Sunday, January 1, 2006

The Fairest of the Fairs

You love to bake. Friends and family applaud the yummy creations that come out of your oven. But have you ever wondered how you compare to the best home bakers in your state?

There’s only one way to find out: enter a baking contest at your state fair. Each summer, all over the country, home bakers just like you take their cookies, pies, candies, and cakes to the state fair judges. Some come home with ribbons and prizes—even cash! And it’s surprisingly easy to join the fun.

C&H Sugar sponsors contests at state fairs from Arizona to Alaska, from Minnesota to California. We talked with some of our 2005 state-fair winners, ages 8 to 90, to learn what it takes to compete and win. For inspiration, they’ve shared their recipes, too.

Getting a Fair Start

Do you have what it takes to compete? Of course you do! “A few of our contestants aspire to becoming professional pastry chefs,” says Mary Martin, director of entries for the Arizona State Fair. “But most just really enjoy cooking and being in the kitchen.” There’s virtually no age limit: kids as young as 3 can compete (with an adult as supervisor or partner), and many people keep competing well into their 70s and beyond.

What turns a contestant into a winner? “I look through tons of cookbooks all year long,” says Robin Griner of Phoenix, who took first place in C&H Sugar’s “Arizona Candy Shoppe” contest with her Chocolate Golf Balls recipe. Dottie Milner of Springfield, Illinois—a winner with Oatmeal Apple Toffee Drops—consults her basement library of 850 volumes. (Dottie says she’s started using the Web for research, too.)

Dottie offers a few additional tips: “Be organized, and allow more time than you think you’ll need—enough time to re-do your recipe if necessary. Use good equipment, and understand how to use it. For example, with my convection oven I have to lower the temperature by 25 degrees and shorten the baking time slightly.” And, she adds, use quality ingredients—like real vanilla, real butter, and C&H Pure Cane Sugar.

Finally, be sure to plan ahead. Depending on the dates of your state’s fair, entry forms may be available as early as April. Check online, with your local 4H club, or with community groups or cooking clubs. Make careful note of the deadlines and circle them on your calendar.

Ready, Set, Bake!

Here are more tips from C&H Sugar contest winners.

Find a theme and stick to it. Many contestants like to create interesting variations on a single theme, year after year. For Dr. Aimee Hachigian-Gould, an orthopedist, cattle rancher, and mother of twin teenage sons in Ulm, Montana, the theme is three-layer fudge. “I just love that triple layer—it always looks really pretty, and I try a different combination each time,” she says. In 2005, she combined bananas, dried fruit, nuts, coconut, and chocolate into a sensational Banana Split Fudge. Betty Krehbiel of Hutchinson, Kansas, sticks to pies, but “I always tweak the recipe just a little bit.” A fair contestant since 1964—with a few years off when her children were small—Betty wowed the judges in 2005 with her Peachy Peach Pie, to which she added a smidgen of nutmeg to enhance the flavor. And she baked it on a baking stone placed on an oven rack, which she says helped the bottom crust to brown perfectly—something judges pay attention to.

Make it a family affair. Many fair contests encourage parents (or grandparents) and children to team up—a great way to split the labor and share the fun. Brenda Brekke of Federal Way, Washington, and her granddaughter Lauren, 14, have won three first prizes at the Western Washington Fair, including one for their cookie-cutter classic, Rolled Sugar Cookies. They’ve been baking together since Lauren was 3; Brenda researches the recipes and Lauren “is the artistic one—she loves to decorate with marzipan.”

Baking's also a family affair for Des Moines, Iowa, residents Alex Hilmes, 8, and mom Amy, who says Alex “is a pretty creative kid with a competitive streak.” Alex suggested adding peanut butter to their winning recipe for Chocolate Chip Crunchewy Cookies—and he came up with the name, too.

It’s a brother-sister act for 12-year-old Hugh and 9-year-old CeCe Pratt, who perfected their competition skills through their 4H club in Boise. Hugh won first prize at the Western Idaho Fair “Your Favorite Cookie” contest (judged by a panel of kids) with his One-Bowl Chocolate Chocolate Cookie, and CeCe took second prize with S’More Sandwich Cookies. Proud mom Roni Pratt says both kids “are really into math, and they love experimenting with recipes.”

Challenge yourself. Fifteen-year-old Amy Bohannan of American Canyon, California, aspires to be a professional pastry chef, so she loves “decorating and getting creative.” She crisscrossed her Berry Shortbread Dreams, which took first prize at the California State Fair, with a drizzle of glaze to give them a polished finish. For Suzanne Lund of Idaho Falls, “research and development” is a year-round affair. “I made these Can’t-Get-Enough Chocolate Almond Bars about 20 times…and eventually went back to the original version,” she says. Suzanne teamed with son Connor, 16, to enter and win the Eastern Idaho State Fair.

On the other hand… Not every winning recipe pushes the envelope. A perfect interpretation of an old favorite, like Willis Walker’s Vanishing Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, can be just as successful. Willis, who lives in Yakima, Washington, took second-prize honors at the Central Washington State Fair with a recipe he says he found on an oatmeal box. “I grew up on a farm in Kansas,” he says. “My brothers did the farm chores, and I ended up in the kitchen with my mother. So I’ve been cooking and baking all my life.” That’s a lot of kitchen time: a couple of months after the state fair, Willis turned 90.

Use a secret ingredient. Did you know that a bit of cayenne pepper can turn ordinary peanut brittle into something sensational? Gregory Ware does, which is why his Zesty Southwestern Peanut Brittle was a hit with the judges at the Arizona State Fair. “I’ve been making peanut brittle since I was 12—that’s 30 years!” says Greg, a wholesale herb grower in Waddell. “I made the recipe even more ‘southwestern’ by using a cookie cutter shaped like the state of Arizona and an old sucker mold shaped like an Indian headdress.”

Laura Lange of Lebanon, Oregon, works for a coffee roaster…but she’s a tea drinker. “So I looked for a way to give sugar cookies a tea flavor,” she says. Her secret ingredient: instant chai powder, a spicy Indian tea blend. She also added a bit of cream of tartar, a stabilizer and binding agent: “That’s a trick I learned from my husband’s grandmother, who told me every good sugar cookie is made with cream of tartar.” The judges at the Oregon State Fair were impressed enough to award her first prize for her Spicy Chai Cookies.

One “secret ingredient” is really no secret to anyone who appreciates good baking: C&H Pure Cane Baker’s Sugar. Many contest winners say this fine-grained sugar makes an important difference in their creations. “The texture is better, the crumb is finer, and the mouthfeel is so good,” says Laura Lange. Fudge maker Aimee Hachigian-Gould agrees: “The smaller crystals mean my fudge doesn’t turn grainy,” she says.

Don’t quit! Deanna Cowan of Pueblo, Colorado, entered her first Colorado State Fair baking contest when she was 15. She didn’t place. The next year she took second prize. And last year, at 17, she won top honors with Deanna’s M&M® Cookies, a sweet and colorful creation aimed at pleasing kids—who made up the judging panel. The moral: keep trying. Suzanne Lund of Boise, who started entering cooking contests about 14 years ago, agrees wholeheartedly. “If you don’t win, don’t get discouraged,” she says. “Just focus on having fun and on learning something you can use next year!”

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