Interview: National Pie Champion and Orlando Chef, Dawn Viola

I’m thrilled to be able to write up a quick profile and interview of Dawn Viola, a first place winner at the 2009 Crisco National Pie Championships and a past volunteer sous chef at Disney World’s Food and Wine Festival Party for the Senses!

Dawn's 1st Place Apple Pie

Dawn's 1st Place Apple Pie

A nationally recognized artist, competitive cook, and food writer from Central Florida, Dawn has worked in the design and marketing industry as a creative director and copywriter for 18 years. In addition to food writing and recipe development, Dawn is a marketing manager with The Walt Disney Company, where she produces mini documentaries on how Disney runs its business.

Dawn’s work has been featured in Bride’s Magazine, The Knot, Weddingbells, The Wall Street Journal, and the Orlando Sentinel. She has also been featured on Orlando’s Mix 105.1 Scott and Erica Show and Martha Stewart Radio.

Pies and Parties
As a competitive cook, Dawn was recently awarded first place in the 2009 Crisco National Pie Championships, Apple category – Professional Division, for her Vanilla-Vanilla Bean Roasted Apple Pie recipe. The competition aired in early September on Food Network as part of the Food Network Challenge series. To read more of Dawn’s thoughts and ideas, check out her blog, Wicked Good Dinner.

DisneyFoodBlog: How many versions of the Apple pie recipe did you try before landing on the winning version?
Dawn Viola: The pie crust was the first part of the recipe I developed, and the most challenging part of the development. About two years ago I discovered I had a food allergy to soy that prevented me from using vegetable shortening. This lead me on the path of creating an all-butter pie dough. Test after test, I failed to duplicate the flaky texture I was able to achieve with shortening, until I started incorporating an acid into the dough mixture. I think I made a pie about once a month for two years until I was happy with the texture of the dough. All of my hard work paid off at the Pie Championships!

DFB: What are the ingredients/techniques that made yours different from the other entrants’ recipes?
DV: I make my own butter from local cream. European style butter is listed in the recipe, which is the closest texture to making it yourself. My dough is slightly sweeter than most – somewhere between a pate brisee and pate sucre dough. I add vanilla bean and vanilla powder to the dough, and vanilla bean to the apples. I broil the apples with a little bit of sugar, which adds another dimension of flavor to the filling. The dough also contains an acid in the form of apple cider vinegar. Any acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice, or even vodka, will help to shorten the gluten strands during the mixing process and contribute to the flaky texture.

The other secret to flaky dough is the mixing process when cutting in the butter. It’s imperative that the ingredients stay cold to keep the butter cold and solid. The cold butter should be in chunks varying in size from a nickel to a dime.

DFB: Have you entered the contest before? What prompted you to enter this year?
DV:This was my first year entering, but I had been preparing for an entire year. I didn’t feel my dough was ready in 2008, so I continued to test and entered the recipe in 2009.

DFB: Was it difficult to prepare and bake the pie with all of the cameras and commotion, or was the set relatively quiet during baking?
DV: It wasn’t difficult to cook with the cameras there – the crew stayed on the other side of our work tables so we had a bit of breathing room. The challenging part was trying to smile, cook and talk at the same time, explainig what you were cooking to the cameras. It’s not as easy as it looks. Everyone was completely focused, so there wasn’t much noise or talking going on unless we were talking to the camera.

DFB: Would you recommend this competition to other amateur and professional bakers? Why?
DV: If you love to bake, this competition is highly recommended. It’s well organized and so much fun. There is a friendly competition among entrants, which keeps everyone on their toes, but there is also a lot of camaraderie and support. Many of us have become good friends and keep in touch through Facebook and email.

DFB: How early in advance do you suggest working on a recipe for the competition?
DV: It’s never too early to start testing recipes, but it should always be fun, and never a chore. And you’ll be surprised at how many “taste testers” step forward when they hear you’re testing pie recipes!

DFB: What lessons were you able to take away from the competition?
DV: It’s impossible to guess what the judges will enjoy and mark with high accolades. I talked with a lot of bakers who were extremely disappointed because they created recipes specifically for the competition, with the intent to win. Bake for the joy of baking, bake for yourself, not just for the judges, and you’ll never be disappointed.

DFB: Now on to Disney food! When have you had the opportunity to volunteer at the Party for the Senses and other Disney events?
DV: As a Disney Cast Member, I have volunteered with the catering and events team during the Epcot Food and Wine Festival for the past two years.

DFB: What was the experience like?
DV: Volunteering has been a wonderful experience, and an exciting opportunity to meet Disney’s world-renowned chefs and connect with visiting top chefs from around the world. Last year I had the privilege of meeting Daniel Boulud, Patrick O’Connell, and Paul Bocuse during the Bocuse d’Or competition — an experience I’ll never forget.

American Pie CouncilFinally…The Recipe
Many thanks to Dawn Viola for sharing some of her insights into her volunteer work and competitive baking experience! If you’d like to compete in next year’s National Pie Championship (which takes place April 23-25, 2010, in Orlando, FL!), check out this information on the American Pie Council website. And if you’d like to try your hand at Dawn’s award-winning Vanilla – Vanilla Bean Roasted Apple Pie, here’s the recipe!:

Dawn Viola's Apple Pie, Step by Step Photos

Dawn Viola's Apple Pie, Step by Step Photos

For the crust:
2 1/2 cups Organic all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting/rolling
2 teaspoons Salt
1 tablespoon Vanilla powder
3 tablespoons Organic sugar
1 Vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped
2 1/2 sticks unsalted Danish butter, cut into 1/2″ cubes
1 tablespoon White vinegar, chilled
6 – 8 tablespoons Ice water

For the filling:
4 tablespoons Danish butter
12 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, sliced in large chunks
1 Vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped
2 teaspoons Ground cinnamon
1 cup Organic sugar
4 tablespoons Organic all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon Salt
1/2 cup Apple cider
1 tablespoon heavy cream

For the egg wash:
1 egg
1 tablespoon of cream
Coarse sugar

Measure out all ingredients and place in the freezer for 15 minutes. Place the food processor blade and bowl in the freezer for 15 minutes.

Make the dough:
Place the food processor bowl back on the motor with the blade, as directed by the manufacturer. Combine flour, salt, vanilla powder, sugar and vanilla bean seeds in the food processor; pulse to mix. Add butter cubes and pulse 10 times, or until the mixture begins to resemble coarse meal with pea-sized pieces.

Add the vinegar and pulse to mix. Add one tablespoon of water at a time, pulsing to incorporate, until the mixture begins to clump together. Pinch some of the dough in your hand. If it sticks together, the dough is ready. If the dough does not stick to itself, add another tablespoon of water, pulse, and pinch the dough together again. Repeat until the dough holds together without being overly wet. Dough should be slightly crumbly, but hold together when pinched.

Remove dough from the food processor and transfer to a work surface. Divide the dough into two equal parts and gently shape into two flat round discs. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Prepare the apples:
Preheat the broiler. Add apples, vanilla bean seeds, cinnamon and 2 tablespoons of the sugar to a roasting pan; toss apples to coat. Broil until the tops of the apples begin to brown. Apples can burn easily under the broiler, so don’t walk too far away. Toss apples as soon as you notice browning. Once apples are caramelized (but not cooked through), remove from heat and add the remaining sugar, the flour, vanilla extract and salt.
Add the apple cider and cream, stir to incorporate. Taste for seasoning – add additional salt, sugar, vanilla or cinnamon to taste.

Finish the pie:
Place a 9” pie plate into the freezer. Remove one dough disc from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for 5 – 10 minutes, or just long enough for it to become easy to roll, but still chilled. Lightly flour your work surface and roll out to a 12” circle. Place in the bottom of the chilled 9” pie plate. Return to the refrigerator to chill. Remove after 5 minutes and add apples.

Remove second dough disc and roll out to a 12” circle on a lightly floured surface. Place on top of the apples and pinch the top and bottom dough edges together to enclose the apples. Add decorative edge if desired, and slice 1” air vents around the top of the pie.

Make the egg wash:
Beat the egg in a small dish and mix in cream. Lightly brush the egg wash over the top of the pie and along the edges. Sprinkle with coarse sugar.

Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. Cover edges with aluminum foil if browning too quickly. Turn the pie in the oven, and continue to cook for another 15 minutes. Continue to cook for 7 minutes, as needed, until the crust is golden brown and flakey.

Remove from oven and allow to cool for at least two hours before cutting and serving


  1. says

    Thanks so much for this pie recipe. I always like to try new apple pies, though I think I already have the best recipe.

  2. says

    Chris: Swooning is welcome!

    Shayne: No kidding. Looks great, doesn’t it?

    Judy: Let us know how it turns out!

  3. Donna D says

    Would ghee work for the butter? European butter (or even Danish) does not seem to be available around here, but I can easily get Ghee right here in my neighbornood.

  4. Deanna M says

    I’ve made this pie twice. It is truly delicious. However, both times I ended up with way to much liquid in the body of the pie. I’m wondering if I should reduce the cider or add some thickener such as cornstarch or arrowroot starch? Any thoughts are appreciated.

  5. Rochelle R says

    Maybe tapioca flour? I’ve used it in other recipes and it works great. : ) Can’t wait to try this one.

  6. Nick says

    I just made this pie and I can verify that it’s the best recipe I’ve ever made. I didn’t add the cider and used golden delicious apples and it still came out perfect. The crust is amazing. I used apple cider vinegar like she mentioned in the interview, not white vinegar as listed in the ingredients.


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