HOW I TURNED MY LOVE FOR BAKING INTO A COMPETITION

 

You wouldn’t know it from looking at me, I’m a long distance runner and lift weights consistently, but I love baking! I love baking so much that I love to win prizes for it.  And not cash prizes, but ribbons. Because I always share my entries, I’ll share my winning recipes too. But, first, let me tell you how my life as a competitive baker began.

It started very early on when my mom forced me to participate in the local 4-H club.  Your final project always had to be entered in the county 4-H fair.  Every summer our kitchen would turn into a makeshift bakery.  We had to practice muffins, plain and blueberry, Angel Food Cake, biscuits, cookies and of course, quick breads.

You never ate but a bit of each because you had to look at all the various factors that make’s a good baked product. Taste isn’t the only aspect that the judges take into consideration. They also look for a good texture, a consistent color and size. If one of these attributes weren’t up to par, you had to start from scratch. My father always said that’s what ruined his love for banana bread.

Eventually this ended when I headed to college, but I got the urge to compete when I had to work for the local news station at the Maryland State Fair. Instead of heading to the beach the last two weeks of August I spent the 11 “best days of summer” with the World’s Smallest Lady and Rafael the Flying pig. Why not compete?

Year 1: I assessed the competition by visiting the Home Arts building and took detailed notes about the baked goods I would enter.  I scoured my recipes, keeping in mind which recipes were popular amongst my family and friends.

Year 2: I put on my game face and went for it. My husband became the preliminary judge and was only allowed to eat the misshapen examples.  He helped look for good color, taste and texture. Most baking competitions require a set number or portion of your products per entry.  For cookies it’s always 6, but I always pick 2 or 3 extra in case something goes wrong in transport.  It’s good common sense.

There are some categories I won’t enter, I have my own rules, such as never enter pie. You have to sacrifice a whole pie! Since I try to use freshly picked fruit, I just don’t want to make that sacrifice.  You see, the judges only take 1 or 2 pieces then the rest is left for fairgoers to see, by the end of the fair you have to throw the remaining pie out.  I just can’t do it. So this year 7 was crazy because I actually did more recipe “testing” than I’ve ever did before, because I couldn’t commit to a specific thing. This meant double batches of everything. While this makes my husband happy at first, by the end he grows tired of testing.  How many cookies can a guy eat? You wouldn’t think there’s a limit, but there is.

The class that has always eluded me is the Chocolate Chip cookie category. I’ve entered them 3 years in a row and never placed. Yet people always tell me they love those cookies. I’ve yet to figure the winning recipe, but that hasn’t stopped me. This is what I chose for this year; Lemon Bars, Congo Bars and Dark Ginger Cake.

While I generally follow recipes from several sources, I always modify them in interest of winning.  The results were; Lemon Bars 2nd Place, Ginger Cake 3rd place and Congo Bars 4th place. I added three more ribbons to my collection and my Husband, co-workers and friends claim they’ve added 3 more pounds.  Here are this years recipes that you can share with your family and friends.  They are guaranteed to make you an award-winning baker in your community.

LEMON BARS
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Magazine
MAKES 16 BARS
The original recipe calls for 2/3 cup real lemon juice. I think lemon juice concentrate add the lemon tang that these cookies need so I split the proportions in half.  Also, for more richness I substituted half and half for the whole milk called for in the original recipe.

INGREDIENTS
The Crust

1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus extra to decorate finished bars
1/4 cup cornstarch
3/4 teaspoon table salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), at very cool room temperature, cut into 1-inch pieces, plus extra for greasing pan

Lemon Filling

4 large eggs, beaten lightly
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour2 teaspoons grated lemon zest from 2 large lemons
1/3 cup lemon juice from 1-2 large lemons, strained
1/3 cup lemon juice concentrate
1/3 cup half and half
1/8 teaspoon table salt

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. For the crust: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a 13-by-9-inch baking dish and line with one sheet parchment or wax paper. Dot paper with butter, then lay second sheet crosswise over it.
  2. Pulse flour, confectioners’ sugar, cornstarch, and salt in food processor work bowl fitted with steel blade. Add butter and process to blend, 8 to 10 seconds, then pulse until mixture is pale yellow and resembles coarse meal, about three 1-second bursts. (To do this by hand, mix flour, confectioners’ sugar, cornstarch, and salt in medium bowl. Freeze butter and grate it on large holes of box grater into flour mixture. Toss butter pieces to coat. Rub pieces between your fingers for a minute, until flour turns pale yellow and coarse.) Sprinkle mixture into lined pan and, following illustration 2, press firmly with fingers into even, 1/4-inch layer over entire pan bottom and about 1/2-inch up sides. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, then bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes.
  3. For the filling: Meanwhile, whisk eggs, sugar, and flour in medium bowl, then stir in lemon zest, juice, milk, and salt to blend well.
  4. To finish the bars: Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Stir filling mixture to reblend; pour into warm crust. Bake until filling feels firm when touched lightly, about 20 minutes. Transfer pan to wire rack; cool to near room temperature, at least 30 minutes. Transfer to cutting board, fold paper down, and cut into serving-size bars, wiping knife or pizza cutter clean between cuts, as necessary. Sieve confectioners’ sugar over bars, if desired.
     

CONGO BARS
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated 
MAKES 36 BARS
INGREDIENTS
1 cup pecans (or walnuts), toasted and chopped coarse
1 1/2 cups unsweetened shredded coconut
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (7 1/2 ounces)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), melted and cooled
1 1/2 cups packed dark brown sugar (10 1/2 ounces)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
8 ounces white chocolate chips (1 cup)

 

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Adjust oven rack to the middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. On stove top griddle or heavy-duty skillet toast nuts, stirring frequently until toasted, about 3-5 minutes. Empty pan and toast coconut until golden brown, be careful not to burn, about 2-3 minutes.
  3. Cut 18-inch length foil and fold lengthwise to 8-inch width. Fit foil into length of 13 by 9-inch baking pan, pushing it into corners and up sides of pan; allow excess to overhang pan edges. Cut 14-inch length foil and fit into width of baking pan in same manner, perpendicular to first sheet (if using extra-wide foil, fold second sheet lengthwise to 12-inch width). Spray foil-lined pan with nonstick cooking spray.
  4. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in a medium bowl; set aside.
  5. Whisk melted butter and brown sugar together in medium bowl until combined. Add eggs and vanilla and mix well. Using rubber spatula, fold dry ingredients into egg mixture until just combined; do not over mix. Fold in chocolate, coconut, and nuts and turn batter into prepared pan, smoothing top with rubber spatula.
  6. Bake until top is shiny, cracked, and light golden brown, 22 to 25 minutes; do not overbake. Cool on wire rack to room temperature. Remove bars from pan by lifting foil overhang and transfer to cutting board. Cut into 2-inch squares and serve.

GINGER CAKE
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

The original recipe calls for a mild molasses and light brown sugar.  I like a strong flavor that packs a lot of punch so I used strong molasses combined with dark brown sugar to create that effect.

MAKES ONE 8-INCH SQUARE CAKE, SERVING 8 TO 10

INGREDIENTS
3/4
cup stout beer, such as Guinness
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 cup strong molasses
3/4 cup (5 1/4 ounces) packed Dark brown sugar
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups (7 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting pan
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
2 large eggs
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 8-inch square baking pan.
  2. Bring stout to boil in medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in baking soda (mixture will foam vigorously). When foaming subsides, stir in molasses, brown sugar, and granulated sugar until dissolved; set mixture aside. Whisk flour, ground ginger, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and pepper together in large bowl; set aside.
  3. Transfer stout mixture to large bowl. Whisk in eggs, oil, and grated ginger until combined. Whisk wet mixture into flour mixture in thirds, stirring vigorously until completely smooth after each addition.
  4. Transfer batter to prepared pan and gently tap pan against counter 3 or 4 times to dislodge any large air bubbles. Bake until top of cake is just firm to touch and toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, 35 to 45 minutes. Cool cake in pan on wire rack, about 11/2 hours. Cut into squares and serve warm or at room temperature.

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