Friday, July 27, 2012

Fair-ly Good Showing

This past week found me buzzing around our kitchen, my apron tied around my waist and my hands covered in flour, whipping up bowlfuls of pie dough, graham cracker crust, chocolate pudding, caramel sauce and whipped cream. Never before had my kitchen seen such a whirlwind of activity. Three pies in two days was a tall order, but as I rolled dough, stirred custards and whisked caramels, I felt centered. For a brief moment, I even found myself daydreaming of opening my own little bake shop, but quickly thought better of the early morning hours.

After getting my feet wet at the county fair earlier this year, I had gotten a taste for competition. And in my neck of the woods, it didn't get more competitive than the California State Fair. I decided to try my luck with not one, but three entries in three separate pie divisions: "Mint to Be" Thin Mint Pie in the creme pie class, Not Your Mama's Chocolate Pecan Pie in the custard pie class and Boozy Caramel Apple Pie in the non-refrigerated single crust class.
I found comfort in the remaking of familiar recipes, with only minor changes made for competition purposes. I was a kid in a candy store when I stumbled upon a freezer full of pork leaf lard at a specialty meat company during a recent trip to San Francisco. Sure enough, a blind taste test of my usual Crisco crust and the lard-based crust revealed a clear winner - husband and neighbors voted unanimously for the lard. So, both my chocolate pecan and caramel apple pies received a pre-competition crust upgrade.

I also chose to pipe my whipped cream atop the thin mint pie this go around. A bit of practice with the piping bag and a careful selection of just the right sized star tip resulted in a creme pie the likes of which my kitchen had never seen. 
At the end of day two of baking, as I surveyed my pie bounty, I headed to bed with an unsettling combination of exhaustion, pride, satisfaction and nerves. 
I arrived at the fair nearly an hour before the gates opened on the morning of the judging. As I precariously stacked all three pie boxes and carried them from my car into the Foodstyle Building, I silently sent up a little prayer that I would not trip and fall. Thankfully, I approached the registration table with pies intact and signed for each entry. Now, it was in the judges' hands.
Will and I returned to the fair with our participant admission tickets in hand, and were thrilled to score front row, center seats to the baked goods judging. But, eager anticipation soon gave way to restless boredom as the panel of judges assessed all types of quick breads, scones, muffins, coffee cakes, cupcakes, cakes and tarts. Each of the four judges were painstakingly thorough - assessing consistency, texture, color, shape and smell before actually tasting each baked good for flavor. 
Let me tell you, six hours is an awfully long time for your bum to tolerate a wooden bench. But, the moment the judges reached for the microphone to describe and judge one of my entries, the hours of waiting seemed like a distant memory.
First up, my "Mint to Be" Thin Mint Pie - probably my personal favorite to date. The assigned judge sampled several bites of crust, custard and whipped cream - both separately and then altogether. Then she threw me for a compete loop when she offered a forkful to the judge next to her and they further conferred on my entry. After what felt like an eternity, the verdict was in - I had earned a first place blue ribbon!
Next up on the judging table was my Not Your Mama's Chocolate Pecan Pie. After a not so brief monologue comparing the merits of using chopped nuts for maximum quantity per bite and ease of slicing versus the aesthetics of a whole nut presentation, the judge awarded my pecan pie with a second place ribbon. Two for two!
Seeking apple pie redemption following a somewhat embarrassing showing at the county fair, my Boozy Caramel Apple Pie was next in the lineup. And while it didn't earn any particular distinction (with the judges noting a slightly underdone crust), I left the fair on cloud nine.

Nevertheless, I think I may retire from apple pie baking...
Six months ago, if you had told me I would earn two ribbons at the State Fair this summer - in pie baking of all things - I would have thought you were a tad bit crazy (or maybe just hadn't tried my baking). But, as this journey is teaching me, who you have been does not have to define who you can become. And, if you can make somebody else happy along the way, even better.
There was something beautifully simple about participating in the 150 year old tradition of women bringing their homemade pies to the fair to be judged. I love that - even in a small way - I have staked my claim in the heritage of California.

Now, excuse me while I check the mail. I am expecting a couple of ribbons.

"Big Fun" - 2012 California State Fair


  1. I am proud of you. I would love to taste one of your masterpieces. great job!

  2. Great job Erin!!! Now, what's your next contest to triumph over?