As Minnesotan as Apple Pie: Excelsior’s Apple Day Baking Contest

Apple pie.
Every year, one of the highlights of the Apple Day festivities in Excelsior is the pie and dessert baking contest.

“I wouldn’t live in Minnesota,” wrote 19th-century celebrity newspaper editor Horace Greeley while visiting our state, “because you can’t grow apples here.” And, until 1861, that was a true statement. Minnesota was too cold for the varieties of apple being grown at the time. When he heard Greeley had disparaged Minnesota, Peter Gideon—a farmer who lived near Excelsior—set to work and developed a cold-tolerant apple he named Wealthy. The breeding of that apple was the inspiration for the University of Minnesota’s apple-breeding program, which has gone on to introduce the world to more than a dozen varieties, including the Honeycrisp.

Gideon would probably be proud to know his hometown has been gathering to celebrate apples for the past 81 years. Excelsior Apple Day is a street fair featuring music and vendors and dancing and all things apple-related. It marks the end of summer and brings the community outside for one last get-together by the lake before the days start to get too chilly for dancing in the streets.

One of the things that really puts the apple in Apple Day is the apple dessert baking contest. Sponsored by Brightwater Clothing & Gear owner Bill Damberg, the contest gives everyone a chance to be a contributing part of the celebration.

Damberg has sponsored the contest since 2013, when it was reintroduced to the Apple Day lineup after an absence of more than a few years. He’s active in Excelsior in a lot of ways, but being a sponsor of Apple Day is special to him. “It’s my way of giving back to a community that has done so much for me,” he says.

“I think the baking contest really amplifies the community aspect of the day,” Damberg says. “It offers everyone a chance to bake a dessert and have it judged with their neighbors’ in a friendly competition … I think people enjoy being engaged in that way.”

One frequent winner of the contest, Andrew Punch, agrees with Damberg about the friendly rivalry. “One of the reasons I enter every year is because I enjoy the trash talking that goes on between contests,” Punch says. “I have neighbors who enter every year, and we give each other a lot grief about who really has the best dessert.”

Punch and his wife Sarah are both foodies and experienced bakers. In fact, they met at Kansas State in bakery science club, and Sarah works for General Mills. Sarah has won two of the three years she entered, and she’s been hooked ever since her first entry. Her research for the right recipe goes on year-round. “I actually have a Pinterest board that I use all year to search and pin apple dessert recipes to,” Sarah says. “Then, a couple of weeks before the contest, I comb through them and decide on exactly what I think will win this year.”

Andrew has won first place seven times and says attention to detail is important in baking. “If something you bake doesn’t turn out right, it’s because you didn’t control your variables,” he says. “Baking is more science than art.” His award-winning praline crunch apple cake is requested at family gatherings, but Andrew and Sarah both say they don’t really bake much except for the contest and during the holidays. They both look for recipes that will catch the attention of the judges.

One of those judges is Marjorie Johnson. She’s a nationally known baker and the author of the popular cookbook The Road to Blue Ribbon Baking with Marjorie. Johnson has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and other national television and radio shows because of the amazing number of ribbons she’s won in state fair competition—over 1,000 blue ribbons and counting. She’s judged the Apple Day contest for several years, and uses the same system that’s used at the state fair: three criteria for baked goods, including taste and flavor, texture and moistness.

“First of all, it has to look beautiful,” Johnson says. “And when you taste it, it can’t be too sweet or too salty. The texture—the way it feels in your mouth—is also very important.”

Johnson enjoys being involved in Apple Day and, like contest sponsor Bill Damberg, she thinks entering something in the contest makes people feel like they are doing more than just showing up.

“It’s just like having something entered in the state fair,” she says. “It makes you feel like you’re really part of it if you enter the contest.”

Zoey Busch enjoys feeling part of Apple Day. Even though she’s only in third grade, Zoey has already won three blue ribbons—she might give Marjorie Johnson a run for her money. Zoey enters in the youth category, and she gets help from her mom only to manage the oven. Otherwise, she mixes and measures and stirs all on her own. Her mother, Sandy Dostal, is also a two-time blue ribbon winner. Zoey started helping her mom bake when she was only 2.

“She would slide a chair across the room, stand on it next to me and ask to pour in the ingredients and stir, when I was baking,” Sandy says. “I have been baking most of my life. I grew up on a farm. Both my parents farmed our land. Mom taught us to bake and cook early in our lives, so we could help provide meals, especially during harvest seasons.”

Now, Zoey bakes with her Grandma Busch, and she’s teaching her 2-year-old brother Quinton how to be a baker’s helper. The tradition of Excelsior’s Apple Day is moving on to a new generation of bakers. We think that’s pretty … sweet.

Apple Day 
September 22, 8 a.m.–10 p.m.
Water Street, downtown Excelsior

Zoey Busch’s First Place Apple Muffins
Try this blue-ribbon recipe from one of the contest’s youngest bakers.

2 cups spelt flour (Zoey uses Power Flour)
3/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1 cup sour cream
1 stick butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 large eggs
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
4 cups frozen apple chunks, thawed and drained
2 Tbsp. ground flax

Use center rack of oven, and heat to 350 degrees. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with larger size paper baking cups. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda and salt, and whisk to blend. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sour cream, melted butter, eggs and vanilla until smooth. Lightly stir the sour cream mixture into the dry ingredients with a spatula until the batter just comes together; don’t overmix. Gently stir in the apple chunks. The batter will be thick.

Divide batter among the muffin cups using the back of a spoon or a small spatula to settle the batter into the cups. The batter should mound a bit higher than the tops of the cups. Try to ensure at least one or two apple chunks in each muffin. Bake approximately 18 minutes. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.