As it turned out I didn’t judge biscuits at the 4-H Fair after all. I had a different assignment-sponge cake, pie crusts, Focaccia bread (be careful how you say that) and dark German rye bread. Six of us were judging baked goods; five women and me.
Like last year I was teamed up with Carol Elmore, retired Home Economics teacher from Mendota. I was glad to see her. She knows what she’s doing in a big way. I took care of the rating sheets, wrote the comments, and offered observations. Carol made most of the decisions. Had we been broadcasting a baseball game Carol did the play by play and I was the color man.
Judges are able to award blue, red or white ribbons and indicate either Very Good or Improvement Needed. Under the improvement needed category the choices are some or much. It’s a system that works pretty good most of the time.
I was surprised at how many kids chose baking projects, and how many were boys. I guess gender stereotypes really are dissolving. I secretly would loved to have baked stuff when I was ten but that seemed pretty much off the table for a boy in 1961. I was especially interested in a local boy’s apple pie. It stuck out among a shelf full of pie crust shells. Really nice looking pie.
“Carol, look at this. It must be in the wrong category.”
“No, there is not a category for pie. Just pie crust.”
“They don’t want pies?”
“No. Once in a while they have a separate pie baking contest. But for your baking categories pies aren’t included. There’s too much variety among pies and cakes. They want them simple, like the sponge cake, no icing, straightforward. And for pie the emphasis is on the crust.”
“So how about this guy? How are we going to judge his crust when it’s part of a pie?”
“We’ll have to give him a white ribbon. He didn’t follow the instructions.”
I looked at that pie with much regret. It looked great. But we hadn’t gotten to the pie crust category yet. We were doing sponge cake. Everybody works off the same recipe. This was a golden sponge cake with lemon flavoring. Sugar, flour, baking powder, lemon zest and extract, eggs. You make it in an angel food cake pan. The entrants are to put the cake on a paper plate in a plastic bag with the recipe and a menu of a meal of which the cake would be dessert. We judged the menu too for variety, color, and having the proper food groups. We had four sponge cakes. One was noticeably higher than the rest
“Let’s start with this one,” Carol said. She had the knife. She took it out of the bag and cut us a couple of pieces. I popped mine in my mouth immediately. It sort of melted. The lemon taste seemed in perfect proportion with the sweet.
“Oh boy that’s good.”
Carol was still looking at hers. “Nice even texture, no air pockets. Very light.” She put it in her mouth.
“You’re right. It has a really good taste too.” The rest of the sponge cakes just didn’t stack up to that first one. They weren’t as light, and one was barely lemony at all.
“I don’t get it Carol. If they’re working off the same recipe, why wouldn’t the lemon flavor be identical? I mean it’s lemon extract. How much variety can there be?”
“You never know. Maybe the product was old and lost its flavor. Maybe they put in the zest and not the extract or vice versa. Maybe they lost count of the teaspoons or used the wrong measure. Anything can happen. But this volume question, the fluffiness, that’s pretty much dependent on how much or how little you beat your eggs, especially the whites. In the end it’s all about following the directions.”
I don’t believe that about directions. As one who often ignores directions altogether, and cares very little or not at all for detail of many kinds, it pained me to hear that.
We had three loaves of Focaccia bread that were of two kinds. The best was tall but coarse, with a good rosemary taste and a salted top. It was chewy, but good. You could taste the olive oil and feel it in your mouth. The other two were flatter and more dense. That denseness seemed to kill the flavor somehow. Part of the recipe allowed them to add one or two tablespoons of lour when working the dough. Carol figured the bakers of the flatter loaves overdid it with the additional flour.
An eight year old girl baked a loaf of dark German rye bread that was just delicious.
“Oh boy Carol. This bread…” Words failed me.
It reminded me of bread that Margaret Melick used to bake on their farm in Danvers. If I was at their house when Margaret baked it her son, my friend Jeff, would cut thick long slices out of the middle of the loaf for he and I. Margaret made her dark rye in a bigger loaf than this girl had baked, a similar circular loaf baked on a cookie sheet rather than a bread pan. It might have been a Swedish recipe. We’d spread butter on Mrs. Melick’s bread and go outside, each holding a soft slice in two hands, bending our necks to eat it like a taco. It was sweet with sugar but sour with the rye flour. Beautiful dark brown. This little girl’s bread was like that, not quite as sweet and enhanced by the added taste of caraway seed. It was the only entry in that category.
I flashed to comments my kids once made to me. We were doing this or that in the kitchen together and I suggested that if I quit my job at YSB perhaps I could become a food critic, visiting restaurants and writing about the experience. My son Dean immediately objected.
“Dad, you’d make a lousy food critic. You like everything. You’d give everything five stars.”
“Yeah,” my daughter Maureen added. “It would be ‘try the pasta, it’s out of this world’ and ‘order the garlic bread, its terrific’ and ‘you have to have the cannoli for dessert.’” My kids know me pretty well.
We ended our stint at judging with the pie crusts. Having accepted Carol’s wisdom about recipes I read this one. Pretty standard; flour, sugar, salt, water, butter. The recipe described making two crusts, listing the ingredients for two crusts and how you might add a fruit filling, but the project clearly called for only a single bottom crust baked in the bottom of a pie plate. The first one we tried was like concrete.
“Carol it’s so thick.”
“I think this boy” (he was twelve) “may have combined the ingredients for two crusts and put them both on the bottom and baked it.” His crust was chalky white and solid. It was hard to even break a small piece off the edge. Not even close to what anybody would call flaky. It occurred to me that he might have tried again but didn’t. Maybe he did it last minute. We gave him a red ribbon.
Another was thin enough, but had an off taste. I couldn’t pin it down. It was flaky, with a nice color, but that taste. Despite that we gave it a blue ribbon, and noted our concern about the taste in the comment section.
We also gave a blue ribbon to clearly the best crust. It was uniformly golden brown, flaky but not overly crisp, and just delicious. How can something so plain, with so few ingredients, taste so good? It did. In addition to a detailed menu, she included a short narrative. In it she said “It took me five tries to get this right.” For her, persistence paid off.
Last, we judged the pie entered in the pie crust category. The pie had a beautifully tan top crust. We broke some crust off the edge and agreed it was very good. Carol sliced into the pie and put a wedge on a paper plate. The slice of pie lifted out of cleanly, both bottom and top crusts intact. It was apple. The apples, obviously fresh, peeled and sliced thin by hand, were cream colored, white turned slightly brown by baking, bathed in and held together by a sugar cinnamon syrup.
“Well, let’s try it anyway,” Carol said.
I put a forkful in my mouth and closed my eyes. When something tastes really good, I close my eyes to concentrate on the taste. The cinnamon was clearly present but not overpowering. The apples were soft but not mushy like the canned kind. The smooth feel and full sweet taste of the apples blended beautifully with the flakiness of the crust and its distinct taste. Chewing on that mouthful of pie created a carnival of sensations in my mouth.
“Jesus Carol this is terrific pie.”
“Yes it is,” she said. “Too bad the recipe called for a pie crust.”
“But the crust is really good.”
“Yes it is. But it’s a pie.”
“Can’t we give him at least a red ribbon? It’s so damned good.”
“Nope. Participants have to follow directions. It’s got to be a white ribbon. That’s how they learn.”
Participants have to follow directions and judges have to stick with the guidelines and get with the program. Sometimes judging others is just plain harsh. I believe that not following directions, like this boy clearly did, can produce great results, which he had achieved. Determined to communicate this, I said this in the comment section.
“The category in which you participated demanded baking only a single pie crust. You baked the entire pie. For that reason you could not be given a satisfactory ranking. However, while not following the instructions, you created a terrific and delicious pie. Read more carefully and follow directions better next time, but don’t stop baking pies. While you aren’t getting a blue ribbon, please know that this pie is a winner.“
After sampling and rating all the baked entries, all of us judges got together and were given the opportunity to recommend six items for state fair competition, six alternates, and name one entry best of show. To be entered at the state fair, you had to be at least ten years of age. Because our dark German rye bread baker was only eight, she could not participate at the state level so after all the other judges tasted her bread we decided to name her little brown loaf of German rye best in show. Our lemon pound cake went to the state fair, along with other really good stuff. There was a Swedish tea ring like my Mom used to make for Christmas that would knock your socks off. It went to state.
It’s great to know that in 2014 kids are learning how to bake from scratch at an early age and that the art of baking lives on at county fairs and the kitchens everywhere. It’s not yet all out of a box. Hopefully they learn from their mistakes and keep on baking. I plan to continue tasting whatever they create, directions notwithstanding.