Looking for a good cookie recipe? Or how about some fancy jelly? Look no further than to cooks who win big at the Florida State Fair.
Vanilla-Chai Icebox Shortbread Cookies by Mary Jo Boyle of Dunedin, Cinnamon Applesauce Banana Bread from Destiny Hurst of Tampa, and colorful Corncob Jelly by Megan Handley of Mulberry are just some of the recipes you’ll find in the 2015 Winners’ Recipes Cookbook, put together by the Florida State Fair staff.
“The state fair is known for its food, and this cookbook represents the very best from our culinary competitions,” said Chuck Pesano, executive director of the Florida State Fair Authority.
Out of 1,000 entries, in over 50 baking and preserving categories, the recipes in this cookbook took First Place or Best of Show awards. Pesano compares them to the “greatest hits in music.” And just thumbing through the spiral-bound book, you’ll find plenty of variety among the 75-plus entries.
Eight of them are from Andy Hilton of Davenport, who has been competing with his baked goods at the Florida State Fair since 2009. “It’s a fun way to be able to say, ‘Hey, this baking has earned merit, and that justifies the work that’s gone into it,’” said Hilton, who works in sales and service for a laundry-chemical company.
His award-winning contributions include recipes — or, as he calls them, “formulas” — for White Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecake and Lemon Delight Cake. But he’s particularly proud of his Cherry Bars that he entered in the cookie competition.
“Cookies have been my nemesis for a long time,” he explained.
Hilton started out baking pies with his mother when he was a child, growing up in southwestern Michigan. “That was our time together,” he said.
From making pies, he branched out into cakes, such as his award-winning Coconut Blueberry Cake and Strawberry Chocolate Marble Cake. Their recipes are in the cookbook.
But Hilton hasn’t had as many winning cookie recipes. That’s why he’s thrilled that his Cherry Bars won First Place in 2015. He worked a long time to get their complex flavors to blend nicely together.
Take the shortbread crust, for instance. “People naturally gravitate toward the taste of butter,” he noted. But he didn’t want the crust to be too greasy or too dry. “If the flour or sugar is off, it can be crumbly or grainy.”
When it comes to the cherry filling, he used a formula that had previously won him Best of Show in pies. It starts with plenty of frozen as well as dried cherries. “I don’t take the filling out of a can or jar because, often, those are just way too full of glaze. I prefer to be able to control the cherry content.”
Then Hilton added a touch of almond flavoring to the filling and to the decorative drizzle used atop the bars, because almond is a “natural enhancer” to the taste of the fruit.
“I think it worked out very well,” he said. The judges must have agreed, because they awarded Hilton First Place in the bar-cookie competition; you’ll find that recipe, or formula, in the book, too.
See the recipe for Hilton’s Blue Ribbon Cherry Bars.
Although Hilton likes to participate in the Florida State Fair, where he can see old friends, win prize money, and receive honors for his award-winning baking, he thinks one of the best perks of competing is a free day at the fair when you bring your goods to be judged.
“That’s really, really fun,” he said.
The 2015 Winners’ Recipes Cookbook, available at floridastatefair.com, costs $16, including shipping within the United States. The 2016 winners’ book should be out in late fall.
The 2017 Florida State Fair will be Feb. 9-20 at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa. The event will feature competitions for a number of interests, including baking and preserving, woodworking, arts and crafts, photography, and technology.
Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley is a longtime Florida journalist covering the local food and gardening scene. With a master’s degree in agricultural journalism, she served as food editor of The South Florida Sun-Sentinel for over 20 years. Today, she is a certified “master gardener.”