By 11 a.m. Saturday, the line going into the San Mateo County Fair had already snaked around the bend. But the rush began long before that.
Starting at 7 a.m., bakers from every corner of the Bay Area arrived with their freshly made bake goods for the culinary arts judges’ taste buds. As is tradition, the baked goods winners are selected before the fair opens on its first day. Which means all baking entrants must have their samples in by 9 a.m.
“I baked my cake on Friday night,” said second-year entrant Caroline Lim, 12, from San Mateo. “And my cookies this morning. Last year, I got second with my chocolate chip Kahlua cake and I’m hoping to place again this year.”
Sometimes, just getting the baked goods to the competition is half the battle.
Competing in his 13th year, Redwood City’s Doug Brees will never forget the year slow traffic and a heat wave caused his cake to almost slide off its foundation.
“I made it in time and fixed it with seconds to spare,” Brees explained after entering his goodies this year. “Then I held the cake box by its handle for just a second, the entire bottom dropped out and the cake face-planted on the pavement right outside the gate.”
The longtime amateur baker played it safe this year with entries in the categories of scones, hand-rolled cookies, drop cookies and bars (non brownie). He’s not the only baker who has caught the bug for the fair’s competitions.
“Each year, I set a challenge for myself and try to meet that challenge,” said Menlo Park’s Suzanne Ramirez. “Last year, I wondered if I could make a cheesecake that revealed polka dots when cut. In the trial-and-error phase, it was an engineering challenge to get the polka dots just right and it was so satisfying to see those polka dots in the finished cheesecake.”
Need proof of the enduring seduction of these baking contests?
This year, there are 61 cookie entries, 14 cakes and 10 pies, and the entries don’t stop there. Everything from pickles to wine to jams and sauces are in competition, with $50 and Best of Show awards on the line.
It’s community, everyone from fair staff to judges to contestants said of the homemade categories. And sometimes, the wins are so much more than just ribbons and bragging rights.
Ava Marie Romero of South San Francisco, a 2010 Best in Show award winner for her chicken enchilada casserole, this year is entering the Happy Cows Dairy contest with her pancetta quiche Lorraine with a brown butter pie crust and the Charity League baking competition with her chocolate cinnamon palmiers using puff pastry, plus Funfetti chocolate chip cookies, to name only a few of her entries.
“In November, I’m the first autistic chef ever selected to compete for world food championship dessert category,” Romero wrote in an email. “I’ll be in Alabama bringing San Mateo County Fair culinary arts contest where it all started.”
Judging in all the categories matter. In the baked goods section, eight judges decide the fate of earnest bakers hoping to place in the top three.
Rich Toledo, a 15-year judging veteran, was joined this year by returning judge Carla Murray, who is returning after a 20-year hiatus.
“I think homemade cooking is a lost art,” Toledo said. “I love seeing the people who enter and what they enter each year.”
Ask how they cleanse their palates between such sweet bites.
“I eat a bite of bread between sweet items,” Toledo said. “And drink a lot of water.”
It’s not all fun and games as Murray and Toledo focused on a large collection of cookies in one category.
“We got a first- and second-place winner in the group,” Toledo said. “But that means we tasted 15 that didn’t even rank.”
The judges said they rate entries on how well they aligned to the category’s rules.
“If a fruit bread has a larger ratio of fruit than the category asked for, it won’t rank,” Toledo said.
Brees, who starts planning his entries in December around the same time he’s baking his Christmas presents for friends and family, said that trying to get it all right and win shouldn’t be anyone’s motivation.
“Don’t try to be perfect, just try,” Brees said. “My testers appreciate every batch I bring into the office, even the ones I know didn’t work.”
The city of Palo Alto staffer said he learned everything he knows about baking from his mother and her recipes, and regularly uses his co-workers, family and friends as taste-testers.
“The best things about the baking competitions at the San Mateo County Fair are the community of supportive bakers,” Ramirez said. “I love seeing my fair friends each year.”
The method Brees employs worked; he took first place with his lemon streusel scones and apricot pinwheels, plus honorable mention in Brown butter blondies.
Ramirez took first place with her pear and walnut bread, cashew and coconut bars, almond and jam tart, second place with her blazin’ pinwheel ice box and almond butter and oatmeal cookies, and third with her cheddar and caramelized onion scones.
“In my 18 years of entering the fair, I have entered scones several times and have never won a prize, but am happy that this year my scones placed,” Ramirez said by email after opening day.
Caroline Lim finally took home that first-place prize for her chocolate Kahlua bundt cake and placed third with her mini sugar cinnamon donut muffins.
The San Mateo County Fair runs until June 17 on the fairgrounds at 2495 S. Delaware St., San Mateo. The winning baked goods are on display in the exhibition hall until the fair closes. Visit sanmateocountyfair.com/culinary-arts for details.
San Mateo County Fair culinary contest draws dedicated bakers