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Competitive cook eyes Clay County Fair

By Staff | Sep 4, 2009

Louise Piper poses with a few of her entries from the Iowa State Fair and the ribbons they received. Top row from left are cherry jelly, violet jelly and jelly made from Queen Anne’s lace, the same plant now blooming in roadside ditches throughout Iowa.

GARNER – Louise Piper can sum up her life in a simple sentence. “I love to compete.”

More specifically, she loves to compete with her cooking. With the Iowa State Fair behind her and the Clay County Fair approaching, it seems likely that the oven of this resident in northeast Hancock County has not cooled off for several weeks.

Piper’s passion and perfection are the motivating forces in her cooking. When asked what she likes to prepare in her kitchen she said, “Jams, jellies, butters, conserves, relishes, yeast breads, quick breads, pies, cookies and cheesecakes.”

Piper has been competing at the Clay County Fair since 1982 and the Iowa State Fair since 1984. For this year’s Iowa State Fair, she had a total of 46 entries, 36 were canned entries and 10 were baked or cooked.

Pies are her main interest and this is the fifth year she has sponsored a pie competition at both fairs in memory of her husband Bruce Piper, who passed away in November 2004. As sponsor of the pie contest, she picks the flavor of the pie for that year’s competition.

Louise Piper's loaf of sourdough bread is from a 44-year-old starter that dates back to 1965, which she received from a friend.

Her choices for each fair are usually rotated around the flavors of apple, pumpkin, coconut cream, and banana cream – Bruce Piper’s favorites. The flavor for the Iowa State Fair was raspberry and the flavor for the Clay County Fair will be banana cream.

Piper is also a contestant in other pie competitions. In order to have a pie ready for judging that is less than a day old to ensure freshness, it requires Piper to rise early, prepare her pie and drive from Garner to Des Moines, or Spencer, to have it there in time for judging.

During the Iowa Sate Fair, Piper made nine trips to Des Moines from Garner to deliver food for judging contests. She said the ninth trip was to “pick up her ribbons.” She will be making several trips between Garner and Spencer during the Clay County Fair to deliver her entries.

When asked why she does not rent a place in Des Moines or Spencer or use a camper to prepare her food and save the many trips, Piper said, “I don’t want to get used to a new oven.”

Cooking is both art and science for Piper. She keeps a lined, bound notebook with recipes and records of when the recipes were made. This is important because as one fair ends she is getting ready for the next year’s fair. She is currently canning entries that will go to next year’s Iowa State Fair.

Piper, whose nursing class from Iowa Methodist Hospital of Des Moines just celebrated its 50th class reunion, knows her competitive nature and cooking excellence requires a lot of energy. When asked about her future outlook for competitive cooking, she pauses and says with a smile,” As long as the energy holds out.”

On Sept. 11 she is planning to cook all day preparing cinnamon rolls and scones for the Sept. 12 judging day at Spencer. Another important judging day she has targeted is Sept. 17 when she prepares a cheesecake, peanut butter pie, pumpkin pie and a one-crust pie for judging.

Piper is also judging some events. At his year’s Iowa State Fair, she judged the regular yeast bread division, the regular pie division, and her own pie contest. She was a judge in the soup or dessert contest for the Des Moines Art Center.

Not everything she makes, she said, is good enough to be entered in competition. The problem, she added, is usually due to eye appeal. What does she do with her rejects? They go to the refrigerator at her church or the staffs break room at the nearby nursing home and her own family. Her rejects are still very edible, Piper said.

Violet jelly

(Louise Piper was awarded a blue ribbon for her violet jelly at the Iowa State Fair in 2001 and received a blue ribbon for it in 2009 along with being named third best overall jelly.)

3 cups of violet flowers

Remove the stems and place in a jar

Bring 3 1/3 cups distilled water to a boil

Pour the water over the flowers and let steep for 24 hours

Strain the infusion through a cheesecloth-lined strainer

Allow the liquid to drain fully without pressing the blossoms (pressing will make the jelly cloudy)

Discard the blossoms

With the violet infusion and 1 box of Sur Gel, stir in a very large pan and bring to a full boil

Add 4 cups of sugar all at once and stir bringing it to a full rolling boil, continue for one minute

Remove from heat and skim off the foam.

Ladle into hot sterilized jars. Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

Yields 4 1/2 pints.

Zesty grape conserve

(Louise Piper received a purple ribbon for this as the best conserve at the Clay County Fair in 2007. She said this conserve is so delicious, “it is to die for.”)

From 7 cups of stemmed Concord grapes, slip the skins and place the pulp in a large kettle

Add one cup of water

To the grape skins, add enough water to cover them

Bring each kettle to a full boil and cover

Cook each one gently for 5 minutes

Run the grape pulp through a fine sieve

Discard the seed

Place the pulp and the grape skins in a very large pan along with 1 cup of raisins

Add one very large jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped

Add 2 cups crushed, cored, peeled, ripe pears

Add 1 tablespoon ground coriander

Stir in 1 package Sur Gel

Over high heat, stir this mixture and bring to a full boil

Add 7 cups of sugar all at once

Bring to a full rolling boil for one minute. Remove from heat.

Ladle into hot sterile jars.

Cinnamon apple butter

This received a purple ribbon for best overall butter at the 1998 Clay County Fair.

From six pounds of apples, remove the stems and blossom ends only, then quarter.

Add 2 cups of apple cider

Cook in a very large pan until tender

Press through a sieve or food mill

Place the following into a very large pan

10 cups of apple pulp

5 cups of sugar

3 tablespoons of vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon

Cook this over medium heat for 20 minutes stirring constantly

Remove from heat

Stir in one six-ounce package of strawberry Jell-O

Ladle into hot sterile half-pint jars

Seal and process in boiling water bath for 10-15 minutes

Zucchini bread

3 eggs

1 cup oil

2 cups sugar

3 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon of baking powder

3 teaspoons of vanilla

2 cups grated, peeled zucchini

Beat eggs slightly

Add oil and sugar, mixing well

Sift dry ingredients

Add to creamed mixture

Stir in vanilla and zucchini

Pour into two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans

Bake at 325 degrees for 60 minutes or until done.

Contact Clayton Rye by e-mail at crye@wctatel.net.

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