Winning a challenge to oneself

figgscn01[I] don’t like competition, but like many other beings at times compromised by human nature, I often fall under the spell to compete and compare with others. It’s a losing battle, really. As a very wise friend once told me, comparing yourself to others is “dangerous.” No matter what, if you don’t have the proper frame of mind, you will almost always likely come up short or “less than” if your measuring stick is one against your fellow species.

I don’t like food competition shows on TV, either. When “Chopped” or “Top Chef” comes on the Food Network, I change channels. I tend to agree with Billy Bob Thornton, who recently remarked, “Do we really need cupcake wars?”

Still, when the opportunity presented itself for the second year in a row (the first year, I did not have enough notice), I entered the Mare Island Home Cook Competition. I had no idea who would be competing, how many would be competing, who would be judging. I only knew one thing, I was laying the challenge down to myself. Could I make and present food to others that passed my own muster? For four years now, I had been challenging myself to fulfill creative goals in food regularly on this blog. But beyond writing my little entries, this was a private experience.This time, I’d take it out of my own kitchen to share.

I decided not to tell anyone I was entering. I read somewhere (and now cannot remember where) that you set an intention and keep it to yourself. I’ve come to believe this is a wise and effective way to operate. I think the energy and focus of what you are doing changes when you let others in on it…their reactions, responses and expectations may affect the outcome, or, at least, your energy toward the outcome. This time, it was all mine. I now believe that this really works.

Plus, the only other time I had entered — reluctantly — a cooking competition was a chili cook-off, where too many cooks, literally, spoiled the soup. I had been led to believe that my boss had a winning recipe. Too much beer went into the chili and my cook-off teammates. We went home humiliated. Solo ventures, my friends, are sometimes the way to go.

I must confess that AWS had been feeling mostly down in the mouth and entirely unambitious since her August “birth quake,” (see blog entry of 8/14), which had rattled her sense of security in nearly everything, including and especially herself. She had flattened for several weeks, backing out of everything, feeling futile despair and pondering all sorts of ways of giving up. Maybe the cooking challenge would force her out of her funk.

figgy01When pondering what to make for the competition, my friend Barbara provided inspiration, in the form of a fig. Barbara is a hero to me in many ways. She is wise and funny with a very dry humor, very direct and honest. And never phoney. She has lived all over the world and has the best stories, ever. She also has a fig tree that this year was quite prolific. I took a bunch of her figs and made a savory jam with shallots and fresh thyme. I served it on crackers with brie. Figs are strange creatures…fleshy, full and ripe, so full of flavor, they require little aid in making them marvelous. The jam was so delicious, it occurred to me it could be a killer appetizer served on something more substantial. Hmmmm.

Wait a minute…I was A Woman Sconed! I’d make a mini cheese scone with the salty bite needed to underscore the sweet figs! I could enter one category in the competition, so I chose to enter with my appetizer of Petite Parmesan Scones with Savory Fig Jam.

If I’d had the option, I would have also entered the dessert category (three categories altogether), but I thought my appetizer of scones and jam would be unique, employ baking and cooking skills and could be presented attractively.

parmscon01Over two weekends preceding the competition, I tested out my scone recipe (actually a biscuit recipe I modified by not only miniaturizing the scones, but adding extra Parmesan cheese and fresh thyme leaves), the second weekend also testing them with the jam. Seemed to be a nice pairing — the seasonal figs, the essence of thyme in both the jam and the sones. I wanted to be sure all would work before the day I made them at home and then took them to the competition location close by.

Then, the week before the competition, the coordinator of the event told me I could enter another category if I wanted. Why not throw my napkin in the ring for another chance? It was easy to decide. My Greek yogurt cheesecake (see blog entry of October 2011) was fairly original, at least at the time I made it (now you find Greek yogurt cheesecake everywhere). It was also easy to make and, well, really tasted good. I decided to produce it in miniature, buying a pan — with small cavities and removable bottoms — just for this purpose.pan01

I had enough time to do a test batch of the cheesecakes to see how they worked in the little pans. I decided to serve the cheesecakes with a blackberry sauce I concocted myself, since blackberries grow prevalently in the area.

The weekend of the Sunday competition arrived. I made the cheesecakes the day before (they are better with a day of chilling), whipping them up with jazz music in the background, trying to infuse positivity and sophistication. I decided it would be best to make the scones and jam fresh the day of the competition.

I was not nervous, until the day of the event. Here’s where old Howie met herself and her unyielding and relentless Virgo scrutiny head-on. I decided my cheesecake texture was not right and my scone appetizer, too pedestrian. Plus, I only had one of Barbara’s figs left…it went into the jam with what I considered inferior grocery store figs. What did I know about cooking? I was brutal on myself…Gordon Ramsay’s dehumanizing rants were like love sonnets by comparison. I felt sick to my stomach. What the hell was I doing? I wanted to back out of the competition. I had already lost….according to myself.

cheesecke01NO! The win would be in simply following through. When I make commitments, I usually honor them, even in this case. when the only person holding me accountable was myself! In the end, I had my longtime friend and collaborator helping me. I got everything ready at plating time, and he even helped me establish the proper quantity of blackberry sauce on the plate for the cheesecakes (after he burned through several of them experimenting) and replacing, with tweezers, the hairlike wisps of lemon zest adorning them when they tumbled off the blackberries. He drove me on the white-knuckle short drive to the competition, where I held onto my cheesecakes as if they were delicate Fabregé eggs so their plating presentation would not be disturbed.

table01I set my plates on the judging table. Hey, you know, my entries did not look bad. I had tried to make the plates look attractive, adding fans of sliced figs and springs of fresh thyme to the appetizer plate. As the judging commenced, I left the building.

I finally returned to the building because I needed to sit down. AWS was tired from standing and cooking and grilling herself. The judges — three area professional chefs — circled the table, examining and tasting the food. One of them picked up one of my scones and studied it closely. I turned away.

Sometimes, the only judge you need to impress is yourself. Sometimes, you win just by trying. Sometimes, you win just by following through. Sometimes, you win just by daring, taking a risk and stepping outside the safety of what you know. How often do we push ourselves to go beyond just the day-to-day bare minimum requirements? What might happen if we shot for the moon?

paper01I won both categories! So surprised! It was not the Pillsbury bake-off, but then again, what is? I won and it was only my food — something I created out of care and imagination and love — being judged, not me (well, only I judged myself). It turned out to be one of the happiest days I had had in awhile.

I will not take complete credit. I do believe it was a singular fig from an admired friend that may have made the whole thing happen.

Petite Parmesan Scones with Savory Fig Jam
Makes about 1 dozen appetizers

For the jam:
2 tablespoons butter
1 large shallot, chopped finely
3 cups chopped ripe figs
About 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 to 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

For the scones (adapted from “Biscuit Bliss” by James Villas):

2 cups all purpose flour, plus extra for dusting the board
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) chilled butter, cut into chunks
2 tablespoons chilled vegetable shortening, cut into chunks
2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
About 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon butter, melted

For the jam: melt two tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add shallots and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add chopped figs and thyme. Cook figs, mashing into smaller chunks with a wooden spoon, until they release their juices and break down, about 15 minutes. Add balsamic vinegar and sauté a few minutes more. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cool to room temperature before serving. Can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days.

For the scones: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Toss in the butter and shortening; cut into the flour mixture with fingers or pastry blender until the consistency of coarse cornmeal. Add the cheese and thyme; stir until well-blended. Add the milk, stirring just until the dry ingredients are blended.

Transfer dough to a work surface lightly dusted with flour. Roll dough out into a rectangle 1/2-inch thick. Fold the short ends to meet in the middle, then fold in half at the seem to form four layers. Roll out again to 1/2-inch thick. Cut into shapes (I used a small round and square 1-1/2-inch cutters for petite scones.

Arrange scones on baking sheet about 1 inch apart. Brush tops with melted butter. Bake until golden brown, about 12 minutes for petite scones; about 15 minutes for 2-inch scones.

To assemble appetizer: Split scones in half. Spread a layer of room temperature mascarpone cheese on each half. Top one half (or both, depending on how you would like to serve them) with slightly warm or room temperature fig jam.

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