Cooking From The Heart

Healthy Eating & Living Guide

Tips For Entering A Regional Show Cooking Competition

As the Newcastle Show Cookery & Jams Competition draws closer (March 16-18) I’ve had a number of friends mention they would like to have a crack at entering. Their reasoning is that if Dean can win Best Chocolate Cake then surely it can’t be too hard. And they would be right. With a little preparation everyone has equal standing for a first prize medal. There’s nothing sweeter than victory in a cooking competition, especially if it’s your first time. Of course, Dean and I will both be back defending our titles in 2012.

To help the novices, I’ve drawn up a list of do’s and don’ts. Some of these I learnt as a result of the live judging that took place at the Newcastle Show last year, and some gleaned from speaking with Cookery Steward and medal-winning competitor, Ellice Schrader.

I’d also recommend purchasing The Country Show Cookbook if you intend on entering any classes that don’t provide recipes. These are recipes from successful entrants at Country Shows all around Australia. This is the book from which my award-winning scones came from. I also would never have realised chocolate chip biscuits are different to chocolate chip cookies without the help from this book.

Here are the tips.

Read the class outline carefully. Mistakes that will incur automatic disqualification include decorated (sprinkles etc.) or iced cake when class stipulates otherwise and an incorrectly sized or shaped cake tin if one has been specified. The other big no-nos are cakes which have been presented upside down or that have had rounded tops leveled by cutting off any bulge. Some people think a perfectly smooth and flat top would be better than a cracked or bulging top­–it’s not. The CWA ladies are all over that kind of subterfuge. By the way, if your cake does have a bulging top its because your tin is too small for the volume of cake mix and a cracked top is the result of a too hot an oven.

If you intend on entering a jam or pickle never use wax to seal jars and be careful about mixing jams in the wrong category. For example, entering your strawberry jam in the berry jam class when strawberry jam already has a class of its own.

Mistakes that will lose you points include:

+ Residual flour on cakes
Use a dry pastry brush to remove excess flour. If you butter and then flour your cake tins before pouring in the batter remember to tap out the tin to remove any excess flour.

+ Sugar spots
The white spots on the outside of baked cakes are caused when sugar recrystallises. This is usually from too much sugar and not enough fluid in the batter. Contributing factors include using regular sugar instead of caster sugar, which dissolves more easily and baking at too low temperature, which causes more liquid to evaporate over the longer cooking period. Sponge cakes are particularly susceptible to sugar spots.

+ Rack marks on base of cakes
Cool your cake in its tin on top of a cooling rack. Once cooled completely don’t leave a turned out cake on a cooking rack. Be sure to place a tea towel between it and the cooling rack to avoid rack marks.

+ Air bubbles in baked cake
Be sure to tap your filled cake tin on the counter a few times before baking to release any air bubbles.

+ Patty cakes & muffins presented in paper cases
The judges need to view the entire outside of patty cakes and muffins and paper cases get in the way. Bake direct into a pre-prepared patty cake and muffin tins (ie greased lightly with butter).

+ No packet cake, unless where stated
The judges’ eyes and palate are fine-tuned and can tell a packet cake recipe from a mile away.

+ When icing is required, ice only the top of the cake, not the sides
More a principle of tradition, but also allows judges to view some of the outside of the cake.

+ Incorrect type of icing or dripped icing
It’s all about attention to detail.

+ Additional decorations ie coconut, cherries, peel.
Be sure to read the requirements for your class correctly. For instance the fruit cake class specifically asks for no artificial cherries and chocolate cake must be iced, but not decorated (ie no 100s & 1000s)

+ Artificial cherries in fruit cake
Glazed cherries only.

+ Jam & pickle no-nos
These include using unclean jars and jars with labels and lids with branding. Also jar lids must be paper, cellophane and cloth free (no twee decorations) and must be 500ml in size.

If you are after some glory the most acclaim comes from winning any one of the following classes (common mistakes are outlined in brackets):

+ Plate of four plain scones (uneven colour, burnt bottoms, taste bi-carb soda, hard-as-a-rock, on a lean, too flat, wrong size – should be cut with a 6cm pastry cutter)
+ Sponge sandwich (too flat, uneven layers, not light enough that it cracks when cut and sugar spots)
+ Fruit cake (not cooked through, too much paper used to line tin)
+ Banana cake (sinks and not cooked in the centre)
+ Berry jam (inconsistently sized fruit pieces, not enough ‘berry’ taste)
+ Pickles (inconsistently sized vegetable pieces, messy patterning of vegetables)

If you are after some suspense, butter, chocolate and orange cakes are often difficult to judge as they are such a tight race. It was agony watching and waiting for a decision to be made on Dean’s chocolate cake last year.

Phew! Are you still game? Entries Close March 9 with an entry fee $1 per class.

Judging takes place during the Show and is open to the public. If you enjoy baking or jamming (or even eating baked or jam goods) I highly recommend you sit in. The Newcastle Show is only one of very few Regional Shows that have live judging and you are free to ask the judges questions as they move through the classes.

Maybe I’ll see you there. May the best cook win!