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posted: 7/1/2014 6:00 AM

Cook of the Week: Competition fuels creative spark

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  • Video: Baking with Marija Benson

  • Marija Benson, of Naperville, has enjoyed baking since she was a girl. Watch her make Swedish Spice Cake, pictured, at Head to for her Maple Oatmeal Bread recipe.

      Marija Benson, of Naperville, has enjoyed baking since she was a girl. Watch her make Swedish Spice Cake, pictured, at Head to for her Maple Oatmeal Bread recipe.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

By Abby Scalf
Daily Herald Correspondent

Marija Benson has a game plan ready.

She only will reveal that it includes chocolate and cheesecake. And when she enters her next competition, to make the best cupcake, she expects her combination will bring her a first place.

The Naperville resident has enjoyed baking since she was 10. Although she received rave reviews through the years for her oatmeal maple syrup bread and chocolate chip cake she never had the desire to test her mettle in a competition.

That was until a baking instructor encouraged her to try.

"I thought 'Me? I'm not that creative.' I decided to go ahead and give it a try," she said.

She created a raisin-studded brioche flavored with orange and various spices for her first competition, one run by the California Raisin Marketing Board.

"I worked on that recipe. I baked it twice a week at school for six weeks perfecting the recipe and also perfecting the technique because it wasn't just graded on how it tasted but also how it was made," she said.

Her recipe earned her a spot as one of 36 finalists and a trip to the national competition in Las Vegas. Though she didn't come home with a ribbon, Marija said she felt like a winner.

"It boosted my confidence in my ability," she said. "Of course, friends and family have always said I'm a fantastic baker, but to have it validated in a professional way felt really good." While baking for a judging panel may be a new pastime, Marija loves to work in the kitchen to please friends and family. Some of her favorites include her mother-in-law's flatbread, Swedish spice cake and oatmeal cookies made using ammonium carbonate, which Marija explained is an old-fashioned leavening agent used in Swedish and German baking.

While holding onto tradition, she's learning modern recipes and taking a class in gluten-free baking so she can make treats for her granddaughter.

Since that first contest Marija has competed in three other competitions and placed in each one. She earned second place in a brownie competition for her out-of-the box twisted olive-blood orange brownies that included such ingredients as dry mustard, olive oil and chocolate-infused balsamic vinegar. She took third place in a scone competition at the French Pastry School for her chocolate and orange submission. And most recently after studying about 100 shortbread recipes before creating her own, her almond shortbread cookies took fourth place in the Chicago school's decorated cookie competition.

"Much of the grade was based on cookie decorating and I've never considered myself a cookie or cake decorator," she said, adding that she's most proud of that award.

Marija now considers herself a competitive baker. She adds she enjoys the process because she can blend science behind baking and her creative side, too.

"The beauty in understanding baking is that once you understand what different ingredients will do for you, it can be very creative," she said. "I'm not sure there are too many new things in the world, but I think you can put a new twist on things."

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