First, Cynthia Timberman gently broke the sliver of poundcake, then she poked and prodded it, finally crushing a crumb between her fingers.
"This one is a little wet," she told fellow judge Rose Yelder, who was inspecting a slice of the same cake. "But see how dried out it is on the bottom."
Putting a morsel into her mouth, Timberman smiled, ever so slightly. "It has good flavor -- but it's definitely out."
Timberman, a retired home economist for Dominion Virginia Power who has judged state fair competitions for more than 20 years, and Yelder, an instructor at the Army's culinary school at Fort Lee near Petersburg, Va., who was making her first appearance as a fair judge, were among a bevy of judges who gathered in Richmond on Friday to critique the entries in the Virginia State Fair's baking competition.
At stake mostly were bragging rights. First prize in each category was $3 and a blue ribbon, second was $2 and a red ribbon, third just a white ribbon. The best of the best, proclaimed the Greatest State Fair Cake, carried a $25 prize. Dozens of cakes filled several large tables; pies, cookies, candies and brownies covered other tables. There was no fee to enter the contest.
The poundcake category drew the most entrants -- more than 20 -- and Timberman and Yelder had to taste them all.
Seemingly simple, with only a few standard ingredients, perfect poundcakes are notoriously difficult to produce. If the ingredients are beaten too much, or too little, the cake's texture is affected. If the oven is too hot, or not hot enough, the cake can be gooey in some areas or dried out. Even slamming the oven door can affect a cake.
Unlike entries in the fair's other cake categories -- carrot, devil's food, chocolate iced, coconut and several others -- poundcakes cannot have icing, so all their flaws are exposed.
The entries displayed most of the possible problems. State fair rules dictate that the cake's taste counts for only 30 percent of its score, so Timberman and Yelder focused first on structural flaws. Several entries were much darker than the golden brown color a poundcake should present. A few had deep cracks in the top; some were ragged where they hadn't released easily from the pan.
"It's easier to exclude at the beginning," Timberman said, "even though we taste all of them."
As she and Yelder methodically made their way through the poundcakes, judges Garry Keckley, a hotel food and beverage executive turned real estate agent who is now chef in residence at Ingleside Vineyards, and Capt. Suzanne Akuley, a culinary instructor at Fort Lee, took a slightly different approach to the iced wonders before them. Those cakes displayed few obvious defects. A couple of the entries tilted to one side; one had a large hump that had been coated with icing; one cake looked as if it was melting.
Keckley and Akuley began by measuring each entry's cardboard base. Bases were to be no more than 13 inches square. Some were much bigger, resulting in several disqualifications, including an elaborately decorated, all-white, three-tier wedding cake topped with a couple dressed in traditional formalwear: two grooms, one black, one white.
As they worked their way through carrot cakes, German chocolate cakes and the contestant's choice category, which included every other kind of cake, Keckley and Akuley took a small wedge cut from each, which they first examined for texture and consistency and then tasted. Each gave the entry a rating of from 1 to 10.
Timberman and Yelder continued to winnow the poundcakes. Nontraditional entries came up lacking. A hazelnut poundcake looked great, but when assistant Aggie Vaughan cut into the middle, the slice dissolved into crumbs.
"It's a shame. It tastes good, but it's falling apart," Timberman said.
"Oh, no," Yelder cried when she felt the texture of a cake that had been baked in a decorative mold. "It's so dry!"
"I like sweet potatoes, but not sweet potato poundcake," Yelder said of another entry.
Like other cakes that did not win ribbons, it was headed for the Central Virginia Food Bank for distribution to social service agencies.
Contestants had begun to crowd a picket fence surrounding the judging area. As the judges started narrowing their selections, the spectators grew more anxious, some standing on tiptoe to get a better look at how they were faring.
Finally, Timberman and Yelder were down to four poundcakes. Two had been baked in Bundt pans (both had slightly undercooked areas but, the judges agreed, looked and tasted great) and two in classic tube pans (one evenly golden brown with a fine crumb; the other with a coarser texture and a deep crack in the top).
They went through their testing protocol again before choosing the finer-textured entry -- baked by Jude C. Harris Jr. of Glen Allen -- as the winner.
Next they selected the winners in the coconut and iced chocolate categories. Then all four cake judges tasted the winners in all of the categories to decide the best of show. They quickly narrowed their choices to three: a tall pineapple Italian cream cake, a novelty cake made in the form of a treasure chest (such novelty cakes were judged only on appearance) and a German chocolate cake.
Ultimately, the pineapple Italian cream cake won the blue rosette of the Greatest State Fair Cake. The treasure chest nosed out the German chocolate cake for second place in that contest.
"If only the German chocolate had had some kind of decoration -- a flower, something -- it would have been second," Timberman said.
Winner Lesley Russell of Richmond, who owns about 1,500 cookbooks, said she got the winning cake recipe from an Iowa State Fair cookbook. "I just like to bake," she said.
Apparently. Her sour cream coffee cake won first place in two categories; she also won first place for her pecan pie and second place in the candy and novelty cake categories.
Amanda LeBrecque of Purcellville was also a multiple winner, taking best of show in yeast breads; second place in chocolate iced cake, candy, candy dish, sugar cookies and quick bread; and third in lemon chess pie.
The Virginia State Fair continues through Sunday at the Richmond Raceway Complex, 600 E. Laburnum Ave. Tickets are $17.99; $13.99 for children 3 to 6, people 60 and older and people with disabilities; free for children 2 and younger. Tickets include all attractions and more than 40 midway rides. For more information, visit www.statefair.com or call 804-569-3200.
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