Regional Shows are the last bastion of home baking and preserving. Recipes for traditional cakes, slices, scones, puddings, biscuits, pickles, relishes, jams and marmalades are put to the test by Country Women’s Association judges at Agricultural Shows and in town halls the country over. Traditionally the domain of seasoned home cooks, a new dawn is rising in the world of competitive cookery with men, children and women bereft of any prior baking and preserving experience putting their grandmother’s recipes for pumpkin scones and choko pickles through their paces.
Dean’s chocolate cake, my plate of four scones and marble cake.
Last weekend was The Newcastle Show and I entered the cookery and jam competition for the first time. The categories I entered were plain scones (plate of 4), marble cake (round, not iced), strawberry jam and traditional orange marmalade. I persuaded my husband, Dean, to have a go at the chocolate cake in the men’s section for which a recipe is provided. I had woken early last Friday morning, the first show day and the day all entries are to be submitted, to bake my batch of scones.
I’d attempted scones only one other time since my dismal attempt at a morning tea with Show Cookery Steward, Ellice Schrader, a couple of weeks ago. That attempt was a failure after the scones fell off the tray as I was turning them round in the oven. I decided it was in everyone’s best interests to leave the scones till the morning of the competition should I have a nervous breakdown in my attempts to get what is a very basic recipe right. I was pretty nervous given this opportunity was my only chance to get a plate of four plain scones ready, but I’d pulled together all the tips Ellice shared with me at our morning tea and with a tried-and-true recipe from The Country Show Cookbook by Ruby Mulley who has won ‘Most Successful Exhibitor’ at The Camben Show on multiple occasions, I began. I was pretty happy with the result – smooth tops, even colour, level rise to 5cm. I picked out the four best-looking ones, brushed the excess flour off the bases and hoped for the best.
Dean and I made our cakes the weekend before The Show, remembering what Ellice had said about freezing cakes in advance and bringing them out the night before to defrost. They are as good as if baked that morning. Ellice is just one of many who enter lots of categories and freezing cakes is the only way to avoid an all-nighter before The Show. Then the only thing that needs to be done is to ice any as per the show schedule. The great thing about The Newcastle Show is that judging takes place before an audience (unlike The Royal Easter Show which is done behind closed doors). That way you can hear everything they have to say about each entry which helps you to work out where you, and everyone else who has entered your category, has gone right or wrong.
Scones was one of the first categories to be judged, so while Dean took the kids to see the baby farm animals, I got my baking on and sat down to listen to the two CWA ladies as they began the enormous task of judging every single entry (which would end up taking nearly four hours). There were six entries in the plain scone category. One was dismissed straight-up for using wholemeal flour. Another two were removed as their bases had not been brushed of excess flour and were ‘too small’. That left three in the group. The judges then preceded to sniff, squeeze, and open up to touch and then taste the inside of one scone from each entry. It became clear that they preferred the two plates that held the largest of the scone entries, one of which was mine. At this point you could have knocked me over with a feather because I honestly could not believe my scones were being considered for the top spot.
Deliberation seemed to go on for a few minutes longer when at last they turned to the table of volunteers who write out the award certificates and handed my plate over for first place. I may or may not have let out a squeal. I called Dean to let him know and then tweeted the good news- “Holy crap, I just got first place for my scones!” An avalanche of tweets came back congratulating me on the win, which just made the grin emily deschanel pokies Pokies on my face grow bigger and bigger. I sidled up to Ellice and told her I was the winning entry. I was only mildly embarrassed when she said to the entire crowd, “You would never guess that two weeks ago this young lady presented me with a plate of golf balls for scones and now she’s won the category!” But the biggest surprise was still to come. After judging the best plain scones, there were pumpkin, sultana and date categories to assess. Once all the winners from each category were selected a special prize went out for ‘Best Scones In Show’. And yes, my scones won again! At this point I was doing a little happy dance on the inside. A round of applause went around the room. This was fun.
The jams and pickles were to be judged the following day and I wasn’t able to attend so I wouldn’t know how well (or how badly) I went until I came to collect my scone ribbon and medal (!) at the end of The Show on Sunday afternoon. I certainly wasn’t expecting another ribbon and medal when I walking in the cookery hall. As it turns out I won first prize for strawberry jam aswell. Ellice told me the judges thought it was ‘the best tasting jam they’d had in a long time’ and I apparently ruffled some feathers as the jam and pickle section is highly contentious, which definitely put a smile on my face. Ellice was evidently full of glee at telling the audience that the person who had won the strawberry jam category was a novice. But gloating took a glorious halt right there as the marmalade was a major fail – copious pith cut too thick with scummy residue far too apparent.
Entering The Newcastle Show Cookery Competition turned out to be such a wonderful experience and not just because I came away with some surprise wins. The comraderie amongst entrants and the encouragement from the volunteers and judges throughout the day made the whole event feel very chummy and full of good-will. Not sure if that extended to jam and pickle people, but I can totally vouch for baking people. Oooh! I can totally see a new documentary idea forming. Anyway, I am so glad I finally entered. Another New Year to-do done, and no doubt an annual affair now that I have to defend my title.
I’ll be writing about the marble cake and Dean’s chocolate cake next, but in the meantime, here are the recipes for my award-winning scones and strawberry jam. I can’t believe I can really say that.
Adapted from Ruby Mulley (Camden Show) from The Country Show Cookbook
3 cups self-raising flour
4 tsp icing sugar
1 ½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
Large ½ cup single cream
2/3 cup milk
½ cup hot water
Preheat the oven to 230°C. Sift all dry ingredients into a bowl 6 times to aerate. Make a well in the centre and add the cream, milk and water. Mix with a knife. The ingredients should come together easily without too much effort. If the mixture is too stiff add more milk, but don’t overwork or the scones will be tough. Turn the dough out on a well-floured surface. Flour your hands lightly and shape the dough into a ball before patting down gently to a height of 3cm. Cut with a 6cm pastry cutter, being careful not to twist the cutter, and place each scone barely touching one another onto a baking tray lined with baking paper. Place in the oven for 10-12 minutes until risen and just browned on top.
1kg trimmed strawberries
Juice of one lemon
¾ cup sugar
Place strawberries and lemon juice in a large saucepan and cook over a low heat until fruit is soft. Mash the fruit and then add sugar, stirring well to combine. Bring to the boil slowly and then boil briskly, removing any scum that rises to the surface with a slotted spoon. Stir occasionally until setting point is reached (about an hour). To test the setting point, put a small plate in the freezer. After 10 minutes take out and place a spoonful of the jam onto the plate. Wait a moment before running your finger through the jam. If the channel does not immediately fill back in (or at all) your jam is ready. Be sure to have several sterilised jars ready (wash in warm soapy water, rinse and then place, open ends up, in a very low oven for 10-15 minutes). Spoon the jam into the jars and seal.