Sunday, July 13, 2014

Baking For The Fair

When it came time for the summer fair in my home town, much attention was paid to what could be entered in that year's fair.

There were many divisions and hundreds of categories. Something for everyone. There were numerous divisions for livestock and horticultural. Divisions for sewing, knitting, crocheting and needlework. There were crafting, woodworking, carving, pottery, photography, painting and much more! There were all kinds of categories for school kids to enter.

I never really ventured into any of those things. They weren't my forte!

My heart and youthful skills were in the kitchen!

The areas of baking that could be entered were vast! There were age divisions for 12 and under, 13 to 18, adult and those over 70. The adult, which also included canning, was pretty much open to anybody regardless of age but competition was STIFF so you really had to have a great entry to even attempt any of the dozens of categories there! The seniors division could also have some amazing entries as those people had decades of experience to hone their kitchen skills!

That being said, even those under 18 had some really good competitors! You'd see many of the same names every year!

I was about 11 or 12 when I first started entering a few categories in my age group. I won small cash prizes for a few things and entered a bit more the next year. It didn't take long till I was entering every baking item in my age group. Occasionally I even entered something (and sometimes won a prize) in the adult division if my attempt turned out exceptionally well!!

There were about 15-20 items in the teen division. Some of these included: baking powder biscuits; buns; angel food cake; white cake, iced; brownies; bran muffins; banana loaf; rolled cookies; drop cookies; rolled oatmeal cookies, filled; shortbread; baked pie shell; fruit pie with top pastry crust; baked dainties; unbaked dainties (2 kinds); candy (2 kinds); cup cakes, iced.

I was very confident in my ability to make baking powder biscuits. In fact I still use the same recipe and now make several versions from that recipe! I was also pretty good with the cookies, loaf, brownies and dainties.

The buns were either a hit or a miss. Since this was back in the 1970's, it was well before instant yeast came into general use. Having to proof the yeast before starting to mix the dough always concerned me for some reason. Even if the dough felt good while mixing and kneading by hand, it didn't always guarantee good buns. Then there was trying to shape uniform buns so that your entry looked suitable for presentation. The good part of making a batch of buns was that you'd have at least 3 dozen buns to choose from for the half dozen you entered - assuming that the dough rose and you didn't burn any!

The cakes from scratch could be a challenge. There were times I had to make more than one angel food cake or layer cake before I got one that looked good enough to enter!

In those days, my candy making skills were pretty limited. We didn't have access to many of the things or had even thought of the flavour combos that we have now! The candies that were the most common were fudge, brittle and caramel or sugar candies. I burnt more than my share of peanut brittle! I tried to avoid any of the candies that had to be boiled to specific temps as they were a major challenge for me to see the temp on the candy thermometer and rarely worth my effort.

A couple of years, there was a category that had you use a white cake mix, then divide it into three to create different flavoured varieties of cupcakes. You entered two of each of the three varieties. They had to be iced and you couldn't use paper liners in the muffin tins. The flavours I came up with one year were mocha, cherry mint and an orange coconut. I won first prize!

I recently came across 3 of my old winning recipes. I haven't tried them in years so can't verify if they would still be prize worthy today! BTW, I have no recollection of what the frostings were for the cupcakes!
With the exception of the cupcakes above, everything had to be made from scratch! Everything had to be fresh - no mixes or frozen pastries. So all items had to be made within a few days of the actual submission. That meant marathon baking for about 3 days to enter about 20 categories! It was all about timing. What could be made first that wouldn't go bad or stale. What had to wait till the last minute. And you HAD to allow time to remake at least a few things that didn't turn out to be worthy of entry! 

It didn't matter if the weather was hot or humid. If I wanted to enter all the items in my division or others, then I just had to deal with it! It was a lot of work - and admittedly, more than a few tears were shed and there was a meltdown or two as I strived to do the best that I could! Entries had to be all mine which meant mom could only supervise and answer questions for me. She was a rock though and also kept me in a fresh supply of paper towels, clean dishes and Kleenex. My favourite radio station played through the days as I baked my heart out! I always felt SO bad when a recipe flopped. I felt like I'd failed and more importantly that I'd wasted all those ingredients - and time!

We rarely threw things out though. There were family and friends who were always willing to eat the rejects! Granted, they always wanted to sample the "good stuff" so "DO NOT TOUCH" signs had to be placed on several things and there were times that fingers were slapped!

Entries had to be displayed on disposable trays such as paper plates, foam trays or foil covered cardboard. Pies had to be in foil dishes. Everything had to be covered with saran or clear plastic bags - with the entry label attached. The entries had to be in the display hall for judging fairly early on the day before the fair. Packing all the entries into the car - without damaging any of them was a job in itself! We didn't have the fancy containers that are available now for transport - just a few cardboard boxes to hold all those entries.

The last couple of years that I entered, there were also open judging for a few items. Once submissions were closed, a few categories from various food and hand crafted divisions were picked to be judged in front of anyone who wanted to stay and watch. It was interesting to see. For food categories, they'd look at overall presentation (appearance, colours, uniformity) then cut a slice or open items to see the inside density and texture. Were there air pockets in buns or cakes? Were there doughy parts in loaves? Were any fruit or nuts evenly distributed? Were pies evenly baked? How did it smell? What was the taste? Then they'd narrow it down to a few and choose 1st, 2nd and 3rd. I was thrilled to see my biscuits win 1st at one of those sessions!

On the first day of the fair, we'd go to the display hall to see which of my entries may have won prizes!

The prize money wasn't much - maybe a $1 or $2 for first. It was more the prestige of knowing you'd done well. The baking divisions also awarded a small prize to the person who earned the most points for entries in that division. In 1974 - 40 years ago this summer, I won the Junior division (I was 16). I had entered a few of the adult categories as well and in all won 7 firsts, 5 seconds and 7 thirds! I was thrilled!
My reward was about $20 or so in prize money! (A fair bit for a teen then!) and a really nice pen and pencil set! (I still have this set!)
I didn't enter much after that as I was busy with working at summer camp and other things.
But every summer - about a week or so before the hometown fair, I get to thinking about those summer days of endless baking and how fortunate I was to have learned those kitchen skills from my mom and grandma. Those skills have served me well through all these years and continue to guide me in my recipe creations.

Bravo to all of those who continue to spend those long hours preparing entries for local fairs!

Good luck and happy baking!


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