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Gluten for Punishment

Judging county fair baked goods

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The night before the fair officially opens, the food stalls are up, signs ablaze with corn dogs and funnel cakes, but none of the fryers are going. Tonight, the treats are inside Belotti Hall, where, behind a flank of hanging quilts, felted wool bear sculptures and jars of jam, some 140 entries await judging in the first night of the Humboldt County Fair's baked goods competition. A dizzying landscape of half loaves of quick breads and yeast breads, muffins, bars, cookies, brownies and wedges of frosted layer cakes all sit on the required paper plates, covered by glinting plastic wrap. Pie is a whole other night.

With a last-minute invitation to join the loosely anonymous judges — including one other Journal colleague — I took a seat and a deep breath. With more lead time, I'd have had a lighter dinner.

Ani Knight, her hair in a loose bun, clasps her hands over her apron with its pattern of oranges and apologizes for being a little harried. "It's been a week," she says, and runs through the scoring method. Each entry is scored individually according to the breakdown on the category scoresheets. The simplest is for cookies, which are rated 40 percent on appearance (20 percent uniformity, 20 percent color), 30 percent on texture and 30 percent on flavor. The judges are responsible for their own math and the top score gets the ribbon. Cake is judged on seven elements, including crumb and filling, which must be a minimum of ¼ inch, fluffy and have a "good flavor blend with cake."

It's an informal setup but carried out without favor. Not all categories have more than one entry, but that doesn't mean a lone scone or roll won't be tasted, evaluated and given constructive critique. "This is my fair, my building," at least for tonight, says Knight, who's organizing the competition for the third year in a row. And while not every bake-off is run the same, it's her feeling the contestants' effort and guts should be acknowledged and encouraged. "If someone brought something, they stepped up. So, if there's one in a class, they get first place."

Once we get started, it's a scramble of paper plates shuffled around the table, each of us taking little scoops and wedges of a single sugar-encrusted muffin, sniffing, sampling and scribbling numbers on our scoresheets. I'm still carrying the 1 when the next plate appears. It's a raucous group with strong opinions — no professional bakers but lifelong amateurs and committed aficionados of the sweetest science. Of course, we have our own biases and knowledge gaps. I've only ever read about Nanaimo bars, the patron sweet of British Columbia, and couldn't say what a successful specimen should be like. Luckily, a Canadian is on hand to evaluate instead. I find the bottom of a lemon bar too thick but that's how my colleague's beloved grandmother made them, so our numbers even out.

There are 77 entries for the adult competition with a handful of no-shows, and another 70 for the junior division. The $2 entry fee makes it easy to bail but it also opens the field. Among the adult entries, the distance between the top and bottom scores — and the skill and experience they reflect — is broad. The crust on one pastry is gorgeous but the filling is a little dry. The crumb on a loaf is too tight and requires muscle to saw through, a shortbread base too greasy. One entry is honestly inedible, a dense paste that lingers in the mind, and the molars. That one drew guffaws but also a gently helpful note for future endeavors. A yeast bread's pull draws shouts of appreciation, the candied crust of a pecan bar spikes my envy and allowances are made for a frosted cake drooping a bit after a day in the warm hall. We've all been there, hon.

Knight helps her daughter shuttle plates of desserts and flips through her master list, checking off entries as we go. Sometimes she takes a curious bite when the scores run to either extreme. Her hope, she says, is that more locals will shoot their shot in coming years, upping both competition and community involvement.

Most of us are shaking a little from the sugar by the time the adult entries are scored, and there's a whole wooden rack of junior wares to sample. The brownies, cakes and cookies made by kids are given their awards on a loose Danish judging system (allowing multiple first- and second-place winners), which, along with the aforementioned sugar, speeds the process. We sample and sticker each plate, with a few pies, cookies and caramels drawing double takes and giving the grownups a run for their ribbons.

With the winners of each category nailed down, a trio faced off for the coveted adult Best in Show ribbon: a tall biscuit stacked with buttery layers that demonstrated technical mastery, an onion-poppyseed loaf that was quickly dwindling from repeat sampling, and that plate of perfect Texas pecan bars I've been fixating on. After some back and forth, including a spirited defense by Team Onion, the biscuit emerges victorious.

After the frenzy, I drove home in some of the thickest fog I've navigated. Whether it was the visibility or the sugar buzz that made me miss my exit is debatable.

The winning biscuit baker was Adam Berger. Best of Bar Cookies went to Courtney Sousa's Texas pecan bars, and the Onion Lover's Twist by Abby Ziesak took Best Bread. These and the rest of the ribbon winners — or what remains of them after rigorous testing — are in the display case in Belotti Hall. Don't judge their appearances too harshly; it's been a week.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Instagram @JFumikoCahill and on Mastodon @jenniferfumikocahill.

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