First published on 12 Mar 2012. Updated on 28 Mar 2012.
Cooking a ribbon-worthy cake is no easy feat: just ask Jan Boon. She's been judging cakes and other food items at the Royal Easter Show for four decades now, docking points from nervous bakers and preservists for things most might find forgivable (is that a sultana sticking out of your crust!?). In the lead-up to this year's Show, Boon spoke to Time Out about what she's learned on the judging table and what's changed since she began.
I’ve been doing this for forty years. I was as a cooking demonstrator at the Australian Gas Light Company and the Show asked us for a volunteer. I judged pickles, preserves and jams. I was a savory person, so pickles were right up my alley.
No one learns the basics anymore. When I went to school – which is a long time ago – I actually did ‘Home Ec’ for my leaving certificate. There were lots of cooking schools around, too, and ‘Tech’ had classes to teach you basic cooking, not just vocationally. Now, people aren't learning. If you want to make a white sauce you go pick a packet off the shelf.
Kind country ladies can get competitive. You should see the preserves at the district exhibits! The ladies bring 30-40 jars to pick one out for judging. But the age of those ladies is getting on – they’re in their '70s and '80s. I try to encourage the oldies to teach their grandchildren.
You can judge a cake by its looks. With fruitcakes, you start by looking at the appearance – how well the tin has been lined, whether the crust is even all around, whether the fruit is contained within the cake mixture (sometimes you get bubbles of fruit on the outside, which can caramelise and burn). Inside, you’re looking for a proper distribution of fruit and you don’t want to see ‘tunneling’ or where they’ve inserted the skewer to see if it’s cooked.
I like to cut the cake myself. I don’t like the stewards doing it. You know when you cut a cake what it’s going to be like – the feel of the knife going through. And if it comes out covered in raw mixture, there’s no need to proceed.
Some are more trouble than others. Sultana cakes are very dicey, because the sultanas will sink to the bottom if they’re not correctly prepared. Chocolate cakes are difficult too – people don’t cook them long enough, so they sink in the middle and you get a wet patch.
Paddy cakes are controversial. Nobody knows what size a paddy cake should be or whether it should be a muffin. We had some controversy about that last year: they’ve all become cup cakes.
Preserving is almost a dying art outside of the country. But even fruitcakes are struggling. Wedding cakes were always fruitcakes, and now they’re caramel or chocolate mud cakes or carrot cakes. It’s a changing scene.