Fairs & Festivals

Blue ribbon winners: Past fair winners share secrets to success

It is fair time again and something special is always in the works. The 2011 Manatee County Fair, which opens Thursday and runs through Jan. 23, has a full schedule of activities that will provide enjoyment for all ages. This year’s fair features a thrill-packed midway, livestock shows and auctions, competitions, interesting exhibits, vendors galore, an array of great entertainment, and, of course, fair food!

The Manatee County Fair has been a homespun tradition that dates back to 1916 and combines farming, food, and fun. This annual community event stresses responsibility and pride in achievement, produces blue ribbon winners and bragging rights to go with them. The fair displays the best of the best in Manatee County.

What really peaks my interest when attending the fair is, of course, the Culinary Arts competition. This past week I had the pleasure of speaking with a couple of blue ribbon winners for 2010.

Blue Rosette Youth

Kelly Johnson won a Blue Rosette in the Youth category last year for her Shortbread Pecan Squares

Kelly is a sophomore and cheerleader at Manatee High School. She loves to bake and is no stranger to the kitchen. Last year, she started baking cookies for her boyfriend, who is on the football team, as a special treat for game day. Of course, word of the cookies spread quickly throughout the team. One cookie lead to another and Kelly soon found herself baking cookies, deemed “lucky cookies,” for the whole football team to enjoy on game day.

I spoke with Kelly’s mom and asked what influenced Kelly to enter the fair? She said, “Kelly was enrolled in the Culinary Arts class offered at Manatee High and her teacher gave the class an opportunity to make “extra credit points” if they entered something in the fair. Kelly decided to go the extra mile and bake what she knew best -- cookies.

“Combine several recipes and make it your own,” the teacher told the class, so Kelly went home and did just that. Her love of baking and natural talent in the kitchen produced the winning Shortbread Pecan Squares that won the Blue Rosette Youth Award for 2010.

Best of Show Adult

At last year’s fair, Sheree Bowman’s Buckeye Delights won Best of Show and her Orange Cream Cookies were awarded an Blue Rosette. Her entries in both the dessert and cookie division earned her the two highest-rated adult entries for the 2010 Culinary Arts competition.

Originally from Charleston, S.C., Bowman has been a resident of Manatee County for many years. She home-schooled her three children (all adults now) and works part time with an exchange student program. Bowman has been entering the food divisions of the Manatee County Fair for the past six years and has won numerous blue ribbons for her entries. Last year was the first time she won Best of Show.

I ask her what inspired her to enter the fair competition the very first time and she said it was her desire to be included in the annual Manatee County Fair cookbook; however, now her participation has become a yearly ritual.

Bowman taste tests her cookies/desserts on family and friends, collects their opinions and then makes the recipes repeatedly before entering them into competition. Her biggest tip to beginners -- do not enter a recipe you are trying for the first time.

Her entries this year include Peanut Butter Bon Bons, Brandy Bread Pudding with a Brandy sauce (made from Publix Challah Raisin Bread) and Marshmallow Pillows.

Bowman is not only a competitor in the Culinary Arts area of the fair, but also a dedicated Craft judge for the Scrap Booking and Greeting Card division.

Who will be the big winners this year? Make sure to go the Manatee County Fair and find out.

Buckeye Delight

q 1 pouch Betty Crocker Sugar Cookie Mix

q 1/3 cup unsweetened baking cocoa

q 1/2 cup butter, softened

q 1/2 cup powdered sugar

q 1/2 cup peanut butter

q 2 tablespoons butter softened

q 1 teaspoon vanilla

q 1/4 teaspoon salt

q 1/2 cup whipping cream

q 1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons semi-sweet chocolate chips

q 1 tablespoon peanut butter

n Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place mini foil baking cups (1-1/4 inch) in each of 36 mini muffin cups. In large bowl, stir cookie mix, cocoa, butter and one egg until soft dough forms. Press 1 tablespoon dough into each foil cup. Bake 8-10 minutes or until puffy and set. Cool 30 minutes in pan. Remove cups from pan.

n In small bowl, mix 1/2 cup powdered sugar, 1/2 cup peanut butter, 2 tablespoons butter, 1 teaspoon vanilla and1/4 teaspoon salt until well blended. Press about 1 teaspoon of mixture on top of each cooled cookie.

n In 1-quart saucepan, heat 1/2 cup whipping cream just to boiling over low heat, stirring occasionally; remove from heat. Stir in 1 cup of the chocolate chips. Refrigerate about 30 minutes until cool. Spread about 2 tablespoons chocolate mixture over each cookie cup.

n Place remaining 2 tablespoons chocolate chips and 1 tablespoon peanut butter in Ziplock freezer bag; partially seal bag. Microwave uncovered on high 30-60 seconds or until softened; knead to mix. Cut off small tip from one corner of bag. Squeeze bag to drizzle chocolate mixture over each cookie cup. Refrigerate 30 minutes until set. Store covered in refrigerator.

-- Sheree Bowman

Shortbread Pecan Delights


q 1 pound salted butter

q 3/4 cup sugar

q 1/4 cup Crisco

q 3 eggs

q 1 tablespoon vanilla

q 4-1/2 cups flour

q 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

q 1/4 teaspoon salt


q 1 pound salted butter

q 1 cup honey

q 3 cups brown sugar

q 2 teaspoons orange zest

q 1/4 cup heavy cream

q 2 pounds chopped pecans

q 2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

n Preheat oven to 350 degrees. For the crust, mix together the softened butter, sugar, Crisco, eggs, vanilla. Mix together flour, into baking powder and salt. Add the dry ingredients into the batter with the mixer on low speed until just combined. Press the dough evenly into an ungreased 18x12x1 inch baking sheet, forming an edge on the sides. It gets very sticky, so use flour on your hands. Bake for 15 minutes, until crust is set (not brown) cool.

n For topping, combine butter, honey, brown sugar and zest in a large, heavy saucepan. Cook over low heat until the butter melts and boil for 3 minutes. Stir occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in the cream and pecans. Pour over the cooled crust, spreading evenly across the shortbread. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until filling is set. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold. Cut into squares. Melt 2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips in a saucepan. Dip each square into chocolate. Let harden on wax paper.

-- Kelly Johnson