With ribbons in hand, Delaware State Fair judges put taste buds to the test

Scored jars are tagged with first and second place ribbon stickers on the shelves in the Dover Building. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

Scored jars are tagged with first and second place ribbon stickers on the shelves in the Dover Building. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

HARRINGTON — The margarita marmalade’s taste seemed to come right from the bottom of a nearly empty glass.

But this blue ribbon canned concoction — made with sugar, lime, tequila and triple sec — was more suited for someone’s toast or muffin.

The second day of the Culinary Department’s Delaware State Fair competition was testament to just how creative cooks can be here on Delmarva.

Admission gates open at noon today and 8 a.m. Friday through Aug. 1. The Wade Shows carnival area opens at 5 tonight and 1 p.m. from Friday on.

In the Dover Building late Wednesday morning, several volunteer judges spooned out small dabs of various canned goods, taking nibbles and offering opinions as a nearby scribe took down their scoring determinations.

Trina Stump savors a taste of chocolate syrup during judging in the Culinary Arts department of the Delaware State Fair Wednesday morning. The first sample, she said, had an almond finish. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

Trina Stump savors a taste of chocolate syrup during judging in the Culinary Arts department of the Delaware State Fair Wednesday morning. The first sample, she said, had an almond finish. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

The day before, a vast array of pies, cakes, cookies, muffins and other baked goods were scored competitively; with approximately 450 entries to taste, 10 judges needed from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. to figure out the blue, red and yellow winners.

The canning contest promised to bring a lighter day, even with about 250 entries in 62 categories, including jams, jellies, salsa, tomatoes, pickles and butters, among others.

The judges were fascinated by a sauerkraut entry that was the first in years, and a can of pickled asparagus with a tantalizing mix of crunch and seasoning immediately went onto the table of Grand Champion candidates.

“You find out that a lot of people have peculiar tastes and are creative in the kitchen,” said judge Trina Stump, a Dover High culinary instructor who has been involved with the state fair competitions for at least 10 years.

“They can make some wonderful things and like to show them off.”

While Ms. Stump once had dreams of becoming a pastry chef, she’s amazed by some of the decorated cakes created by non-professional entrants.

“Getting a look at the cakes is my favorite part of this,” she said.

In her three years as a judge, Cheswold’s Dottie Dempsey has learned that even the smallest detail can change a recipe significantly — she learned how to measure flour without packing it into a cup, the difference between butter or oil shortening, or that whether the butter is melted or softened while cooking can change the appearance of a cookie.

Culinary Arts superintendent Judi Leaming and assistant Linda Walton, left, input the scores of the canning contest on Wednesday morning. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

Culinary Arts superintendent Judi Leaming and assistant Linda Walton, left, input the scores of the canning contest on Wednesday morning. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

Judi Leaming, the Culinary Department of Delaware superintendent, said that while many learn canning through advice on Pinterest and blogs, judges are trained to recognize United States Department of Agriculture standards when it comes to doing it safely.

Like all judges, Ms. Dempsey was trained through a Maryland Department of Agricultural Fairs and Shows program to earn her certification and eligibility to score canned and baked goods.

Beginning at noon today, entrants can return to the Dover Building to see how well their creations met muster with the judges.

Pat on the back

The entrants just want to be recognized for making good eats, Ms. Leaming said.

“It’s about pride,” she said. “I talked to a woman today who said she’s been coming here for years and years and just wants to see something of hers in competition with others.

“Everyone needs a pat on the back and a lot of the time they don’t get it. They’re not chefs, they’re not professionals but just the thought of getting a ribbon for what they’ve made is enough for them.”

In one contest, a man’s cherry pie was so tasty that “We almost ate the whole thing while judging because it was fabulous,” assistant superintendent Linda Walton said.

Sometimes, the cooks — mostly women, but some men as well — want to know why they fell short. They’re presented with score sheets and comments from the judges as feedback.

“We try to encourage people and be kind, but also offer constructive criticism and suggestions that will allow them to come back and do better the next year.”

Judge Mary Pyott measures the depth of the air pocket in the chocolate category Wednesday morning as Trina Stump records the measurement. In addition to the taste of the entry, the canning entries are also scored on quality measurements such as the condition of the lid and the seal. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

Judge Mary Pyott measures the depth of the air pocket in the chocolate category Wednesday morning as Trina Stump records the measurement. In addition to the taste of the entry, the canning entries are also scored on quality measurements such as the condition of the lid and the seal. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

In short, baked goods are judged on appearance, texture and flavor. Judges can comment on good flavor, bland, too sweet, salty, check oven temperature, nice color, overly browned, pale, uneven color, pleasant aroma, coarse texture, texture not appropriate to product, and over or under baked.

When it comes to canned items, the points come from product, pack and container evaluations. Factoring in are nice color, good pack, correct texture, properly labeled, clear product, consult U.S.D.A. recommendations, unclean container, improper seal, improper processing (must be pressure canned), good flavor and cloudy product.

Daily culinary contests free and open to all will include:

• Sunday, Crazy over Cupcakes, 2 p.m.
• Monday, Blueberry Blowout, 10 a.m.
• Tuesday, Kids Using Cake Mix, 10:45 a.m.
• Wednesday, Favorite Peach Recipe, 10:45 p.m.
• July 30, Grand Bar Cookie, 10:30 a.m.
• July 31, Kid’s Brownie Bar Cookie or Other Cookie, 10:30 a.m.
• Aug. 1, Chocolate Temptation, 10:30 a.m.

Admission to the fair is $8; $3 for children 6-12 and free for children 5 and younger.

For the complete schedule, visit https://delawarestatenews.net/delaware-state-fair/2015-delaware-state-fair-daily-schedule/

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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