Minnesota’s Blue Ribbon Bakers
When it comes to prize-winning cakes, cookies, muffins and breads, Candy Freeman and Lois Thielen are the women to beat. The Minnesota natives jumped into the competition baking circuit nearly 20 years ago, and have since won too many ribbons to keep track. This year, Freeman’s orange bundt cake won Grand Cake of the Fair honors with a perfect 100 score at the Minnesota State Fair. Below, Freeman and Thielen share tips for making an award-winning cake at home, their favorite cookbooks and baking tools they couldn’t live without. Tune into Bizarre Foods America this coming Monday, December 16 9/8C, for the inside scoop on the Minnesota State Fair.
Their favorite holiday cookie recipes:
AndrewZimmern.com: What is it about baking that has inspired you to devote your life to it?
Lois Thielen: I’ve always loved cooking and baking. I grew up on a farm and we raised most of our own food – meat, garden produce, eggs, etc. We made everything from scratch. I was always curious abut food and wanted to try new things.
Candy Freeman: I guess I’ve always had kind of a competitive spirit, it pushes me to always do my best. My mom always baked tea rings and cookies and when she entertained, everything was beautifully presented. Baking is a constant challenge. I subscribe to many food magazines and collect cookbooks so I’m always trying new recipes. I love it because it never gets boring! What I really enjoy now in my retirement is that I can get together with friends and cook/bake together. There’s always something new to learn and that makes it even more fun.
AZ.com: Candy, how did you come up with your grand prize winning orange bundt cake recipe?
CF: I met Pat Sinclair in December of 2011 at the Valley Troll in Glenwood, Minnesota. I bought her cookbook, Scandinavian Classic Baking, and made her orange pound cake one time in 2012 and thought it had a wonderful flavor and texture. When it came time to find recipes for the state fair, I decided to give this cake another try. It was only my second time baking this cake so I was hoping it would turn out as well as it did the first time. I added a special touch of orange liquor to intensify the orange flavor!
AZ.com: How long have you been entering your baked goods in the Minnesota State Fair competition? Why did you decide to enter the competition circuit in the first place?
LT: I started entering the State Fair in 1994 with a friend Jean McDonald. I grew up with fairs; my mother entered agricultural exhibits at about 15 Minnesota county fairs as well as the state fair. I wanted to try baking, partly because I had a very good track record at my local county fair. I also remember visiting the state fair for the first time in 1982 and seeing the winning baked goods and saying, “I can do that.”
CF: I’ve been entering baked goods in the MN State Fair for about 17 years. I decided to enter the competition circuit after seeing the fun that my friends, Lois and Jean, were having. I decided to join them and the annual trips to enter our baked goods began.
AZ.com: What qualities does a top-scoring bundt cake need to have?
LT: It needs a perfect appearance – good shape, correct volume (not too big, not too small), a springy feel when touched, perfect texture, great flavor and not too dry or soggy.
CF: A top scoring bundt cake has to have perfect: appearance, lightness, tenderness, texture, moisture content, flavor and smell. Yes, I scored a perfect 100 on my orange pound cake and the judges’ comments were: “very tender, even cell structure, nice balanced flavor.”
AZ.com: Give us the real scoop— how big a role do politics play into the baking competition at the Fair?
LT: It’s not really about politics but about the fact that no judge can help but be somewhat subjective. If she doesn’t like cinnamon, for example, a product with cinnamon won’t taste as good as one without.
CF: I do not think politics plays a role at all at the state fair. I think being a judge would be a very difficult job and trying to decide the best of the best in the many varieties of baked products would be overwhelming.
AZ.com: What has been your biggest baking disaster?
LT: A cherry strudel from Martha Stewart. I had studied the recipe in her magazine and even watched her make it on her TV show. It didn’t look that hard. A friend and I assembled the ingredients and promptly waded into one pitfall after another. It was a soggy disaster that nothing we tried could fix.
CF: My biggest baking disaster was about 17 years ago when I tried making Martha Stewart’s rhubarb cardamom pie. It looked beautiful but once I tried to cut it and it wouldn’t come out of the pan. The flavor was horrible – even my dad said it wasn’t very good and he almost always likes everything I bake. No offense, Martha, but it would have been better as a centerpiece with a layer of shellac because the lattice top really did look beautiful!
AZ.com: Five tips for making an award-winning cake at home?
LT: 1) Read the recipe before you start and make sure you understand it and have all the ingredients. 2) Have your eggs and butter at room temperature. 3) Sift flour and other ingredients if called for. 4) Use the right type and size of pan, and grease and flour it according to directions. 5) Let cake stand 10 minutes before attempting to remove it, especially for a bundt cake.
CF: 1) Study recipes and look for ingredients that might add a special flavor and appearance. 2) Buy really good quality ingredients: I love Penzey’s pure almond extract, Trader Joe’s bourbon vanilla extract, and Gold Medal unbleached presifted flour. 3) Read the recipe and follow the procedure for mixing and the time involved to thoroughly beat in ingredients. 4) Prepare the pan by properly greasing, flouring, or lining with wax or parchment paper. 5) Keep an eye for proper doneness, always set the timer for less time and check with a toothpick and adjust time accordingly. Cool properly so it comes out of the pan.
AZ.com: What are a few baking tools you couldn’t live without?
LT: My very favorite gadget is a hand grater we got from our milk truck driver 50 years ago! I use it for grated everything from carrots to zucchini to cheese to orange zest. It produces a fine shed and is so easy to use. I also rely on my electric mixer and a good selection of measuring cups and spatulas.
CF: I love my Kitchen Aid Mixer, my special baking pans, my zester, my sifter, cooling racks, straight edge spatula, and my wonderful wire whisk that my German friend gave to me.
AZ.com: Essential baking cookbooks everyone should have in their kitchen?
LT: After surveying my 300 or so cookbooks, here are some basics that may prove helpful to bakers: Farm Journal’s Complete Home Baking Cookbook, The Road to Blue Ribbon Baking by Marjorie Johnson, The Blue Ribbon Cookbooks by Catherine Hanley, Homemade Bread by the food editors of Farm Journal, and Muffins by Elizabeth Alston (lots of great muffin recipes, perfectly explained).
CF: I love Pat Sinclair’s three cookbooks: Baking Basics and Beyond, Scandinavian Classic Baking, and Scandinavian Classic Desserts. Catherine Hanley’s All-New Blue Ribbon Cookbook and America’s Best State Fair Recipes are two very good books to see recipes that have won. A James Beard cookbook is a must. I picked out one of his bundt cake recipes and made it for the fair for the first time, entering it without being able to cut into it and taste it. I was thrilled when it scored 97 points and earned a third place ribbon. Marjorie Johnson’s Blue Ribbon Baking is also a great cookbook to see which recipes she’s had success with and her prize-winning tips! I also love my Betty Crocker Cookbook I’ve had for almost 40 years and my Magnolia Bakery cookbook which was my souvenir from my first trip to New York City. I could go on and on about cookbooks since I love collecting them but I’ll stop with adding one last one – Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters is a wonderful book with great recipes, tips and stories.
AZ.com: What are your favorite baking pans to use?
LT: For loaf bread, good heavy pans by Chicago Metallic, in an 8-by-4-inch size. For quick breads, I may use these but more likely will use 7-by-3-inch teflon-lined aluminum pans I bought 30 years ago at Mills Fleet! (Note: I never use a 9-by-5 inch pan; using an 8-by-4 or 8-by-3 provides a better shape and raise.) Other favorites include my Mirro stainless steel cookie sheets. I use bundt pans for producing an attractive product that doesn’t need frosting or fussing. I like a lightweight aluminum tube pan for angel food cakes. My pie pans are heavy stainless steel pans, as well as ceramic versions.
CF: My favorite baking pans would include my wonderful Nordic Ware bundt pan, my Wilton 9-inch round cake pans, my nonstick muffin tins, my individual tart pans with removable bottoms, my special shaped Scandinavian baking pan for an almond cake, and my old 7½-by-3¾-inch loaf pans for quick breads.
AZ.com: What’s your go-to food gift for the holidays?
LT: My usual go-to food gifts are a loaf of homemade bread in a plastic bag with a festive gift tag; homemade cookies in a Christmas tin; or quick breads such as cranberry or lemon loaves.
CF: My go to food for the holidays would be my traditional cookies/candies: cornflake wreaths, peanut blossoms, pecan tarts, white chocolate with peppermint pieces. I’m always trying new recipes to add a wonderful variety to the holiday tray or gift bags for friends and family. This year I’m making a lot of cinnamon toasted almonds and putting them in nice gift jars. I love giving gifts of food because that’s something I’d much rather do than the rat race of shopping.
Lois Thielen grew up on a dairy farm near St. Rosa, about 35 miles northwest of St. Cloud in central Minnesota. She graduated from the College of St. Benedict in St.Joseph, MN, with degrees in English and history. She worked as a newspaper reporter/photographer for 10 years, then with her husband, John Kunstleben, bought the dairy farm they now operate near Grey Eagle, MN. Lois still does some free lance writing and writes a monthly column for the St. Cloud Times as part of the Times Writers Group. Food has been one of her passions most of her life. She has competed at the local county fair for 40 years and the Minnesota State Fair 20 years. She has edited two community cookbooks and with her baking buddy Candy Freeman has produced three cooking videos for a local television crew. She also volunteers through such groups as the Melrose Area Women of Today, her church’s Christian Women’s group and chairing her high school reunions. Her hobbies besides cooking and baking include gardening, reading and travel.
Candy Freeman grew up in Vernon Center, MN about 20 miles south of Mankato. She graduated from the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, MN with a degree in Vocational Consumer Homemaking. She taught Home Economics, now called Family and Consumer Science, for 34 years at Melrose Public Schools. Candy and her husband, Garry, have 2 children, Erik and Kirsten. Food, whether its baking, cooking, or entertaining has been her passion most of her life. Candy and her baking buddy, Lois Thielen, have produced 3 cooking videos for a local television crew. Candy also produced a 4th cooking show promoting turkey. In addition to baking, Candy loves to garden, travel, bike, be with family and friends, and is an active member of the Melrose Area Women of Today.