Judging food contests tempts the palate

Farm Forum

My job has a few perks, and judging the occasional food contest ranks among them. I have judged potatoes, beef, ham and pies, to name a few. I judged another food contest a couple of weeks ago.

All of the food entries were numbered and placed on tables, and our team of three judges studied the entries carefully before we tasted them. How did they rate on appearance? All the entrants had paid close attention to making their entries look nice.

After our judging team looked at the foods, the organizers sliced the entries and we examined them again. My palate was tempted by this point. I was ready for a plate and a fork.

Finally, we tasted small pieces of each item in the youth and adult divisions. Deciding on winning entries in this bake-off was challenging.

Oh, did I mention the main ingredient in all of these entries was chocolate? That ingredient definitely was a perk for someone who enjoys chocolate.

An audience was watching us as we judged, so I tried to maintain my “poker face.” In my head, I was grinning intensely at the delicious flavors of the various desserts. All of the desserts were cut at the end of the contest, and the audience was able to enjoy samples, too.

The chocolate contest was held at a county fair in Fertile, Minn., which is near my hometown. Visiting this fair after many years brought back fond memories.

My husband and 12-year-old daughter accompanied me to the fair, and I told them about visiting the fair when I was my daughter’s age. Attending the Fertile Fair always was a highlight of my childhood summers. I’d meet my friends and go on numerous rides and eat cotton candy.

My daughter wasn’t very interested in my trip down memory lane; she was running in front of us, checking out the attractions. Her eyes were on the rides, and she and my husband decided to go on some while I judged. We noted all the food booths, including church booths making home-style meals, a 4-H food stand preparing a variety of foods and the usual fair food vendors with assorted deep-fried items.

Judging a chocolate contest nipped my appetite for other treats, so I was not even tempted by the aromas of the deep-fried foods. I had some cotton candy for an added dose of nostalgia, though.

A chocolate cake with lemon curd filling won the adult division and a chocolate, strawberry and vanilla layered dessert was named the winner in the youth division.

Is chocolate good for us? Whenever people mention chocolate, they think of often-cited research that makes the news when the results about chocolate are positive. Most people tend to like chocolate quite a bit.

Yes, chocolate comes from a plant, but it is not a vegetable. Chocolate is high in natural plant components known as “flavonoids” that have been shown to have antioxidant effects and heart-health benefits.

Dark chocolate, in particular, is high in antioxidant compounds. In a study done at the University of California, San Francisco, 11 participants ate 1.6 ounces of dark chocolate high in flavonoids every day for two weeks, while a second group of participants also ate dark chocolate, but it had lower amounts of flavonoids. The participants consuming the cocoa with the higher level of natural flavonoids showed greater improvements in the functioning of their arteries, which could translate into improved heart health through time.

Other studies have shown improved brain function with consumption of 2 cups of cocoa every day for a month.

Does this mean we should overload on candy and chocolate desserts for the sake of better health? I think you know the answer.

Enjoying a few chocolate kisses and drinking cocoa are nice pick-me-ups, but keep moderation in mind. Most desserts and other treats made with chocolate also contain a considerable amount of added fat and sugar. Calories from any source can promote weight gain.

For the most health benefits, choose dark chocolate candies and hot cocoa made with cocoa powder.

Although I do not have the recipes for the winning entries in the chocolate contest, here’s a dessert that incorporates one of our prolific summer vegetables. You might want to save the recipe for later use because zucchini seems to be growing well this year. In this case, a chocolate dessert can count toward your vegetable consumption.

This recipe is courtesy of Louisiana State University Extension.

Chocolate Zucchini Snack Cake Recipe

1/3 c. butter, softened

1 1/4 c. sugar

2 eggs

1/2 c. buttermilk

1/3 c. unsweetened applesauce

2 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted

1 tsp. vanilla extract

2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. baking soda

2 c. shredded zucchini

2 tsp. confectioners sugar

In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until crumbly, about two minutes. Add eggs; mix well. Beat in the buttermilk, applesauce, chocolate and vanilla. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda; beat into butter mixture just until moistened. Stir in zucchini.

Transfer to a 13- by 9-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350 F for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. Tip: Place confectioners sugar in a shaker or in a sifter and sprinkle the dessert with sugar.

Makes 18 servings. Each serving has 172 calories, 5 grams (g) fat, 3 g protein, 29 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber and 223 milligrams sodium.