September 19, 2012.
This has been the summer and early fall of firsts. First, the photo shoot, and now most recently, the farmers' market annual cook-off. Ordinarily, I would have done my usual Saturday morning volunteering at the market - setting up, assisting as needed my friend Carol, who's the market manager extraordinaire, cleaning up and so on - but Carol encouraged me to enter the competition this year. Sounds like fun, I thought. No problem, I thought. I just needed to figure out a sweet or savory recipe to enter.
Well, let me give you a few words of advice if you're planning on entering a cook-off, or bake-off, anytime some (or ever). First, think carefully about the recipe you want to enter and make a firm decision well in advance. I advise not waiting until the day before the cook-off to decide between two recipes as said procrastination and hesitation will result in panic purchasing of ingredients for both recipes (doubled, by the way) only to allow more time for said procrastination and hesitation (and resulting possible waste of ingredients for the unchosen recipe). You see, choosing a recipe for a cook-off is tricky business with many factors to consider: ability to be made in advance or relatively short order right before the competition, ease of assembly and serving, visual appearance (we eat with our eyes, remember?), audience, judges, common allergy-inducing ingredients to be avoided, and expected weather at the time of competition, to name some of the most important ones. But, ultimately, the most important factor to consider is figuring out which recipe is simply tasty enough to stand the best chance of winning. This cook-off wasn't divided into categories (all entries - sweet or savory - were going head-to-head...or mouth-to-mouth, as it were), and I had the newbie, first-time jitters, so it was an especially difficult decision to make. I debated between making an adapted version of this seasonal slaw recipe or an amalgamated version of this apple spice cake recipe and an apple cake recipe from the Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook. My sweet side won out, not to mention apples are in season, and really, who can resist cake? Wait, make that apple spice cake with caramel glaze served with homemade whipped cream and a sprinkling of pecans.
(Regrettably, in the crush of serving hungry tasters, I never had an opportunity to get a shot of a complete, beautifully plated serving. So, those pictures along with some imagination will just have to do.)
Now, once the decision has been made, I suggest that you don't celebrate said decision by going out to dinner with friends until late in the evening as said celebration will result in cooking until the wee hours of the morning, which, when combined with a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call to finish entry for the cook-off and assist with set up, results in few hours of sleep (and grouchy husband). This leads me to my next point of advice.
Lack of sleep usually results in one not looking one's best, so give a solid amount of effort to your appearance as chances are photos will be taken, and it really stinks to look at said photos and wish you would have done a little more with your hair. Trust me on this one.
So, despite not following my own advice and instead stumbling through my first attempt at entering a cook-off, I somehow managed to win (but, you should still follow my advice - seriously, your cook-off foray will be much less stressful and you will look really great in those pictures). And, I won...on my birthday. Go figure. Heck of a birthday present, right?
However, the whole cook-off experience isn't only about winning. It's about the fun and challenge of researching, picking and making just the right recipe. It's about the camaraderie with your fellow competitors. It's about following through on a commitment no matter how late it might be when you get started or how tired you might be when you're finished. It's about interacting with all the community members who came out to sample the entries and vote and support the cook-off. It's about being proud that you took the chance to do something new.
And, alright, I'll be honest, it also feels pretty neat if you're recipe is chosen as the winner.
(Editor's note: A special thanks to the blonde photographer for taking the wheel of my camera on photos not marked Sugar Talk Productions.)