Cake judging is done by the book

EXPERIENCED HAND: Camille Manton has judged at the Newcastle Show cooking competitions for nine years.  –  Picture by Kitty Hill
EXPERIENCED HAND: Camille Manton has judged at the Newcastle Show cooking competitions for nine years. – Picture by Kitty Hill

CAMILLE Manton, the head judge of the cookery categories at this year’s Newcastle Regional Show, loves her job.

And why wouldn’t she?

Days of eating silky soft sponges, biting into fluffy scones and coconut cakes, and sampling jams, pickles and relishes would be many people’s idea of splendour.

Mrs Manton can’t wait to sample and scrutinise all the show entries on Friday and Saturday.

‘‘I love it. I absolutely love it,’’ she laughed

‘‘I come home exhausted and I make sure I have a very easy dinner that night, because I’ll have been eating all day.

‘‘But I absolutely love the cooking judging and I enjoy it so much that it isn’t a chore, I look forward to it.’’

After watching the MasterChef Australia contestants struggle to produce scones, marble cakes and lamingtons during a Country Women’s Association baking challenge on last year’s series, one might wonder whether there is still much interest in cooking and baking some of the good old stuff.

But if the number of people still entering shows is anything to go by, there’s still plenty out there who want to see how their baked goods fare in competition.

‘‘We’re expecting a good roll-up this year,’’ she said.

‘‘People are still entering the regional shows, which is a good thing, now we’ve got to encourage the younger ones.

‘‘They’re the ones I like to see coming along and entering because there’s so much takeaway these days and fast foods and the like, and I think the young ones cooking cakes and scones and biscuits and even jams and pickles is a great thing.

‘‘But they seem to go more for the cakes, scones and biscuits – we get very few entries in the jams and pickles categories for the younger ones.

‘‘On MasterChef those cooks were more about cooking an entree, main course and dessert; they were not so much bakers.

‘‘They were struggling with the baking side of things. But I guess if you go into cooking at that level you should be able to do it all really.’’

Mrs Manton said that the judging criteria at CWA and regional shows were strict and rigid.

While some of it might seem petty or pedantic, it was a necessary part of competition cooking, she said.

‘‘Say with a rich fruit cake, we’re looking for all the fruit to be cut to the same size as a sultana,’’ she said.

‘‘It all sounds very pedantic I know. You think, ‘Oh mum cooks a pretty good fruit cake we all enjoy it’, and that’s great, but in competition cooking you have to stick to the guidelines.

‘‘In fruit cakes you also don’t want too much overpowering spice or alcohol. You need to make sure the tin is lined correctly so that you haven’t got any wrinkles on the cake, and that it has a smooth top.

‘‘For a sultana cake you don’t cut the sultanas.

‘‘They have to be evenly distributed throughout the cake and have a nice golden straw colour on the outside, not over-baked and dry.

‘‘It’s the same again with the tin lining.

‘‘A sponge should be light and creamy and both the top and the bottom sponge should be the same thickness.

‘‘I’ve noticed some people make two sponges and then choose the ones they think are the best out of those two sponges, but they may make one lot out of different eggs and have one sponge quite white and the other one quite yellow because the yolks were a deeper colour.

‘‘Little things like that – and I know it sounds silly and they all taste the same at mum’s afternoon tea table – but in competition cooking that is immediately eliminated.

‘‘Scones, you want them all to be about the same size and well risen, using a light hand with the scones. You have to use a light hand.

‘‘If you’re too heavy-handed it makes the scones very heavy.

‘‘When you’re rubbing the butter through the flour you’re lifting your fingers up so you’re getting air into the flour and then when mixing the milk in, or if you’re using an egg as well, use a wide-blade knife and take it in quickly but lightly.

‘‘Don’t use your hand because you’re really toughening the mixture, and then just put it out on the bench and lightly pat it out.

‘‘Certainly don’t roll it out with a rolling pin because that would make it quite dense too.

‘‘Push it out gently with your hands and then, with your scone-cutter, press down for a crisp cut; don’t twist it, go straight down and when they’re rising they’ll come straight up.

‘‘If you give them a twist you’ll find they don’t rise quite as high.

‘‘They’re all little nitty-picky things I know.’’

Although lamingtons aren’t being judged at this year’s show, Manton also has some tips for those making them at home for their own enjoyment.

‘‘I always like to put the uncut lamington in the freezer after the tin cools, just for a short while, not to freeze it but just to firm it.

‘‘That way you get that really crisp cut, the size that you’re needing and it won’t crumble.

‘‘You don’t use the outside of the cake, you always use the inside.

‘‘You’ll find when you dip it into the chocolate you won’t get cake all through the chocolate so it goes all lumpy.

‘‘And then you put it straight into the finely desiccated coconut.’’

When it comes to pickles and jams, consistency is the key.

‘‘There are a lot of pickles these days, the sweet mustard one has been around for many, many years,’’ she said.

‘‘We’re looking for consistency, that they’re not too watery and not too thick either.

‘‘The vegetables should all be cut to about the same size.

‘‘If you’re putting cauliflower in, have the small florets cut to the same size as the carrots and so on.

‘‘For jam, you again have to aim for that right consistency, and you certainly don’t want a burnt flavour.

‘‘Some people will leave it on the stove a little bit too long thinking that it’s going to thicken it, and you get that burnt taste.’’

Mrs Manton, a member of the CWA for many years, was a cookery officer at the Coonamble branch and chief steward at the Coonamble Show for jams, pickles and preserves before moving to East Maitland.

‘‘I joined the local branch and got into the cooking and thought I’d rather like to go for my judge’s badge,’’ she said.

‘‘The first time I sat for my judge’s badge I didn’t get it. I was a bit shocked actually, because I thought I was pretty well up on it all, so I got my head into the books.

‘‘I was advised by our state champion at the time which books to read, so I read and read and read, and she took me around to a lot of the shows and the CWA branches to steward for her while she was judging, which gave me a great insight into what was going on.

‘‘So I sat for the assessment again and got my badge and certificate, and I haven’t looked back.

‘‘That must have been about eight or nine years ago now.’’

Sometimes an entry would really stand out and Mrs Manton would have loved to get her hands on the recipe.

Other times an entry would have an unusual flavour or colour, and she’d think, ‘‘Good heavens, what have they done?’’

‘‘Competition baking is something you have to really enjoy and go strictly by a good recipe.’’

The NAB Newcastle Regional Show is on from Friday to Sunday. Tickets are $10 for adults and children.