant together, one inspired by a shared love of family dinners. Croby’s serves up rotisserie chicken and pork plus Southern-inspired entrées and sides with a healthy twist: Think baked then flash-fried chicken tenders and cauliflower mash in lieu of deep-fried chicken tenders and mashed potatoes. Everything is made in-house. Entrées cost around $10 each, and kids’ meals, served with a side and a cookie, are $5. Croby’s also offers set daily specials, such as guava barbecue baby back ribs on Wednesdays and chicken pot pie on Thursdays.

Contact Erin O’Hare at eatdrink@c-ville.com.

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