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updated: 7/26/2011 7:43 AM

Sweet tips for blue-ribbon baking

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  • A splash of coffee liqueur and a sprinkle of salt make these brownies blue ribbon contenders.

      A splash of coffee liqueur and a sprinkle of salt make these brownies blue ribbon contenders.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer


It is fair week in DuPage County and this morning I am out at County Farm Road fair grounds judging the annual foods competitions where local bakers never fail to surprise me with diverse and imaginative entries.

While at the fair people always ask me two questions: What qualities, besides taste, capture my attention when reviewing an entry? What inspires me to award that coveted blue ribbon or Best in Show trophy?

Today I'll give you a sneak peek into the secret world of food judging. Follow these 10 rules and you'll be a contender for the top prize in culinary competitions.

Don't disqualify yourself. Read all contest requirements before settling upon a recipe or design. Then reread the rules to verify your choice meets the criteria.

Bake what you know. Select a recipe that feels comfortable and matches your kitchen skills. Don't attempt your grandma's signature dessert without a few trial runs under your belt … and good written instructions from Grandma.

Keep it simple. Simple, elegant and well-executed wins every time. Complicated recipes and displays distract the judges. Aim to guide the eye around the entry and clearly communicate your culinary message.

Select one powerful ingredient (such as chocolate or peanut butter) that can be easily identified and build off that base. Alternatively, contrasting ingredients, such as lemon and blueberry, complementing each other. But limit those power players to one or two.

Less is more when using embellishments and garnishes such as sprinkles, candies, nuts and frostings. When you feel the need to ask if that is enough decoration, step back and stop there.

Visual appeal matters. Are the cookie edges or bottoms overly browned or just right? Try parchment paper for uniform baking and check the oven for accurate and even heat.

Perfection is unattainable. However, attention to detail sets your masterpiece apart from the other entries. Judges always notice the little things.

Secret recipe syndrome. It's OK to keep that special family recipe under wraps, but be sure to include ingredient list so judges know you followed the rules and so they know what they're sampling.

Follow plating and display requirements. Most contests call for disposable white plates or cardboards for large entries. Verify required piece count. Important for home canning competitions: All jars must be properly sealed. Judges open the jars and listen for the "pop."

Transport securely and carefully. Drive safely and keep foods level. Ask if the venue have refrigeration or air conditioning or if you should plan on packing a cooler? Will plastic wrap ruin your frosting or decorations? Use toothpicks to prop up coverings and bring extra frosting for quick touch-ups.

Today's recipe offers a less sweet take on brownies with a splash of coffee flavor and sprinkle of salt to highlight the bold flavors.

If you're at the DuPage County Fair check out the blue ribbon winners and say hi.

• Annie Overboe, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, lives in Villa Park. Write her at