by Jay Kitterman, LLCC Culinary Institute consultant
Friends laugh when I talk about serving as a pie judge for the Illinois State Fair, but judging is really a lot harder than one would expect. My first judging assignment at the Fair was Turkey Spam and for the past number of years I have enjoyed pies. One year I judged over 35 entries and was on a sugar high for a week. The best pie ever was a Blueberry/Gooseberry and the most challenging was an Elvis pie. The ingredients included chocolate, marshmallow, peanut butter, and the crust had pieces of bacon. It definitely scored high on creativity. My mother was a great pie baker and famous for traditional apple and cherry and once in a while made my dad’s favorite-Strawberry Rhubarb.
State Fairs date back to the early 1800’s with the goal of creating a venue for farmers to come together and share information. Fairs soon became a social outlet for people living in isolated rural areas. Early culinary divisions focused on the practical aspects of home farm life and featured preserving food and making butter and cheese. Fueled by the popular cooking competitions on the various television cooking programs, there is a growing number of people entering competitions.
Located just east of Lincoln Stage on Central Avenue, the Hobbies, Arts & Crafts Building is where the culinary competitions take place. Ms. Billye Griswold has served as Superintendent extraordinaire for more than 25 years and oversees all the culinary competitions. There are daily cooking demonstrations, and it is a great venue to cool off (the building is air-conditioned) after visiting the butter cow or enjoying ice cream in the Dairy Building across the street. On display are all the culinary winners, vegetables and flowers, textiles, varieties of breads, cakes, pies, jellies, jams, canned vegetables and candies, plus hobby and craft items.
A couple of weeks ago I met with fellow judges Leslie and Greg Sgro, and with their assistance have developed Jay’s top ten tips for entering a Culinary Competition.
- The Illinois State Fair General Premium Book has all the rules and lists the competitions. Many of the competitions are sponsored by food-related companies, and you must use their products and often provide part of the packaging along with your entry. Visiting the Hobby Building and seeing what wins will help you as you plan for future competitions.
- Register early and read the rules. Each competition has its own detailed instructions and you must follow them. There is room for creativity but if you do not follow the rules, your entry will be disqualified or marked down.
- Choose your category carefully. There are many options available ranging from traditional to more modern, and select one you are comfortable in preparing. Often a simple recipe that is attractive and has great flavor will have a better chance of winning than one that is too complex. Your goal is to prepare an item that the judge wants to eat and enjoy.
- Write a proper entry and recipe. Judges prefer entries that are easy to read, list the required ingredients. Also, check spellings, and don’t rely on your computer’s “spell check.”
- Season properly. If it is a fruit pie, make sure that the dominant flavor profile is that fruit and not a spice.
- Organize and do your homework. Test your ovens and thermometers for proper baking temperatures. Use fresh and best quality ingredients.
- “Mise en place” is a concept we teach our culinary students. It is a French phrase which means “putting in place,” as in set up. It is used in professional kitchens to refer to organizing and arranging the ingredients (e.g., relishes, sauces, pre-cooked items, spices, freshly chopped vegetables) and is just as important in your home kitchen.
- Transport with care. Avoid worrying about the “jiggling cake” and develop a perfect arrival plan for your entry. If your entry wins a ribbon it will often be held for display through the rest of the fair and then thrown out for food safety issues. Often non-winning items need to be picked up immediately after the judging session and thus bring some Tupperware to bring it home.
- Learn from the judges. Often the judges will write comments on your entry form. Judging is anonymous and remember, they eat with their eyes. Use their suggestions for next year’s entry. Judges often just take one bite of an entry, especially if there are a large number of entries. Ensure that your entry is easy to serve and that each bite is a winner.
- Most importantly, have fun. Culinary competitions are all about celebrating the pleasures of home cooking. Enjoy!
Cindy Cole from Glenarm has been competing for over 20 years. She has entered two Grand Champions (Black & Blue Mango Pie in 2007 and Pumpkin Cake in 2015) and emphasizes the importance of “presentation.” Some of the culinary contests require a display, and it is important to devote time to creating a display that will compliment your entry. One secret she provided is that her spices come from Penzeys Spices. She is known for her unusual and creative entries and believes it helps her stand out with the judges. Below is her Grand Champion 2007 entry.
Black and Blue Mango Pie
2 large or 3 medium mangoes
2 cups (1 pint) fresh blueberries
1 1/2 cups (6 ounce basket) fresh blackberries
2/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Remove the cheeks from the mangoes. Score the flesh for 3/4 inch squares and remove from the skin. Trim the flesh from the pit area and dice.
Wash and thoroughly dry the blueberries and blackberries. Cut the larger blackberries in half.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Position the oven rack in the lower third of the oven. Butter a 9 inch oven proof glass pie plate.
Roll half the pastry into a 13 inch circle. Line the pie plate with the pastry. Trim the edge, leaving a 1/2 inch overhang.
Place the diced mangoes and berries in a large bowl. Combine 2/3 cup sugar and the cornstarch in a small bowl. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons of the mixture on the bottom of the pastry shell. Add the remaining dry ingredients to the fruit and shake the bowl to distribute. Do not stir, you will crush the fruit.
Empty the mixture into the pie plate, mounding the fruit in the center. Sprinkle with lemon juice and dot with butter.
On lightly floured surface, roll out the remaining piece of pastry to a 12 inch round. Lightly moisten the edge of the bottom crust all around with cold water. Place the top pastry over the filling and press the two crusts together all around. Tightly roll the overhanging pastry under all around to make a raised edge. Flute decoratively with your fingertips or crimp with a fork. Cut three or four steam vents in the center with the tip of a paring knife. Sprinkle the crust with one teaspoon sugar.
Bake the pie for 55 minutes or until golden brown and the juices begin to bubble. Remove the pie from the oven and let cool 4 hours before serving.
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
11 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 1/2 tablespoons cold solid vegetable shortening
7 tablespoons cold water
In mixing bowl stir together flour, sugar, and salt. Cut in shortening and butter until pieces are the size of small peas.
Add the water one tablespoon at a time, tossing with a fork until all is moistened. Divide dough in half. Form each half into a ball, cover and chill for at least 30 minutes to an hour before rolling out.
Former UIS Auditorium Director, world traveler and LLCC Culinary Institute Tapas Instructor John Dale Kennedy has also entered the Fair for a number of years and is famous for his Spam entries. This one was a Blue Ribbon winner and scored high on presentation and creativity.
One 12 ounce can Classic SPAM
3/4 cup sour cream
3/4 cup mayonnaise
12 Ritz crackers
2 large Roma tomatoes
1 large Romaine lettuce leaf
6 3 to 4 ounce straight sided shot glasses
6 small tea spoons
Dice SPAM into small pieces, about 1/8th inch and brown in skillet. Drain and set aside to cool. Mix sour cream and mayonnaise, set aside. Core tomatoes removing soft insides and discard. Dice only the meaty outer portion into ¼ inch pieces; set aside. Hand crumble crackers; set aside. Chop lettuce into small shreds; set aside. Combine sour cream/mayonnaise mixture and SPAM.
Assembling shooters: Using a pastry bag, plastic baggie with a ¼-inch hole in one end or a frosting bag, squirt about 1 ½ tablespoon of SPAM mixture in the bottom of each shot glass. Next place a tablespoon of diced tomato on top. Follow with a tablespoon of lettuce; lightly press down. Drop in a tablespoon of crumbled crackers followed by another 1 ½ tablespoon squirt of the SPAM mixture. Finish with about a teaspoon of tomato on top. Serve with a small spoon to dig out ingredients. Serves six to eight.
John says that SPAM, lettuce and tomatoes in a shooter glass create an elegant alternative appetizer that will stand out amongst the other pedestrian offerings on the hors d’oeuvres table. It’s quick to eat, no messy hands and is a conversation starter before the main course arrives.
His guests love the combined crunch of the sautéed SPAM, lettuce and crackers against the smooth cool creaminess of the sour cream and mayonnaise. This reincarnation of the traditional BLT Sandwich as a metro-modern appetizer puts SPAM in the fast lane for fast tastes.
I look forward to seeing your entry at the State Fair!