Did you think Lollipop Tuesdays had died?
They haven’t. If you’re confused about why Lollipop Tuesdays aren’t every Tuesday anymore (or for that matter, why I don’t post every day), or you don’t even know what a Lollipop Tuesday is, you should probably check out the handy dandy “What’s Lollipop Tuesday?” header at the top of this page. Now relax and strap in. Because this week I entered a recipe contest.
As a homegrown mountain gal from Central Pennsyltucky, I felt like even though I’d never entered a cooking contest before, I could at least avoid embarrassing myself. After all, when you’re raised in the roots cooking is just one part of a three-part formula for the perfect wife that some crazy hermit made up decades ago and is still being widely circulated in small towns with forks in roads: cooking, cleaning, baby-raisin’. Hunting is optional. I only ever really took to the cooking.
It also just so happened that the recipe contest was for Macaroni and Cheese, which was convenient since I just had my own Jackie Blog hunt for the Best Macaroni and Cheese in the Universe in December. So I threw together my favorite parts of my favorite recipes and came up with a Jackie Blog concoction of cheesy awesomey goodness.
I wasn’t really sure what the rules were. I went online and registered but I didn’t really get anything saying it was received and no one ever sent me criteria. I didn’t even know what the prizes were. I just knew that I had to cook up a vat of smokin’ hot mac and smack and take it to the venue by 1pm. So I designated Dave my Transportation Manager, who threw me and my casserole in the car at 12:40pm and dropped us off while he parked. With only 5 minutes until the entry deadline, I willed the elevator down with my mind, scurried into the judging room and plopped my casserole down: Entry #11. It was precisely 1:00pm.
We then proceeded to wait ten full minutes for any late arrivals. My tale of down-to-the-wire shenanigans weren’t quite as epic as I’d hoped.
Finally, it was time to begin. We met the judges: 2 owners of 2 prominent food businesses in the city and 1 genuine lover of pasta smothered in cheese. We also heard the judging criteria: appearance, taste, and-I-have-no-idea-what-else-because-I-was-stuck-on-appearance.
How could I have watched Iron Chef so many times and not have anticipated this as a determining factor? I should have had a custom-built shelf above my dish that had three beautifully-prepared plates with perfect Macaroni and Cheese portions specifically for the judges. They should have had firecrackers shooting out of them and have some sort of beautiful font displaying the name of my creation.
But I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t even remember to bring a serving spoon. And as my eyes stretched down the rows of the competitors, I saw beautiful thermal Pampered Chef totes, shiny and new casserole dishes that had fancy lids, and classic foil holders with wired burners beneath them.
I had my mother’s hand-me-down casserole dish that she let me borrow once when I was in college and I never returned.
At first I was nervous. I didn’t consider appearance at all. And what were the judges supposed to do without a serving spoon: paw it out of the cheesy vat with their bare mits? Yes. I decided yes they would. In fact, I decided that casseroles should only be served in secondhand stolen dishes and reminded myself that I was there to write a blog post, not to impress judges.
Still, I was nervous. I know this because when the first judge approached my dish and began to fish out a taste of the pasta with her pathetic plastic spoon, I winced as she lost the battle to the broiled parmesan and bread crumb finish, which was settled happily on the top of my concoction. I grabbed Dave’s arm and clenched it hard as a huge piece of parmesan hung on her spoon and she had to contort her tongue to lap it into her hungry mouth. I analyzed every nod, every dart of the eyes, every stroke of the pencil on paper.
I had lost. I surely had lost.
Dave laughed as my sanity slowly unraveled before him and tried to distract me with Bejeweled on his iPad. I was sure to pause the game each time a judge approached my dish. When the judges were finished testing, the audience was allowed to serve themselves buffet style. I watched to see who took bites of mine and was disappointed when I saw much of my dish remained by the time I reached it. I returned to my seat and saw a flyer that had been placed in my absence: it was an advertisement for a catering company.
…I was competing against catering companies?
I had talked myself into a deep, dark loss when one fellow jumped up and B-lined to my dish to get himself a hefty helping of seconds. I was so happy I almost squealed like a freshly born piglet. I had my victory: someone wanted seconds. I told myself perhaps I would jest for third place. That’s when the judges returned and announced there was a tie for first and second and they needed to retaste the top dishes to determine the tie-breaker. The host of the event promptly walked over and grabbed my mother’s hand-me-down dish.
I freaked so hard that I had little tiny tears in my eyes. I tried to hold back the excitement from my body but I only bottled it up and shot it out of my eyes like laser beams at poor supportive Dave, who feared me a serial killer and tried to coax the crazy out of my pupils. It was me versus the Pampered Chef Super Awesome Casserole Tote. I was so thrilled to have third place locked up.
After what felt like hours of the judges lobbing around more cheesy goodness in their mouths, a winner had finally been determined.
It was me.
I was so surprised to be announced first place that I let out a sort of strange yip in front of everyone and tried to tone it down for a casual walk up to the front to claim my winnings: a gift card and a certificate, deeming my recipe officially award-winning. The judges looked pleased with the cheesiness I bestowed upon them and the audience all got in line to finish up what was left of casserole #11.
I waited for everyone to get their fill, truly amazed that I had just shown up for a Lollipop Tuesday and taken the top prize from a room full of hopefuls. I felt like an imposter. If only they knew it was all for a post.
On the way out of the venue, I called my mom to thank her for raising me right and Dave got a hot dog at the stand outside. The fella inside asked who won and I said I did. He asked me what the story was behind it and I explained Lollipop Tuesdays to him and that I run a blog but it’s nowhere close to a food blog. He seemed pleasantly surprised and for indulging me and acting like he would tune in to read, I tipped him a dollar on the hot dog.
Sometimes you have to pay for publicity.
That night I sat around basking in the phrase “Award Winning”. I referred to myself as an award-winning cook and my macaroni and cheese as a first-place dish. And just then I remembered telling my coworkers I was entering a recipe contest that weekend and being laughed at by someone. They made a joke about Kraft mac and cheese and said I was too young to cook well. I told her she didn’t know the power of being raised in the sticks.
And just then, I took out my phone to send a proper foot-in-mouth-inducing text.
Signed, First Place Chef. ♣
Before you ask, here’s the recipe. Thanks to thesinglecell, who provided most of the recipe for thejackieblog recipe contest:
1/2 lb pasta of your choice, cooked and drained
2 tablespoons butter, divided
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons dry mustard
5 oz. sharp cheddar, shredded
3 oz. Raclette, cubed
1/4c. Parmesan, grated (plus some for sprinkling)
1 3/4c. heavy cream
Paprika for sprinkling
Cinnamon for sprinkling
1 cup white bread crumbs cut into 1/2 in. squares
Preheat oven to 375. Spray a 9×9″ pan (preferably a hand-me-down) with cooking spray. Pour al dente, drained pasta into 9×9″ pan. Melt 1tbs butter and pour over bread crumbs. Set aside. Blend flour, mustard and salt together in a small bowl. In a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt 1tbs butter. Add flour, salt and mustard and stir until blended. Add milk and cream, stirring or whisking until dry ingredients are dissolved and liquid is hot, but not boiling. Add Raclette, stirring/whisking occasionally until cheese melts. Repeat for cheddar and Parmesan, stirring/whisking often so the cheese doesn’t stick to the bottom and burn. Sprinkle in cinnamon.
Pour cheese sauce over pasta; add bread crumbs and sprinkle with Parmesan and paprika and bake at 375 for 25 minutes. Then broil until top is golden.
Eat with bare hands.