The California State Fair opened yesterday. And for me that means that it's time to get busy preparing for the California Kitchen baking competition.
This year I have eight entries. My goal, most likely too ambitious, is to win "Best in Division" or the most elusive crown of all, "Best in Show"
My first step in preparing is to review the voluminous notes that I have taken from previous competitions.
People who know me well are astonished to learn that I—a man who is so adverse to record keeping that he has not balanced his check book in a quarter of a century—have copious notes on what went right and what went wrong with my previous entries.
But when it comes to winning baking prizes, I leave no stone unturned.
From the judge's comments, one observation on my second place finishes appeared repeatedly: "too big, make smaller!"
I protested this vigorously each and every time. To me, the logic seemed absurd. If the cookies are too big, cut them in half. On the other hand, if they are too small, then eat two of them.
However you look at it, points should not be deducted.
I have the judge's message now regarding size, but I'm wondering if the same applies to frosting. In other words, if I spread it on thick (as is my preference) will a judge write on my scorecard: "Too much frosting. Use less?"
Knowing that the key to victory is chocolate, the two entries for which I hold out the most hope for the top prize are brownies.
One is a variation of a recipe I found in Chocolatier Magazine that calls for a pound of unsweetened chocolate, a cup and a half of chocolate chips, a cup and a half of butter ¼ cup of cocoa power and three cups of sugar. I've added dried California Bing cherries.
Many, if not most, taste testers would conclude that there is enough chocolate, butter and sugar already in the recipes and that frosting them is gilding the lily.
I've tried them frosted and unfrosted. My hands down choice is for frosting. And the thicker the frosting, the better the brownie.
But a bad brownie can't be disguised by frosting, no matter the amount that you slather on it. For truly good brownies, make them with the best chocolate you can afford and to keep the ratio of chocolate to flour as heavily in favor of chocolate as possible.
Debates rage among professional bakers about the wisdom of add-ins like peppermint patties. To many, folding in marshmallows, peanut butter, chipotle powder, orange marmalade or cream cheese bastardizes the brownie.
Traditionalists view the modern brownie is simple and unadorned, dependent for its success on the basics of flour, sugar, butter, eggs and chocolate. And baking powder isn't allowed—ever. The rule of thumb for the home baker is the simpler the brownie, the more likely it is to be delicious.
Classic brownie recipes dating back to the 1900s called for a mere two ounces of chocolate.
Thankfully, the chocolate content for this uniquely American treat has steadily increased over the decades through the 1970s when the term "chocoholic" was coined. At about the same time, "Cathy," the comic strip character, constantly complained about her chocolate cravings thereby giving legitimacy, so to speak, about chocolate urges.
Although I am flying in the face of conventional wisdom by entering brownies that are frosted and have peppermint patties and dried cherries, I am not afraid.
I've never offered one to a friend that went half eaten. Most of the time, there are requests for more.
And that, more than anything else, is the true test of an outstanding brownie.