Here’s more on the Cooking Light contest. If you want to read it in order, you may want to read day 1 first.
I never sleep well when I know I have to be up early in the morning. On Tuesday, I was scheduled to catch a van to the contest at 6:45 a.m. I didn’t need an alarm clock. I woke up at 12:30, 2:30, then at 5:30.
Anna and Erin, my two buddies from the 2004 Pillsbury Bake-off, were the other two “early birds.” When we arrived at the Cooking Light test kitchens, we headed to our “fluff and puff” sessions with Celine, a hair and makeup artist. Cooking Light is the first contest I’ve been to that pretties up their contestants. This was a concern for one contestant, who said she was particular with her hair and makeup, but I thought it was “the nuts.” I've always wanted to appear on "What Not To Wear," but I hope I don't look and dress that terribly.
Erin went first, and I hunted down some coffee. When I returned to the “fluff and puff” area, Erin was done. She's very attractive, with long black curls and an olive complexion, and had needed just a few touch-ups.
Anna was next, and Celine styled her hair in a sleek bun. When her hair and makeup was done, Anna looked quite sophisticated.
I was next, and Celine said something like, “this is going to be fun, like a makeover show.” In other words, I needed a LOT of help! She did quite a bit of makeup application and did my hair in kind of a straighter but flippy style. In the end, I thought I looked a little like Steven Cojocaru after his kidney transplant. (He’s the flamboyant guy who talks about fashion on TV ... used to be with the Today show.) But now that I see the pictures from the contest, I think she did a great job. Our finishing looks are at right-- Erin, me, and Anna -- in the pose that Celine said is the most flattering. (I find it more flattering to stand behind things.)
Then it was time to get cooking. It was very comfortable with Anna and Erin cooking right near my kitchen; we chatted as we cooked.
One step of my recipe was browning butter. This is a simple technique that gives the butter a nutty flavor, and I suspect it was the reason I was selected as a finalist. The problem was, I was using a black pan to brown the butter, and it was hard to see the color of the butter. At home, I use a stainless steel pan, and didn’t think to specify the interior color of my pan. I kept pouring the melted butter into a clear bowl to check the color, but I was worried that I was losing butter in the process. I finally took the butter off the heat, but it wasn’t as brown as I do it at home, so it didn’t have the nutty aroma I was going for. The remainder of preparing the dough went smoothly.
As I was preparing my dough, Anna’s pound cake was cooking. It smelled fantastic, just like Bailey’s Irish Cream. I had expected she’d be the one to beat, as she’s done very well in cooking contests, including win the Cooking Light desserts category last year.
I then left the kitchen for a few hours as my dough refrigerated. Cooking Light thoughtfully had set up a break area where we could hang out when we weren’t in the test kitchens. After a few minutes, Anna joined me, followed by Abi, a pleasant, soft-spoken woman from the Los Angeles area. Abi was a finalist in the starters category, with a dish called Mini Dubliner Twice-Baked Potatoes. (When I saw the name of her recipe, my reaction was, “duh, why didn’t I think of that?”) Anna, Abi and I had a pleasant lunch together.
Then it was back to the test kitchen to finish the cookies. My dough is very easy to work with, so rolling out the cookies wasn’t hard at all. But maybe it was the lack of sleep setting in, but I didn’t use my time well. I had hoped to have two trays of cookies out of the oven when it was time to plate the cookies. The plan was to choose the best-looking cookies from the two trays. But when Anna and Gloria’s desserts were done, my second trays of cookies were still in the oven. Because the expectation was that all three entries would go to the judges at once, and I didn’t have a good reason for not being finished, I ended up plating the whole first tray of cookies for the judges.
I placed them in three neat rows on the square platter, then sprinkled the platter with some of the walnut mixture I had used as the topping for my cookies. Then I decided the platter looked too messy, so I took everything off the platter and washed it, putting the cookies back on the platter in three neat rows. Then that looked too plain, so I sprinkled the walnut mixture on the platter again.
I wasn’t the only one who seemed out of sorts. Melissa, who was making a grilled steak entree in the kitchen area with Anna, wasn’t happy with the way her steak was done. When she came in from grilling her steak, she thought it might be overdone. When she cut into it, however, it was rarer than she wanted it to be. I found out later that she’s used to grilling on coals -- she used gas at the contest -- and her dish didn't come out as good as it did at home.
April, who was making an entree called Beef with Spicy Cocoa Gravy, worked in the kitchen with me. She didn’t seem nervous at all, even though this was her first contest. She plated her dish in a large, shallow bowl, with egg noodles on one side, and her stew-like beef dish on the other side. It smelled good, but I didn’t expect it to win that category, because the other two recipes had trendier flavors -- Melissa’s entree having a Miso dressing and Teri’s entree with a pineapple, mango, and red pepper relish.
A cameraman from the local CBS TV station arrived as I was finishing up the cookies. He filmed me getting my cookies out of the oven, as I was the last person to finish cooking. If I was on Birmingham TV, though, I didn’t see it.
When I put my plate of cookies on the tray to go to the judges, I sized up my competition in the dessert category. Anna’s pound cake, which had that wonderful aroma of Irish Cream, was studded with chocolate chips. Even though her cake didn’t bear a frosting, it’s hard to beat something with chocolate in it. Gloria’s lemon-scented blueberry cupcakes were frosted and attractively garnished with blueberries, lemon zest, and fresh mint leaves. I realized I faced not one, but two, stiff competitors in my category.
It’s after cooking at a contest and before the winners are announced that my insecurities get to a fever pitch. After I saw the two other entries in my category, I didn’t like my chances.
The Cooking Light contest was scored on four criteria – taste, use of the sponsor’s product, appearance, and creativity – with taste being weighted most heavily. I thought I might have the edge on creativity and use of the product, because I browned the butter. But I thought Gloria’s pretty cupcakes had the edge on appearance. And I thought both of the others could beat me on taste. My cookies taste good, if you like crispy cookies that aren’t too sweet, but I wouldn’t say they have a “wow” flavor.
Anna, her daughter, and I spent some time shopping in the Homewood area of Birmingham that afternoon. While we drove, Anna echoed my thoughts about Gloria’s cupcakes.
“They looked really nice,” she said, “and it’s hard to beat something with frosting.”
The awards dinner was held at the Cafe DuPont, a gourmet restaurant in downtown Birmingham. It was quite an upscale menu, and I got my first taste of quail and rabbit.
The winners were announced during dessert. The category winners were:
Starters and Drinks: Erin’s Argentine Black Bean Flatbread with Chimichurri Drizzle (I was happy my early-morning buddy won.)
Entrees: April’s Beef with Spicy Cocoa Gravy (I was completely wrong in my assessment of that category.)
Side Salads and Side Dishes: Kelly’s New Fashioned Apple and Raisin Slaw (I didn’t see any of these dishes, but Kelly says it’s very quick and easy to make.)
Desserts: Gloria’s cupcakes
And the grand-prize winner ($10,000 and a $5,000 vacation) was ... Gloria’s cupcakes.
I was very happy for Gloria. Plus, if I’m going to lose, I’d prefer to lose to the thing that wins it all.
Whether I won or lost, it was an excellent contest. I intend to work very hard to get back to it next year.
Look for this year’s winning recipes in the January issue of Cooking Light.