The LA County Fair has been going on for the past few weeks here in Southern California. It is the largest county fair in the US, with nearly 1.5 million visiting the fairgrounds during its one month run. You’ll find all kinds of games, rides and attractions, as well as 22 different cooking contests where home chefs and bakers can put their skills up to the test for ribbons, prize money and – of course – bragging rights. This year, I was invited to be one of the judges for the Ghirardelli Chocolate Championships at the LA County Fair.
I was one of four judges and our job was to taste our way through each of 39 decadent chocolate desserts to try to pick out a winner. The contest required that competitors make a from-scratch dessert and use at least one Ghirardelli Chocolate product – such as cocoa powder or chocolate chips – in their recipe, though they were allowed to make any kind of chocolate dessert. We judged on four criteria: Appearance, Taste, Creativity and Ease of Preparation. The entries were all supposed to be accompanied by a product label and a typed recipe.
There was also one unexpected obstacle to this particular competition: the heat. It was at least 100F outside and exceptionally humid for summertime in Southern California on the day of the competition. The competitors had to get their entries from the parking lot, through the fair to the kitchen showroom to be judged – no small task to ask for any chocolate baked good, but it was an even bigger challenge for those who baked cheesecakes and prepared mousses. It wasn’t much cooler in the judging pavilion, either, and we tried to be extremely lenient with anything that looked like it had melted a bit. That said, the competitors did do a fantastic job preparing their desserts and I was extremely impressed with how well they prepared to face the heat and protect their entries!
The judging was great right from the start and everything that I tasted was delicious, which made the job more fun but the actual judging more difficult. I am not kidding when I say that everything was very, very tasty. We tended to like the entries that had more chocolate flavor the best (it was a chocolate contest, after all) and the recipes that incorporated more than one type of chocolate successfully tended to be front runners. When we started to narrow it down to the top six, things got difficult because it truly was difficult to rank the best of the best. We went over our notes, tasted a few more times and came to a consensus with three winners and one honorable mention.
Mini Whoopie Passion Bites took 1st place (pictured above) and won a blue ribbon, a Black and White Silk Mousse Cheesecake (pictured below) took 2nd place and a Quadruple Layer Chocolate Cheesecake won 3rd. Honorable mention went to a Chocolate Pumpkin Roulade with Mascarpone and Ginger Cream. (Note: names of the winners will be updated when I get the official listing from the fair).
Obviously you need a good, solid recipe to do well in a competition and experimenting in the kitchen will get you off to a good start. I thought I might offer a suggestions on a few of the things that I noticed when judging that might help future competitors out. Quite a few entries were out of the running for the top spots because they lost a few points for “creativity”. For instance, chocolate chip cookies are a classic – but they would need some extra or unexpected element to push them up into “wow” territory and ribbon contention. You want your recipe to stand out! Sometimes, a recipe just needs a small tweak to move from “good” to “excellent.” Using toasted nuts in a topping instead of untoasted, for example, can make a dessert even more flavorful. Finally, use the best quality ingredients that you can find for your contest entry, because sometimes it comes down to very small things when choosing for the ribbons and any little thing can give you the edge to win.
Overall, the contest was a lot of fun to judge and certainly very tasty. When I have judged other culinary contests, the contestants are typically in a separate room and the judges do their judging in private. Here, I was tasting and inspecting all the entries right in front of the competitors! It actually made it a little bit more exciting and I really enjoyed being able to give feedback to the bakers (after the competition was over, of course) . I might be back for next year’s contest – and I will definitely be baking some of the winning recipes and showcasing them here in the meantime!