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Don't be fooled: the amateur nature of many baking competitions is not a sign that the standards are low or that a certain amount of expertise and effort is not required.

In Australia, baking or cookery competitions are generally run by local agricultural show societies, rural and regional-focused organisations like The Land newspaper, and the CWA. The stated aims are generally to showcase local ingredients, and to encourage and improve the skills of entrants.

One of the biggest factors in a baking competition is determining how to judge entries. Sometimes the aim is to judge the recipe as well as the baker: in these instances, entrants will be able to use their own recipes to produce the specified finished product. Other times the aim is to judge the best baker: in these instances, all entries must use the specified recipe. A great deal of effort goes in to making sure that all entrants are being judged fairly and equally: entrants will usually need to put their items on a supplied plate with a pre-printed label, making sure that the judges can't be swayed by, for example, a pretty plate or recognising somebody's handwriting.

As you can imagine, when faced with judging forty plates of scones using the same recipe, a lot of points can be riding on very small details. A small flaw you would never notice at home can be the difference between winning or losing.

I am fairly new to this sort of competitive baking, and I am carefully soaking up all the hints, advice and feedback given by my peers and judges. It can be daunting to enter a competition for the first time, and these hints might just help your first entries be winners.

Waste

These hints usually result in masses of extra product. Please don't regard this as waste! While you may not fancy eating eighty scones yourself, there are plenty of people in your life who will be delighted to help you in your baking efforts by disposing of your unwanted extras. Once you have selected your baked goods for entry in the competition, put the rest onto plates or into boxes, and give them away. Consider friends, neighbours, colleagues, family, or local community groups. I have several times turned up to visit my aunt at the nursing home with extras and between the staff and residents they don't last long. 

Consistency

When presenting small items like biscuits, scones or slice, you will generally be asked to enter more than one item for judging. Let's say you need to present four biscuits. When baking, you should bake in batches of four, so that you have four biscuits cooked for exactly the same time at the exact same temperature. Keep your sets of four together, and when you have baked your full batch, select the best set. If you end up with three perfect biscuits and one that fell apart, that won't do. Bake another set!

Size and Shape

Although your kids won't care if their lunchbox is full of odd-shaped cookies, this is one of the easiest ways to lose points in a competition. Not only must your entries be the exact size and shape specified in the rules, but your small items should be consistently sized and shaped across the full set. There are a few ways to get this right:

  • Use a piping bag. Smoother and 'runnier' items, such as meringues or macarons, some biscuits, and batters such as pikelets, can all be dispensed with a piping bag or bottle with a nozzle (those ones you keep tomato sauce in are perfect). This helps keep the shape and size even.
  • Draw a template. Usually the best way to do this is to use an existing item of the correct size and shape (like a scone cutter, mug, plate, or piece of cardboard cut to size) and trace around it on your baking paper. This works best with items that are piped, rolled or spooned.
  • Use a ruler. Check your cake tins, scone or cookie cutters, trays, dished, jars etc. before you begin. Remember that a small difference in the size of a cake tin can result in a bigger difference once the cake is cooked, especially once you line the tin with layers of paper. I strongly recommend taking a ruler with you when purchasing tins: in NSW we recently had an issue where a specialty cake shop was selling some very expensive cake tins that turned out to be more than 7mm smaller than they were advertised, which ended up with a 1cm difference after lining and baking. Several otherwise perfect entries were disqualified.
  • Use the ruler again. Check your items after rolling, cutting, spooning or dispensing. Don't forget to check the height as well as the other dimensions. Most baked items will expand or shrink during cooking and change again during cooling, so you will probably need several test batches to get your sizing right for the final product. It's worth checking whether the measurements specified in the competition rules are for the finished product or the tin/cutter.
  • Use your scales. A great way to ensure that you end up with consistently sized biscuits is to weigh the dough. You will need to run some tests to get it right, and some types of biscuit will be harder to weigh (if there are more chocolate chips in one biscuit, for example).

Appearance

When you have baked goods containing 'lumps' such as rolled oats, chocolate chips, pieces of fruit or nuts, etc., it can be hard to roll and cut a smooth shape. The placement of 'lumps' can also be random across the surface. In this case, it is more important to have the 'lumps' distributed evenly through the mix, then add extras on top before cooking. For example, I frequently make Smartie Muffins, and I usually reserve some Smarties from the mix. After spooning the batter into cases, I will go along with my reserved Smarties, adding extras here and there to make sure each muffin has 3-4 smarties breaking the surface. This improves the look of the finished product, and is especially important in competition baking.

Another important factor is smoothness. Many dryer mixes, such as biscuits, cookies, fruit cakes and some dryer muffins, will benefit from having the tops and sides smoothed before baking. Wet your hands with water and gently run them over the tops and sides of the mix. Fruit cakes especially need smoothing, as they are usually so full of fruit that very little movement in the batter will take place during baking.

Ingredients

When baking for your kids, or a family celebration, or even a formal celebration, you aren't paying that much attention to the fine details. If it tastes good, perfect. If it looks good, great. Winning a compeition will come down to those fine details, though, so you need to take great care selecting and preparing your ingredients.

Sifting flour is a personal bugbear of mine. Honestly, if I'm cooking for my family, tipping the Tupperware upside down and shaking slightly is quite enough effort. I use up my flour fairly quickly, I keep it in an airtight container, and it'll do. I have had to change my ways when competing...

Sift Your Flours

First, select your flour. For any kind of baking that requires a light and airy finished product, a fine white flour is going to be the best. The flour should be as fresh as possible - yes, you really are going to check the dates on the packet and get fresh stuff if you haven't baked for a while. You are never going to win the Victoria sponge competition with stale and lumpy flour.

Lay plenty of baking paper across your kitchen bench, or across a couple of wide, flat and very clean baking trays. Use a sieve or sifter to sift the flour several times. Do NOT use a spoon to push the flour through, and do NOT tip the last lumpy remnants into the sifter flour. Feel free to set aside a bowl to tip these bits into, and use them to make Smartie muffins for the kids later.

Lift the baking paper and gently shake the flour back into the sifter or sieve. Sift again. And again. Yep, keep going. The best bakers might sift 8-10 times. Go on, give it one more sift just to be sure.

To measure your flour, tip it gently into the measuring cup, so that the cup overflows. Gently tap the cup to ensure there are no big gaps under there. Use a knife to swipe across the top of the cup, levelling the flour to the exact height of the measuring cup. Now sift it into the mixing bowl.

Or you could weigh the flour, if you want to be even more accurate.

Some recipes recommend that you sift several dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, cocoa, salt, etc) together. If this is the case, measure each ingredient, then sift them together a few more times. Don't you just love sifting?

Eggs

Eggs are the ingredient that is most likely to vary in size and weight when you are baking. Obviously they come straight out of a bird who has evolved for making more birds, not making sponge cakes. That's why it is important to find out what size/weight of eggs your recipe calls for, and then weigh them.

Eggs must also be as fresh as possible for most recipes. Check your eggs by popping them one by one in a large mug of cold water. Eggs that float are BAD, take them outside and get rid of them. Eggs that stand on their end are okay, use them for an omelette or your muffins. Don't use them for your competition baking. Eggs that sink right down are fresh, and good to use.

Most baking recipes call for ingredients to be at room temperature. Get your eggs out in the morning, or even the night before, check them for freshness, and leave them on the kitchen bench until you are ready to use them. Even if you live in a hot climate, a fresh egg will be okay at room temperature for a couple of weeks, so you don't need to worry about overnight.

Temperature

Most baking recipes say you should have your ingredients at room temperature. This usually applies to eggs, butter, milk, cream and so on. Having your ingredients at the same temperature can help them mix together more quickly and more thoroughly. Your room temperature won't matter too much, if you are in a room that is at comfortable human temperatures, you'll be fine. (If you are using frozen berries in a muffin or friand, use them still frozen - it helps keep the colour from running through the muffin. If you are in a hot/pantry-moth-prone environment and keep your flour in the freezer, pull it out and let it come to room temp before using.) While eggs will be fine sitting out overnight, dairy products are more sensitive. If you live in a hot climate, cream and milk will go off fairly quickly so you need to only pull them out with the minimum necessary time to warm up. Butter can be out a little longer, but again in many climates you won't want to leave it out overnight.

Butter

While ingredients need to be room temperature, butter must still be fairly cool for the recipe to work. When you cream your butter and sugar in preparation for a cake, the butter must not melt. This will not only cause too much of the sugar to dissolve in the butter, but will produce something that just doesn't taste like a good cake. Do not melt your butter! In hot climates, this may mean that you work with much cooler butter, check that you don't keep the mixer going for too long, and work fast. That's okay, you're supposed to work fast for cakes!

Please also learn from my experience with this handy tip: if you have a black granite bench and halogen downlights, don't leave anything unattended on the bench. That combination can melt butter to liquid in half an hour, or turn your gently defrosting cheesecake into a soggy mess in the time it takes to eat dinner.

Cream the Butter and Sugar

Creaming is a term that is slowly going out of use, replaced in Australian cookbooks at least by 'mix butter and sugar on high speed until they are thoroughly mixed and lighter in colour.' That's exactly what it means, and is clearer for those who haven't spent their whole life baking, but it takes longer to say.

Substitution

Obviously if you are following a specified recipe, you are not allowed to substitute different ingredients. If it says butter, a low-cholesterol table spread just won't do. If this seems unfair, remember that the aim here is not to make a cake suitable for your family, but to make a cake that can be judged against other cakes with identical ingredients. 

Otherwise, if you are using your own recipe, you will sometimes want to make substitutions for ingredients. That's fine, but you will need to practise and it helps to do some comparisons when you are baking for a competition. Sometimes you need to adjust the quantities of an ingredient - either the substituted ingredient, or another ingredient - because of the difference in texture, taste or the action of the ingredient as part of the cooking chemistry. Sometimes you will need to provide a list of ingredients you have used, so be sure to make a note if that is the case.

Greasing and Lining

If you dabble in baking, you are already familiar with the idea that to stop stuff sticking to the tray or tin, you use some kind of oil to lubricate, and often some baking paper to line the tin as well. Obviously those little flaws where one tiny bit of the cake stuck to the tin are unimportant on a family birthday, but really critical in a baking competition.

For most 'tray' items such as scones, biscuits and meringues, it is enough to simply line a tray with baking paper. Extra greasing is not needed.

For standard cakes, in a competition, the best 'grease' to use is butter. You can either melt the butter and use a pastry brush to apply it, or simply rub solid butter onto the cake tin using your fingers, a piece of paper towel, or a small leftover piece of baking paper. The paper your butter comes wrapped in is also a handy tool here. Once you have greased the tin, you can apply a thin layer of plain flour (for most cakes) or a thin layer of cocoa (for chocolate cakes) using a sieve or sifter. Lightly sprinkle flour/cocoa inside the tin, then sharply tap the tin on the bench. Hold the tin upside down over the sink or bin and tap it again to dislodge the excess.

Some cakes (and some tins!) need extra protection in the form of layers of paper. Cakes that take a long time to bake, especially fruit cakes, require multiple layers. When cooking a fruit cake, you will need to cut 3-5 layers of plain brown paper for the base of the tin, plus 1-3 layers of brown paper for the sides. Then you need to put a layer of baking paper over that, and grease the baking paper. Obviously this amount of protection is not just for stopping the cake from sticking to the tin. Because these cakes take so long to cook, you need some extra layers that insulate the edges of the cake so they don't burn before the middle cooks.

Cake Tins

It is fashionable at present to use non-stick coated metals, as well as flexible silicon for cake tins and baking trays. This is great for your family, not so much for a competition. There are a couple of reasons:

  • Shape - as well as the obvious problem of flexible tins and trays requiring support so you don't end up with a wobbly end product, many of the nonstick and flexible tins have rounded corners that aren't suitable for competition requirements. It also makes it difficult to effectively line the tins for fruit cakes, etc.
  • Size - many of these tins have not been made to the standard sizes that will be specified by competitions
  • Temperature - these materials conduct heat differently to the thin metal trays and tins traditionally used by bakers, so your baked goods may not quite look right. A sponge, for example, is usually expected to have a very fine golden 'crust' around the outside. I have seen silicon-baked sponges with uneven or nonexistent 'crusts' lose points for it. You might also have trouble controlling the distribution of heat in some cakes. I have had difficulty getting the centres of dense cakes to cook right in nonstick or silicon tins.

This one is more about my personal experience and opinion. Many people I know swear by their silicon or nonstick tins, although I warn you none of them are competitive bakers.

Oven Temperature

There is no substitute for getting to know your own equipment, and the most important here is the oven. Every oven, no matter how new or expensive, will have its own quirks, just like a car, and you can only work this out through trial and error. Where are the hot and cold spots? Does it run overall hotter or cooler? Are the racks level? How long does it take to heat up? You need to work all this out and adjust for it.

Cooling

One of the big surprises when I first joined the CWA was discovering that cakes entered for competition must not have rack marks from cooling. Instead of cooling the cake on a rack, you need to lay out a non-fluffly tea towel or three, and tip the cake onto those to cool, being careful also not to get marks from seams or wrinkles. Read through all the fine print for each competition, because you don't want to be caught out making a simple but deadly mistake that sees your otherwise perfectly cooked zebra cake disqualified.

Judging

When doing their judging, there are several steps that will be repeated for every entry. For example, judges will look at the baked items from all angles (they will turn them over, look at all set biscuits in a set, etc). They will look for colour, shape, size, etc. They will pull out a ruler or template and take measurements. They will smell the item, poke it, and usually cut it open right down the centre. They will look at the distribution of fruit, the size of air bubbles, the bounceback of a sponge. Then they will taste it, usually a long thin piece taken right down the middle. Taste is always going to be the clincher - it doesn't matter that you have the prettiest fruitcake with perfectly even sultana coverage if the cake tastes burnt or dry. It is sometimes impossible to tell these things before you enter the competition, but when you are doing your practise runs, it is worth taking note of all these things each time.

Feedback

My experience so far is that people who enter these competitions are delighted to see a newcomer. Not only do they love sharing their passion with like-minded people, they are keen to pass on their expertise to the younger generation, or to people who don't traditionally take part in baking competitions. Judges and fellow competitors alike are usually happy to give you feedback on your entry, as well as explain the fine details of how they do the judging. Most of the competitions I have taken part in actually have the judging in front of an audience, so the judges are right there telling you what they are thinking. Take notes! Ask questions! Find the prize winners and ask for their advice! You will find out stuff you never knew. If you ask nice and constructive questions, you will probably get to taste all the best cakes and bikkies. You will certainly be able to make a better entry next time. And you might make new friends.

You might even find yourself in the midst of a discussion you never thought anybody else would be interested in. Last time I was at a baking competition I had a half hour discussion about how to make the best skin on a boiled fruit pudding (a subject on which I already have strong opinions), and learnt how to use a razor blade to slice lemon peel for a fine-cut marmalade (my obsessive compulsive heart sang!).

Your Mileage Will Vary

Baking is a delicate art. You can't tell how a scone tastes until you, you know, taste it. You will only find out if your fruit sank when the judge cuts open the fruit cake. And even the best baker can have their ambitions thwarted by a lump of unmixed flour hiding right in the middle of their sponge cake. So while on the one hand this means you can't smugly assume you will win every year, it also means that a newcomer might just end up winning a prize because everything went right on the day. Noding, for example, is a fairly predictable art. I can check over my writeup for errors, and I can reasonably expect that overall a good quality effort will be rewarded with a positive rep. Baking is nothing like that. Trust me on this: I bake and decorate cakes for money, and while I can always be confident that my finished cake looks just right, I can never know if the cake itself worked until it is cut. And simply making money by baking and selling cakes is no guarantee that I will do well in a baking competition. Rolled fondant icing can cover all kind of lumps and holes in a cake - but competition cakes are frequently judged undecorated, so you can't hide under a carefully placed spray of flowers and a pretty ribbon!

Keep a-Learning

If you have any fabulous tips to offer, let me know! I can add them to this writeup, or you could node them yourself below. Take notes! You can see which recipes I use the most because they have little pencil marks everywhere, reminding me to turn the oven down, use orange essence, or never try it with radishes. As I said already, competitive bakers I've met are usually happy to welcome newcomers and happy to share their prize-winning expertise. You never know, the secret siblinghood of e2 bakers may yet take over the world!

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