Updated: Jan 24, 2022
Since the early 2000s, I have entered baking competitions at the Los Angeles County Fair, and have won ribbons for at least one item every year, but also had some items not place at all. August 2013 was notable because every single thing I submitted won ribbons: Peach-cherry coffee cake (third place), corn muffins with maple and blueberries (first place), pizza biscuits (best of division for baking powder/quick breads), and chocolate hazelnut macarons (best of cookie division).
If you want to get cookin’ and just access the recipes, click on each item above. But if you’re interested in getting the inside scoop on how LA County Fair competitions work, read on.
I have competed at the fair on and off since 2006, and it is always a great privilege to do so. It’s exciting to see the artistry, creativity, and skill that go into all the decorated cakes, cookies, and confections that are on display. There's just one catch: You cannot be a culinary professional. The contests and competitions are open only to amateur bakers (i.e., those who have not made money off of their baking skills). There is a difference between a contest and a competition (at least at the L.A. County Fair): At a contest, the judges taste in front of a live audience. In a competition, the judges taste and award ribbons behind the scenes before the fair opens. The competitors find out they've won either by showing up at the fair and seeing whether their entry is in a display case with a ribbon, or waiting until the fair is ended and having their ribbons mailed to them.
Contests are held in front of an audience, and the audience watches the judges taste and make their decisions in real time. Sometimes competitors have to cook on the spot (as in the BBQ cook-off). We bakers simply bring the completed item to the venue on a certain day and time. Each entry is assigned a number and arranged on a table so the judges can taste each one by one and make comparisons. Big-name sponsors, such as Gold Medal Flour, Fleishmann’s Yeast, or Ghiradelli chocolate put up prizes for particular contests. Each contest is limited to one very specific category, such as cheesecake, pie, European pastry, or brownies. Prizes sometimes include cash and cooking equipment such as Kitchen Aid mixers.
Spectators watch as the judges sample each entry, deliberate, and then award the prizes. Over the years, I have entered contests for European pastry, brownies, and yeast breads. Because you get to watch the judges actually judge, contests can be nerve-wracking. But they’re also fun and educational—no matter whether you win or not.
Because contests are held at different days and times with a different group of judges, there is no way to predict what they'll be looking for. For example, when my classic brownies with fudge topping didn’t place, I went up to one of the judges with my rejected plate of brownies and asked her what was wrong with them.
“Nothing,” she said. “These are excellent brownies, and you cut the squares perfectly. But these were too traditional. We were looking for something different. Maybe if you had put some sort of a filling in the middle, it would have placed.”
I made a mental note that the judges wanted a fresh spin on an old favorite. So I created peanut-butter-and-grape-jelly éclairs for the European pastry contest. The éclair shell was classic, but the peanut butter pastry cream and grape jelly (made from my home-grown Concord grapes) was definitely original. When the éclairs didn’t place, I went up to one of the judges and asked why.
“Peanut butter and jelly is an American combination, not a European one,” she explained. “We were looking for something more traditional.”
I’ve learned that you can’t second-guess what the judges are looking for. You just have to do your best and leave the rest to them.
Competitions are less nerve-wracking than contests because you don’t actually see the judging. Competitors drop off the baked goods shortly before the fair starts, and the judges do all their evaluations in private. They put the winning baked goods on display in big glass cases in time for opening day at the fair. Fair-goers can see how the various items placed.
There are no cash prizes for the competition winners, only ribbons, along with the satisfaction of a job well-done.
In order to enter competitions and contest, you have to submit an entry form by a certain date. You indicate which division and class you plan to enter, and send in a small fee along with your entry form.
Divisions are the big categories such as yeast breads, quick breads, layer cakes, cookies, and confections. Classes are sub-categories within each division. In the cookie division, for example, there are twenty-one classes, including bar cookies, citrus, coconut, gingersnap, oatmeal, shortbread, biscotti, international, and chocolate chip. Here’s another example: In the specialty bread division, there are five classes, including coffee cake, coffee cake with fruit, international, tea ring, and “other.” “Other” categories are fun because you can submit something that doesn’t fit into the specified categories, so you have lots of room to be creative. Ribbons are awarded for entries in the divisions, and one entry also wins a “Best of Division” ribbon.
The day the entries are due is a frantic one. I get up early to start baking, and I keep my fingers crossed that no disasters happen. One year, my brand-new oven quit the day I was supposed to submit the entries—halfway through the baking of a loaf of challah. I didn’t have a second oven. So I went out onto my patio, put a baking stone in the grill, turned on the burners, waited until it reached the right temperature, and finished baking everything al fresco.
The challah did not place that year. It was half-baked and had already started to collapse after the oven had quit, and I couldn't get it on a hot grill fast enough to revive it. I tried baking a rum bundt cake on the grill after the challah, but I didn't manage to get the heat consistent enough to bake a big cake properly. I did win first place for oatmeal cookies, second place for cinnamon buns and third for classic currant scones – all baked on the grill. Each time I opened the grill to rotate the cookie sheet for even baking, I worried that the temperature to drop too much, so I cranked the heat a little higher than normal and crossed my fingers that it worked. I learned that day that the grill can double as a baking oven, and I’ve grilled many baked goods since then over the years when I didn’t want to heat up the kitchen during a hot summer. The main thing is to make sure the grill is clean. The smoke of the burning gristle from your last barbeque is not exactly the flavor you want on your baked goods.
Ideally, a baker starts months in advance, experimenting and fine-tuning recipes to come up with something original and delicious. This summer of 2013 was exceptionally busy, and I postponed my baking experiments until two weeks before the entries were due. My biggest challenge was a banana layer cake. I went through three or four versions, trying to get a lighter texture. I experimented with banana-flavored chiffon cakes rather than the traditional butter cakes that are usually the base formula for banana cakes. I almost succeeded, but I ran out of time. The only problem was that the layers kept collapsing, and collapsed layers don’t win prizes. But the failures tasted delicious, so I knew I was on the right track. (The high sides of a springform pan will probably solve the problem once I get around to experimenting again.)
The chocolate hazelnut macarons I submitted in the Cookie Division won Best of Division, and took first place in their class (Other International Cookies). They were probably the most risky thing to make. I’ve been baking macarons for a few years now, but I’m still nervous every time I make them. Macarons can be temperamental. If you don’t whip the egg whites properly or let the piped cookies dry long enough before baking, you won’t get a nice “foot” at the base of each meringue wafer. They’re delicate, so you have to make more than you think you’ll need to allow for breakage. Using ground hazelnuts in place of the traditional ground almonds was something I invented specifically for this competition. Hazelnut is a superb combination with the chocolate-mocha ganache filling. The other problem is that I had to drive an hour in 100-degree summer heat to submit them. So I carefully packed them in a cooler so that the ganache filling wouldn't melt. The recipe is here.
The corn muffins with maple and blueberry got a first-place ribbon. Corn-blueberry pancakes with maple syrup are a time-honored American breakfast tradition that goes back to colonial times. I wanted to capture that in a muffin, and I think I succeeded. Click here for that recipe.
The pizza biscuits won best of division for Baking Powder/Quick Breads. I had invented them years before for a pot-luck, and the hostess begged me to send her the recipe. Problem was, I could not find my hand-written recipe no matter where I looked, and it was the only copy I had. A few months ago before the fair, I found it while paging through another cookbook, and decided it would be a good entry for the Quick Bread Division. (I sent the recipe to the hostess as soon as I found it. Better late than never.) The recipe is here.
Even though the peach-cherry coffee cake won third place, it was my personal favorite among all the entries I submitted that year. I love bread and fruit together, and the brioche dough for this coffee cake is so rich with butter and egg, it’s almost cake-like. The combination of peaches and cherries, offset by almond cream, is an amazing confluence of flavors. The recipe is here.
If you’re thinking of entering your baked goods in a state or county fair, here are a few tips for success:
1. Read the entry form carefully to make sure you’re complying with the rules. If the contest calls for an original recipe, you’re allowed to refer to published recipes to get ideas. But you must come up with a version that is substantially different from anything you’ve seen by someone else.
2. If you’re entering competitions, limit yourself to about four or five entries. More than that, and you’ll drive yourself crazy.
3. Give yourself plenty of time to experiment with a version that works and that tastes as good as you can make it. The Los Angeles County Fair publishes its guidelines online months ahead of time, so you can access them to start planning. Other fairs around the country probably also publish contest information online—just do a search for your area.
You don’t have to compete in order to enjoy the taste of warm, fresh muffins on a weekend morning, or the smiles of family and friends when you serve a home-baked coffee cake for dessert. Now that the cooler weather is here (perfect for baking!) try some of the recipes on my blog. And drop me an email to let me know how they turned out.