State Fair attracts culinary competitors

From left to right: peach charlotte, pineapple strawberry cream pie, tiramisu brownie bars. Photos courtesy of Kristin Pleasanton.

The third time was a charm for baker Amy Watson Bish.

As of 2022 Delaware State Fair in Harrington, which continues until July 30, she finally won a blue ribbon for her apple pie with brown sugar crumbs.

“If you know me, you know I’ve been determined since freshman year,” she told her Facebook friends, many of whom crave her apple pie. “I walked into this pie three times.”

Well, sort of. One year she made a double crust apple pie.

There was more to come. The Wilmington resident competed in nine categories, and she’s not the only baker willing to travel 45 minutes or more to compete in the multi-day baking contests.

But for those willing to travel with valuable cargo, the rewards can be sweet.

An old fashioned experience

The baked goods are part of the fair’s competitive food displays, divided into categories such as Cookies, Zucchini Bread, Banana Cake, Sugar Cookies – Crunchy or Soft – Peach Pie, Cheesecake lemon and cherry pie.

“It gets very detailed,” explained Vinnie DiNatale, 16, of Wilmington. “In the cake section, there are chocolate cakes, pineapple cakes, cake mixes.”

Like Bish, many people fit into more than one category. DiNatale has scored 12 in the junior and adult divisions. Dover’s Kristin Pleasanton scored five.

When deciding what to enter, DiNatale went through the categories several times and crossed out the ones that didn’t play to her strengths, including cakes and cupcakes.

It was a smart move. The first-time entrant placed first in the chocolate or devilish cake category and first in the junior division of decorated birthday cakes and cakes decorated with any theme.

Bish, meanwhile, sticks to pies, her claim to fame since she started baking them in 2013.

A hobby, a passion and a profession

Bish started baking pies to master the perfect crust, a quest that intimidates even seasoned bakers. She took classes at Magpie Artisan Pie Boutique in Philadelphia and quickly learned that practice makes perfect.

Her colleague at the Grand Opera House – where she handles marketing – savored the fruits of her experiments, including a purple sweet potato pie and a tailgate pie: a chocolate fudge filling topped with peanut butter, cream whipped cream, potato chips, candied pretzels and peanuts.

In 2015, she entered the pie contest at the Arden Fair, and her s’more pie won first place.

In 2018, she was ready for the big leagues: the Delaware State Fair in Harrington. Her popular s’more pie won the baker’s choice category and first prize in the baked pie crust competition.

Pleasanton is another baker with an artistic bent. She bakes for staff birthdays and events for the Delaware Division of the Arts, of which she is the assistant director. “I really enjoy baking as a hobby,” she said.

DiNatale, meanwhile, is a seasoned professional at a tender age. The competitive figure skater started Desserts from DiNatale in September 2020 when the pandemic put a damper on his practice.

On the fairground

To be considered, candidates must apply and submit their applications. Competitive exhibits are judged and displayed; attendees do not need to be present for ribbon presentations.

Then there are the cooking competitions, which offer a larger monetary prize. Like a traditional baking competition, these are held on a particular day and contestants bring their entry and a typed recipe. They remain present for the judgment and the results.

The first DiNatale participant participated in six competitions. Pleasanton typically enters the Blueberry Blowout, Chocolate Temptation, Crazy Over Cupcakes, and Grand Bar Cookie contests, among others.

“I’ve made friends from all over the state because we’ve been seeing each other for almost 10 days,” said Pleasanton, whose son, Myles, won first place in cookies this year. Her sister from Connecticut is also coming to compete. (You don’t have to be a Delawarean to enter.)

To date, Pleasanton has won first prize in whoopie pies, second in flavored scones and cookies and third in ‘other’ breads. On July 28, she won the contest of biscuits for chocolate-pistachio bars.

Along with apple, Bish took the top spot for its lemon meringue and s’more pies. The sweet cherry streusel and its 9-inch baked pie both took second place, and the blueberry lattice, maple pecans and “Perfectly Peachy” all received third place.

DiNatale’s cake awards were followed by first place for gluten-free cookies, second for peanut butter fudge and third for baked donuts.

Next year, DiNatale plans to enter more categories.

“It’s fun to make new things and go to the fair to drop them off,” he says. “It’s always fun to win, but I think it’s reassuring to see that my gear is as good as I think it is. Even if I’m only second or third, it’s cool to see my stuff there.

Plesanton agreed. Although it’s exhausting to compete in so many categories, it’s “a fun summer activity for us,” she says. “We look forward to it every year.”

To follow the culinary competitions in real time, go to this link.