Keep in mind, simplicity key to blue-ribbon cookies
I'll be judging culinary entries at the DuPage County Fair in Wheaton this morning. I've judged professional baking contests in the past, but I find county fairs are where the real fun's at.
I continue to be impressed by the creativity and focus nonprofessional competitors demonstrate. Few are disqualified for not following the rules and many participants showcase their talents in a number of categories. These dedicated cooks and bakers are anything but amateur.
I look forward most to judging desserts and decorated entries in the junior (youth) category. Over the years I have awarded ribbons to a cake masquerading as a fish tank, clever racing pig cupcakes and other extraordinary baked goods.
The young bakers display raw culinary talents that need to be encouraged and developed. They come to the county fair competition free of preconceived ideas, inspired by adults and rise to the occasion.
So what does it take to win that elusive blue ribbon? What makes one entry catch the judges' eye and tantalizes their taste buds? Dare I share?
Today's recipe for Blue Ribbon Fair Cookies provides a great opportunity to learn a few of these secrets.
Keep the flavor theme simple. Too many tastes dilute the power of that first bite to grab your taste buds. Today's recipe calls for only one stir-in.
Stick with unsalted butter. It's fresher and offers clean flavor. Margarines and butter-flavored shortenings taste unnatural. Vegetable oils bring zero flavor to recipes.
Balance brown sugar with white sugar: Used together they bake multilayered sweetness into cookies. Separately, the molasses in brown sugar drowns out the nuances of butter while white sugar alone bakes a pale, ultra sweet cookie.
All-purpose doesn't mean all the time. Control texture by combining different flours. In today's cookie, I replaced about one-fourth of the all-purpose flour with cake flour. The reduced protein in cake flour gently softens the finished texture providing a slightly chewy bite.
For a less cake-like cookie, crack one less egg or use small eggs.
Use a high quality extract. I like Madagascar Bourbon vanilla extract (I get it at Trader Joe's). My Blue Ribbon Fair Cookies call for 1 tablespoon extract that bakes in a noticeable background vanilla essence.
Choose a dominant flavor for the stir-in. Dark chocolate chips or chunks provide perfect balance against sweet cookie dough. Stir-ins should visually complement dough, not overwhelm the cookie.
Use a scoop. This handy tool, like an ice cream scoop, evenly portions dough, makes quick work of panning the cookies and ensures they bake evenly.
Know your oven. If it runs hot or cold, you need to know. Have it calibrated if necessary. Use parchment paper to prevent baked good from burning onto sheets.
Heed this advice and I guarantee your cookies will be worthy of that blue ribbon. Maybe I'll be the one handing it to you.
• Annie Overboe, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, lives in Villa Park. Send questions to Baking Secrets, Daily Herald Food section, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions will not be responded to personally.