Fellow judge Lois Schlickau and I chose the winners in the Kansas State Fair C&H Sugar Chocolate Cake contest last Friday. I'm glad there weren't more than seven cakes. It would have made the decision even more difficult.
Denise Pounds of Hutchinson had the winning combination of yummy cake and unusual frosting. She is a perennial fair entrant. She wasn't at the judging to bask in her "crowning" with the first-place ribbon. (The third-place winner was a 15-year-old girl, so there's a wide range of people participating - from experienced fair entrant to novice!)
In a nationally-sponsored contest, I think judges are looking for something a bit unusual and not just a standard chocolate cake. The espresso powder in the cake enhanced the chocolate taste without overpowering it. Using C&H brown sugar in a meringue-style buttercream frosting was an unusual and tasty choice, which set Denise's cake apart from others.
Your mom told you not to judge a book by its cover. Same goes for state fair food contests. The contest isn't solely about outward appearance. In fact, that only counts 10 percent. (Scoring criteria for the cake is 40 percent aroma and flavor and 25 percent each for texture and grain. The frosting is split down the middle with consistency and flavor.)
Randy is eventually hoping for a taste test of his own on this cake. (OK, he'd be happy tasting any of these beautiful cakes! More recipes to follow ...)
18 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1 3/4 cups plus 2 tbsp. C&H granulated sugar
3 large eggs at room temperature
2 cups & 2 tbsp. cake flour, plus more for dusting pans
1 1/4 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup dutched cocoa powder
2 tsp. espresso powder
1 cup milk
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 tbsp. pure vanilla extract
1 tsp. pure almond extract
3/4 cup Heath English Toffee baking bits, divided
1 1/4 cups sliced almonds
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease and flour three, 8-inch cake pans (Denise used square pans). Beat the butter at medium-high speed until smooth and shiny, about 30 seconds. Gradually sprinkle in sugar; beat until the mixture is fluffy and almost white, approximately 3 to 5 minutes. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating 1 full minute after each addition.
Whisk together the dry ingredients. Combine the milk, buttermilk and flavorings in a separate measuring cup. With the mixer at the lowest speed, add about a third of the dry ingredients followed by a third of the milk mixture; continue until all the ingredients are incorporated. Scrape sides of bowl and mix 15 seconds longer until the batter is satiny.
Divide into 3 pans. Spread the top smooth. Bake for 23-30 minutes. Check for doneness with a toothpick or when cake springs back in the center when pressed lightly. Let cakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes. Loosen sides from the pans and invert on wire racks to cool completely.
Brown Sugar Swiss Meringue Buttercream5 large egg whites
1 2/3 cups packed C&H dark brown sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
2 cups unsalted butter, room temperature
Put egg whites, sugar and salt into a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Whisk until mixture registers 160 degrees, about 4 minutes.
Beat on high speed until stiff, glossy peaks form, about 6 minutes. Reduce speed to medium-low. Add butter, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating after each addition. (Meringue will deflate slightly as butter is added.) Beat until frosting is smooth and glossy, 3 to 5 minutes.
Assemble the cake:
Put the first layer on a serving platter or cake stand. Spread some frosting on the first layer. Sprinkle with half the toffee chips. Top with second layer of the cake. Put on additional frosting. Sprinkle with the rest of the toffee chips. Top with final layer of the cake. Spread remaining frosting over the top and sides of the cake, gently swirling on top.
Garnish: Toast almond slices in 350-degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes or until they are just starting to brown. Cool completely. Carefully push the almonds onto the sides of the cake.