NAPPANEE — There are no tricks to baking a gigantic, 7-foot apple pie. There are no shortcuts or secrets that make the process easy.
Creating the highlight of the Nappanee Apple Festival simply takes a huge pan, an equally huge oven, several hundred pounds of ingredients and plenty of volunteers.
Those volunteers are led by Miriam Hartman, now in her seventh year as head baker.
“I was at the festival one year and one of my friends, Gale Gerber, who was on the committee at that time, came up to me and said, ‘Would you be interested in taking care of the pie,’ because they really didn’t have anyone set to do it,” Hartman explained. “So I said, ‘I’ll think about it.’
“Well the next year all of the sudden I was asked to come to the meetings and that was it.”
According to Hartman, Ron Telschow, the owner of Ron’s Bakery, dreamed up the idea of a giant apple pie for the first Nappanee Apple Festival in 1976. He commissioned a 7-foot diameter pan and an equally large oven, both of which are still used to make the pie today.
The bakery closed in 2002 and currently houses El Cielito Lindo, but the oven remains in place.
“Every time it changes hands or somebody buys the restaurant it’s with the knowledge that we invade the restaurant on the third weekend of September,” Hartman said with a laugh, noting that the current owners enjoy the increased business they see during the festival weekend in addition to being in the middle of the baking action.
And make no mistake, there is plenty to see. Between the cast iron pan, 100 pounds of crust and 16 bushels-worth of apple pie filling, the pie easily weighs 600 pounds. It takes nearly a dozen city workers to take down the partitions that separate the seating area from the kitchen, lift the full pan and gently place it in the oven Thursday afternoon.
If the bakers notice the pie is lopsided inside the oven, they can use a special crank to level the pan before the filling bubbles over. The pie stays in the oven until Friday morning, when the city workers return to complete the process in reverse.
“(Friday) morning at 7:30 it’s a beautiful pie,” Hartman said. “It always looks gorgeous.”
Aside from the logistics of moving such a large pastry, the sheer size of the pie also complicates the baking process.
“The biggest challenge that my girls have today is making sure that the crust is the right thickness,” Hartman said. “Obviously if it’s too thin it’ll burn when it’s in the oven, if it’s too thick it won’t cook right. So that’s the biggest problem for them.”
The process of assembling the pie takes an entire morning as it is, so the pie baking committee relies on Goshen’s Baker’s Nook for the crust and Plain and Fancy Gourmet Kettle for the filling.
“The people who are making the filling now have really improved the pie,” Hartman said. “Last year we noticed a big improvement in the taste, and the consistency is just phenomenal.”
The pie usually makes 900 to 1,000 pieces, which usually sell out by Saturday afternoon.
“Every year when we run out of pie on Saturday afternoon, they say, ‘Oh, maybe we should do two pies,’ and I say, ‘Not in my lifetime, we’re not going to do it,’” Hartman said, noting that they don’t have a second 7-foot pan to bake another pie in.
But Hartman said she is open to other changes. Since she’s been working on the committee, they’ve narrowed the lattice and place apple-shaped cutouts over the lattice intersections so every slice has more golden crust, and she’s already taking assembly improvement ideas for next year.
“The pie just seems to go together better every year,” she said.