Perhaps it was a phone call to my grandmother. Or maybe a cookbook I got for Christmas. It could even have been a morning stroll past a bakery, with its hot and heady aromas of flour and yeast. I can’t quite remember. But whatever lit the fire, the desire grew. I decided to enter the Newcastle Regional Show cookery competition. And once you voice your intentions out loud, there’s no going back.
VIDEO: Share some of Judith's experience at the show.
Video by Amy Spear
Since 1902, the show has been giving town and country folk the chance to demonstrate their making, doing and growing abilities. There are many competitions to enter: art, craft, woodchopping, vegie growing; you can show your animals: cat, dogs, chooks and cows. But it’s the cookery ring I’ll throw my hat into.
There are few things more satisfying than sharing something you’ve cooked with someone you love. Cakes fresh out of the oven, gooey slices to sink your teeth into, light, fluffy scones smothered in butter and jam and cream: they evoke innocence, nourishment, goodness.
But baking for the show goes further than fattening up your family, friends and workmates. For the serious contenders there must also be precision, pride, technique and reverence.
I realised early on that if I was going to compete against stalwarts of 40, 50, and 60 years’ experience, I needed to do my homework.
First I must decide what I am going to cook. There are 80 options under general cookery, junior cookery and icing and decorating categories. Then there’s the jams, jellies, pickles and sauces. All up, 139 classes. Ruling out icing and decorating, children’s classes, men’s classes, fruit cakes and puddings, that leaves me cakes, biscuits and slices.
I decide to bake my way through my collected recipes, using my colleagues at the Herald as guinea pigs. They don’t protest.
My mother had a tea towel with Flo Bjelke-Petersen’s pumpkin scone recipe. I liked to look at her smiling face – she seemed like a nice old stick – so I give her scones a go.
The recipe is easy to follow, and I’m pretty sure they taste good, but the presentation is lacking. They are not the light, fluffy risen versions I see in the pictures. I suspect my butter and sugar creaming skills are lacking. I head to YouTube to watch an instructional video on how to whip my butter into a frenzy. After a second attempt, the report back from my work mates is that my scones have ‘‘a nice crumb’’, but I suspect they have no idea what they are on about. Similar feedback for my chocolate-chip biscuits and mud cake hint that they are just being nice. So it’s time to talk to someone in the know.
The head organiser of the cookery competition, steward Ellice Schrader, has been running the show for 13 years and entering for 24, winning quite a few medals and ribbons along the way. She decides on the cookery schedule and what classes will run.
‘‘There’s the same things every year, and they have probably been the same for the last hundred. There’s things I’ve introduced, because it depends on what people want to cook, you know, what’s in. There’s trends for cooking,’’ Schrader says.
She has introduced the popular men’s categories and merged the mud cake categories, provides recipes for certain classes, and, along with her team of volunteers, makes sure the competition runs smoothly. Plus, she cheerily fields questions from novices like me.
She manages to both allay my fears and compound them. When I tell her the classes I’m thinking of entering, she laughs: ‘‘You’re not picking the easy things. Chocolate-chip biscuits should be OK, but pumpkin scones are very difficult. I don’t even enter scones. We get a lot of entries in scones. They are highly contested.’’ Eek.
It’s the categories with prizes, like the scones and chocolate cake, that are the most popular to enter, Schrader says.
I tell her I’m planning to enter a mud cake, and tossing up between chocolate and caramel. She tells me that ‘‘any idiot can boil, because that’s all a mud cake is’’. They’re comforting words. I can feel a ribbon coming on!
‘‘Caramel and white chocolate muds are much easier to make than a choc mud because you don’t get the crust. A true mud cake is very dense and has a crusty top,’’ she says.
My attempts have a crust on the top, but I suspect it’s actually charring. They also have cracks, risen edges and air pockets. I keep on practising.
Cooking for the show is quite different to cooking at home. There are strict rules. This provides an even footing for competitors and makes it easier for judges to qualify their decisions. It’s also for more practical purposes; with 200 cakes entered each year, the judges, physically, have a lot to get through. One rule is that icing is to be used on certain cakes, not frosting. ‘‘The judges want it like that because it gets too tricky to cut. That’s why we’re not having cream-cheese icing on a carrot cake, you don’t want messy stuff,’’ Schrader says.
‘‘We’re the biggest show out of Sydney [Royal Easter Show]. Judging is enormous.’’
Indeed, the judges – who provide one of the only public cookery judging sessions in the state – are a revered group of Country Women’s Association members. Schrader wouldn’t have it any other way.
‘‘Unless they’re state-qualified I don’t have them. I’m really strict on that. CWA is the standard. They go through so much to be a judge. And they’re really good. They can tell you if there’s spice in it that shouldn’t be, they know if someone hasn’t used the provided recipe. They know all the tricks,’’ she says.
But she doesn’t let them rest on their laurels. Some categories have two judges, and judges are changed regularly, otherwise their keen eye becomes used to a particular exhibitor.
Entries are judged on presentation and taste, as well as following the rules. There can be no rack marks, no residual flour, no patty cases, no decorations, no spices in pumpkin scones. The right dimensions must be adhered to, the right shaped tin must be used, icing must be only on the top. And don’t be surprised when the judges whip out a tape measure to check the size of your pikelets. They must be seven centimetres in diameter.
‘‘Even the little things, like on your chocolate cake, your icing and your cake have to be the same colour, if you want to win. With your icing, you’re not to decorate. A lot of people can’t help themselves and put nuts or coconut or cherries on top, well that gets disqualified,’’ Schrader says.
There are so many tricks and so much to learn. I feel I am more pre-novice than novice. Maybe I should enter the junior section? No, I’ve seen Junior MasterChef, those kids are mavericks. I have big questions that need answering: Why does my cake crack? Why won’t my biscuits stay round? How do I get my scones to rise more? For big questions, I need big answers.
There are competitors who’ve been entering for donkey’s years. These women command a humble silence when they walk into the judging arena. Their accolades are the stuff of legends, their cakes a thing of beauty. One such heavyweight is Mrs Merle ‘‘The Pearl’’ Parrish. You may recognise her as the quiet, unassuming grandmother who walloped Billy Law’s batter in a MasterChef bake-off last year. She won her first prize at a show at the age of seven with a plate of Anzac biscuits, and has since won hundreds more, and published a book of recipes.
Parrish is a wealth of knowledge, and graciously forthcoming and philosophical when she chats to me from her home in Cudal, near Orange. ‘‘I think it’s good, if you’re thinking about entering, to go along and listen to the judge judging and you can pick up a lot of hints. That’s what I did the very first time,’’ she says.
‘‘And try not to be upset by any criticism. That’s the way you learn. Cooking for the show is different than cooking at home for yourself.’’
Parrish obtained her CWA judge’s certificate in 1988 and loves to chat about her experiences. She has made her now-famous peach blossom cake 40 times in the past year, and yes, her baking tins fall out of the cupboard on top of her just like mine. But time is ticking, so I get down to the nitty-gritty.
‘‘With cookies and biscuits, it’s important to make them all uniform in size if you can,’’ she says. ‘‘Take a teaspoon of the mixture in your hands and then flatten.
‘‘Cakes sink because you don’t have quite enough flour in them. Add a level tablespoon of flour, if there’s not enough flour to bind your compound. Get into the habit of presenting at home as you would for competitive cooking, because then it becomes habit.’’
One of the most important elements of baking is understanding your oven. I’ve discovered mine is a blast furnace in which I could smelt iron ore. My cake tops are cracking, my scones brown too quickly, and my edges, and stress levels, are rising.
‘‘Every oven seems to be different,’’ Parrish says. ‘‘I have a gas oven myself and I wouldn’t swap it for all the electric ovens. The heat is more even and you don’t get any fluctuation of power.’’
In fact, one of the most common mistakes for the rookie is overcooking or undercooking their cakes. ‘‘Too hot will make your cake rise on the edge, and then when it cools it sinks a little and that ridge stays. The main thing is to cook your cakes to the temperature it advises in the books where your recipes are,’’ she says.
The importance of the oven is reiterated to me later by Lyn Howard, a long-time Newcastle cookery entrant and multiple-award winner, who retired from show cooking a few years ago. She now donates prizes and supports her grandchildren Ben, 11, and Samantha, 8, who have been entering the junior cookery classes for five years.
‘‘I bought a new oven and as far as the cakes go, it’s not as good as my first oven,’’ Howard says. ‘‘I put a new kitchen in, with the same type of oven, it’s just not as good.”
Parrish advises me to turn my fan-forced oven down 20 degrees and see how I go.
And finally: ‘‘Don’t be discouraged if you fail. I still have failures, so just keep trying. It really is an art, you know.’’
Thanks Mrs Parrish, now back to the kitchen. But turning down the oven makes no difference. With my confidence sinking like the middle of my cakes, I turn to a baker who managed great success on her first attempt. And I eat some cake.
Siobhan Curran, a Novocastrian foodie and blogger, entered the show last year for the first time and came home victorious – best scones in show and best strawberry jam.
‘‘In an Australian kitchen, you should know how to cook a good scone,’’ Curran maintains. ‘‘It’s the highest echelon of country baking. I made the scones that morning of the show and I turned up ... there were a few other entrants with a plate of four plain scones. Some were smaller than mine and looked like muffins, and others were darker or lighter. You’ve just got no idea, you get total anxiety. [The judges] were deliberating between my scones and another person’s scones. It didn’t take very long, but it was really quite nerve-racking and exciting.’’
Curran says that if you have an interest in cooking and you’re willing to have a crack, ‘‘you’re halfway there’’.
‘‘You may have cooked a bazillion chocolate cakes ... it’s not until they [the judges] touch it that you find out if there could be air pockets, so ... it’s really open to anyone, that’s what I love about it.’’
She’s planning a return this year to defend her titles, admitting modestly it could have been ‘‘beginner’s luck’’. Major prizes this year are sponsored by Newcastle Kitchen and Cutlery, but there are a host of prizes donated by Hunter cooks, such as Howard and Schrader, with a fondess for particular categories.
For the first time this year, judging of general cookery and jams and pickles classes will be held over one big day.
Schrader says judges arrive an hour after all the entries are in ‘‘so all they see is everything lined up, not who brings what’’.
‘‘We provide the paper plates for judging, so every cake is on the same plate and they all look the same.’’
The judge will talk through the process as she goes, a little like a cooking lesson.
‘‘There’s six plates of scones in front of them, they’ll go through every one of them and just roughly say by the look what’s wrong with them. Then they split them open and taste them and tell you if you’ve used too much carb soda, or whether you’ve kneaded it too much, or you haven’t mixed your pumpkin through properly, and they discuss that with every entry,’’ she says.
‘‘But it’s fun. You’ll sit there and you won’t be devastated by what they say. When you’re up against people who have exhibited for 20-plus years, you can’t expect to win everything. It doesn’t mean you’re not ever going to win, it just means try again.’’
I head back to my kitchen with a better perspective. But with less than a week to go, my nerves are frayed and my kitchen is a mess. I’ve been focusing a little too much on the baking and not the bigger picture.
Lyn Howard will be entering choko pickles this year, but mostly she will be there to watch the children’s judging, help out and support her family. She loves encouraging people to enter, and goes as far as picking up their entries and putting their forms in the post.
‘‘I’m very passionate about the Newcastle Show,’’ she says. ‘‘Some people will say ‘my work’s not good enough’, but if you don’t put in, you don’t know. You can get quite a pleasant surprise. And if people don’t put in, there’s nothing to look at, there’s no show.’’
Schrader is similarly encouraging. ‘‘You hear people every year, they look at the cabinets and say, ‘I can cook better than that’, and I think, ‘Well, why don’t you?’ Give it a go, it’s a lot of fun.’’
Curran is all for taking a chance. ‘‘What have you got to lose? You just never know, you might walk away with a medal.’’
By the time you are reading this, my baking efforts will have been judged. I may be basking in glory or I may be shopping for a new oven.
Whatever the outcome, I will have been rewarded with a wealth of knowledge about one of our most basic life skills, from the women who share their patiently acquired learning so freely; the women who love to teach you their tricks.