Life

First-place flavor: Cedar Rapids woman wins cooking and baking contests

Rebecca Groff first entered a recipe contest, sponsored by The Gazette, in 1996. over the past 20-plus years, she has wo
Rebecca Groff first entered a recipe contest, sponsored by The Gazette, in 1996. over the past 20-plus years, she has won a number of regional and national recipe contests. She is pictured in the kitchen of her home in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Saturday, May 2, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Rebecca Groff, 68, of Cedar Rapids trusts her gut to let her know when she has a recipe just right.

That instinct has helped her win several recipe contests. Des Moines-based Meredith National Media Group even printed her prize-winning Claret Poached Pear Sour Cream Tart in “Family Circle Hometown Cooking.” The cookbook, published in 2016, is one of Groff’s prize possessions.

“It’s got this brilliant ruby red glaze on it,” she said of the tart. “I like pears, but when you poach them in wine, it’s even better.”

Two cups of claret wine to be exact.

Groff had developed the pear tart for an Iowa Egg Council competition a year earlier.

Although some people believe they are ready to compete as soon as they come up with a new concoction, they’re generally not, Groff said. Experienced recipe and cooking competitors work with a recipe, trying many variations before they get it right.

Her tart was no exception.

“I probably ruined six, seven or eight batches of wine sauce,” Groff said. One version, she said, was “shower stall putty.”

When Groff created a version with the right consistency and flavor that met the approval of her family, she knew she’d nailed it.

“You can really taste the wine,” she said. “That’s when I quit messing with it.”

The Iowa Egg Council judges agreed and awarded her a first prize, plus $750.

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She’d taken second place in the same competition four years earlier with Angel Hair Quiche Pie, an egg dish with a distinctive pasta crust and a filling flavored with Havarti cheese with dill, Parmesan cheese and bacon.

“I’ve found at the competitions I’ve been in, yes, we’re competing against each other, but we’re looking out for each other and protecting each other,” she said.

And, yes, at some contests, the competitors get to taste each other’s entries.

“Everything is laid out, and even the public can try it. There are some fantastic recipes,” Groff said.

Learning to cook

Growing up, Groff was often around talented home cooks — mothers and grandmothers who cooked everything from scratch.

Out of necessity, her mother cooked every day for her family of six. Because her mother “couldn’t boil water” at the beginning of her marriage, she was determined her daughter would know how to cook.

“I was about 8 or 9 years old when she turned me loose with the Hershey’s cocoa recipe,” Groff said. “I just started out making cakes.”

She learned by making mistakes — a lot of them. She made lopsided cakes because she hadn’t leveled the batter. She burned sugar syrups and fudge. She added so much lemon it made her mouth pucker.

Cooking is no different than playing the piano or dancing: You have to practice.

“That’s the best way to learn — you fail, you figure it out,” she said.

Cooking, she said, “is a happy thing. It doesn’t replace love, but it’s a way to show love.”

Cooking competitively

As an adult, Groff often cooked for her family and put together dinner parties and tea parties for friends.

She reads cookbooks for ideas, then dissects recipes to experiment with personal touches such as spices, citrus fruits or different sugars.

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She’d been entering sewing contests for years when it occurred to her to take her cooking to the competition level. Her friends and family became willing guinea pigs.

The first time she entered a food contest was in 1996 when The Gazette put out a call for holiday recipes. Groff entered a creamy, tangy salad that took first place in the salad category.

She spent the $200 prize on something she’d always wanted: a KitchenAid stand mixer. She still has the white mixer with a red band — and the check stub from her first win.

After that, she sought out recipe contests and entered cooking competitions. She won a chili cook-off held by an organization her husband was in. She sent recipes to magazines. Then she tackled the Iowa State Fair.

Lessons learned

Groff entered five food categories in the Iowa State Fair years ago.

Out of the five recipes she entered, a peach tart with orange glaze was her best chance at winning. She entered the tart in a sour cream/dairy category, which required a recipe to use a full cup of sour cream. Shopping for supplies, she miscalculated the amount of sour cream she’d need for all the recipes.

“I ended up being a quarter cup short,” she said. Judges notified her that although the recipe had been a contender, they disqualified her.

“You really have to pay attention to the details. Don’t spread yourself too thin,” Groff advised.

Cooking for one

These days, Groff cooks mostly just for herself — her children are grown, and her husband, Wayne, lives in a care facility — and she spends more time writing than cooking. She freelances for The Gazette and publishes her work in country magazines and short story anthologies, including a “Chicken Soup” book. She’s finished a novel but hasn’t sent it to a publisher yet.

Staying home because of the coronavirus pandemic, Groff has spent more time in the kitchen. Recently, she tackled macarons, trying an Orange Dreamsicle recipe.

“They didn’t totally flop, but they definitely needed work,” she said.

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Up next, she’s going to work on her pate a choux — an eggy, pastry dough cooked on the stove before baking — to make eclairs.

“I’m learning new techniques while I’m under house arrest,” she said.

How to win a cooking contest

Experienced recipe and cooking contest entrant Rebecca Groff of Cedar Rapids offers these tips for success.

READ THE RULES: Many food contests require winners to give up the rights to their recipes in exchange for prize money. For example, Groff must get permission from the Iowa Egg Council to share the recipes that won contests from that organization. Cooks and bakers who are OK with that should buy themselves something special with the prize money to have a lasting memory of their creation.

KNOW WHAT YOU’RE UP AGAINST: Groff took second place for a quiche recipe in the first Iowa Egg Council competition she entered. That year, the group pitted desserts against savory recipes. When Groff saw a beautiful almond cake with piped cream, she knew that that baker was going to win, feeling that savory recipes didn’t stand much of a chance against desserts.

MANAGE THE UNEXPECTED: Some contests require cooks to re-create their dishes live in front of judges. The first time Groff entered that type of competition, each contestant had a stove and table to themselves. Four years later, there was a twist: She and another competitor were sharing the same cooking device — a hotplate. Her time in the shared oven was limited to a specific time slot. There wasn’t enough room on the table for the mixer and tools she’d brought with her. Still, Groff took first place.

Angel Hair Quiche Pie

Crust ingredients:

2 eggs, well beaten

2 tablespoons butter

6 ounces angel hair pasta

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Quiche Filling:

4 eggs, beaten

1 cup sour cream

1 cup cottage cheese

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

4 tablespoons flour

1 4-ounce jar chopped pimiento, drained

3/4 cup crisp fried bacon pieces (can use 3 ounce bag precooked)

1 1/2 cups shredded Havarti cheese with dill

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 10-inch pie plate. Set aside. For crust, cook pasta according to package directions, being sure not to overcook. Drain. Stir butter into hot pasta. Stir in Parmesan cheese and eggs. Press mixture into prepared pie plate. Bake for 5 to 8 minutes.

For filling, combine eggs, sour cream, cottage cheese, Parmesan cheese and flour. Stir in shredded Havarti cheese, pimiento and bacon pieces. Pour mixture into pasta crust. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until knife inserted into center comes out clean. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

Claret Poached Pear Sour Cream Tart

Poaching ingredients:

4 winter pears (red pears work well)

2 cups claret wine

2 cups water

1 cup sugar

3 whole cloves

1 cinnamon stick (1/2-inch piece)

1 slice fresh lemon

Thickening ingredients:
2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/2 cup cold water

Tart crust ingredients:

1 1/4 cups flour

1/2 cup of butter (room temperature)

1/2 tablespoons sour cream

Tart filling ingredients:

4 egg yolks

1 cups sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 lemon zest

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup flour

Directions:

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Wash pears. Pare but leave the stems on. Combine in glass or enamel saucepan large enough to hold the four pears: wine, water, sugar, cloves, cinnamon and lemon slice. Add pears. Bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer over low heat 15 to 20 minutes or until pears are tender. Remove pears. Cool pears in refrigerator for slicing later. Strain the remaining wine juice to remove spices. Return 2 cups of wine juice to saucepan and return to heat. Combine cornstarch with cold water, whisking to make lump free. Gradually add cornstarch liquid to heated wine until desired thickness and allow to bubble 1 minute.

Pour into glass bowl and chill thoroughly before glazing the finished tart.

For the tart crust: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place flour, butter and sour cream in a bowl and beat to combine with a mixer. When dough has formed a ball, knead a few times with a little more flour before patting it into bottom and sides of ungreased round tart pan or au gratin dish. Bake 15 minutes until crust is set but not browned. Cool while preparing filling. Lower oven temperature to 350 degrees.

For the tart filling: Combine egg yolks, sour cream, vanilla, lemon zest, sugar and flour and beat until smooth. Remove chilled pears and slice them vertically into even slices. Arrange them, overlapping edges on top of baked crust, until it’s completely covered.

Pour filling mixture over the pears. Place tart pan on a baking sheet and bake for about 1 hour or until the custard sets and is pale golden in color. Cover with aluminum foil tent if the crust starts getting too dark during the last few minutes of baking. Transfer tart to wire rack to cool.

Final preparation: Once the tart is cooled to room temperature, spread a layer of thickened wine glaze over the top. If the glaze has set up too much, microwave it for a few seconds to soften it for easier spreading. Tart needs to be refrigerated, but it is best served closer to room temperature to help bring out the flavors.

Consider these contests to enter

Visit these sites for the next available contests, rules and deadlines.

General Mills/Pillsbury: Pillsbury® Neighborhood to Nation Contest, www.generalmillscf.com/resources/neighborhood-to-nation

2020 Iowa’s Best Burger Contest (postponed), www.iabeef.org/events/best-burger-contest

Iowa Pork Producers Association, Culinary Competitions, www.iowapork.org/culinary-competitions/

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Iowa State Fair, multiple food categories, www.iowastatefair.org/participate/competition/how-to-enter/

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