Competition cooks up at a 4-H county fairFood and Fun Club members put their kitchen skills to the test

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WESTFORD — Louise Donahue looks for an empty cake rack on her kitchen table, brimming with baked goods. “We’ve already had one disaster today,” she says as she sets down the hot pan of butterscotch bars her 10-year-old son, Greg, has prepared for the 51st annual Middlesex County 4-H Fair. The bars go next to the “disaster,” a plate of very flat cranberry cookies that taste great but don’t have that blue-ribbon look.

The kids won’t let them go to waste: “Dad will eat them,” they chime.
With Donahue’s attention focused on daughter Sarah’s gingerbread batter, Greg pokes the top of the warm butterscotch bars, denting the once perfect crust. Uh-oh. Mom looks up. From under his brown curls Greg croons, “I just wanted a taste.” Mom sighs.

Sarah, 15, holds dripping beaters over a bowl as she walks from the counter to the stove to pour batter into a greased pan. Oops. The batter trails from table to hot stovetop like a sticky version of Hansel and Gretel’s crumbs. The smell of burning gingerbread hits the air before the pan even gets into the oven. Just as the words “Sarah Donahue” leave her mom’s lips, Sarah says, “Chill, Mom!” Twelve-year-old Shannon is at another table carefully measuring six cups of popcorn into a bowl for clusters she’ll enter in the nutritious snack category.

It’s good old-fashioned fun, the 4-H way, and the children are learning it from their mother, a freelance computer programmer who leads the 12-member Food and Fun Club in her spare time. Donahue was an active 4-H – er growing up in Woburn, and she relishes the chance to pass on the program’s philosophy of “learning by doing” to her children and club members.

Despite the occasional slip-ups and all the activity, Donahue, 48, runs a very organized kitchen andis a calm, cheerful, and patient teacher. She gently guides Greg’s hand away from a cocoa cake batter to a waiting custard dish as he measures vinegar into a spoon. At the sink, he adds water into a liquid measuring cup and plunges a turkey baster into the cup. Before he is snagged for fooling around, he explains he’s just trying to suction the water off to the one-cup mark. “What a good idea,” says his skeptical mother. But the extra water is just too tempting; Greg squirts it around the sink.

Sarah and Shannon, working independently, reach for plastic bags that hold the dry ingredients for herb bread, apple cake, banana bread, and biscuits, all pre-measured the day before and stacked in a corner of the counter ready for the wet ingredients. Sandra Lee may espouse the virtues of “Semi-Homemade” on the Food Network, but these girls are making their own cake mixes, from scratch.

MORE 4-H PHOTOS View a photo gallery at www.boston.com/ae/food.
A few miles from the Donahue house in a rural corner of Westford, the smell of fresh-cut grass and hay mingle at the Middlesex County Fairgrounds. On this Aug. 23 evening, crickets are singing, and 4-H-ers and their families empty the trunks of their cars and fill the shelves and walls of the brightly lit exhibit hall with their baked goods, art, photos, vegetables, wood working, sewing projects, and jars of jams, jellies, pickles, and honey. All are to be judged the next day. From the other side of the fairgrounds, you can hear a neigh, a baa, and a moo. This could be Kansas, except that most people are wearing Red Sox caps.

More than 700 families are involved in 4-H clubs in Northeastern Massachusetts, says Wendy Marcks, the region’s 4-H educator, who on this day is sporting the program’s four-leaf clover logo on finger- and toenails as she sets up a display in the exhibit hall. More than a century after 4-H began nationally as a collaboration among the USDA, land-grant universities, governments, and other private partners, more than 30,000 young people in Massachusetts are involved in some aspect of the organization. Projects here range from cavies (guinea pigs) to cooking, marine biology, and robotics.

In Donahue’s club, members work on crafts, perform community service, learn about food and nutrition, and plan dinners for their families. Entering the fair is voluntary, but as Penina Buonsanto of Westford says, “it is nice to get ribbons and show people what you are capable of doing.” Buonsanto, 15, who won a blue ribbon one year with her mom’s apple pie recipe, says she has learned many useful things in Donahue’s club, such as “clean as you go,” something most adults fail to master.

Kristiana Graves is making Oreo truffles, a combination of cookie crumbs and cream cheese rolled into a ball with a white candy coating. “I chose this recipe because everyone loves them,” says Graves, 15, who lives in Littleton. “I always read the judges” comments because I want to do better next year.”

Another club member, Jennifer Couture, says she learned about the food pyramid, how to read a recipe, and how to handle “dangerous kitchen tools.” Besides practicing cooking with her club mates, she learned canning skills from her mother, Brenda Couture, also a 4-H-er. “I enjoy putting things together to get a final result,” says Couture, who lives in Billerica. When this 12-year-old traces the process of making pickles or talks about attaining the proper temperature when making jelly so it coats a spoon, she sounds like a veteran USDA extension agent.

For this, the largest all-youth fair in the state, more than 150 entries compete in some 30 food categories, including drop cookies, cornbreads, single- and double- crust pies, refrigerator cookies, yeast breads, quick breads, and novelty cakes (for looking at, not for eating). The rules require a fixed number of items (such as six cookies) set on plain white paper plates and enclosed in plastic bags. No doilies or decorations. These items stand or fall on their own merit. Recipes are attached, and judges know only the category and age of the contestant. The members compete against one another in their age group: novice, junior, or senior. A novice’s slightly misshapen chocolate chip cookie is not judged as harshly as one offered by a senior.

Everyone gets a ribbon — blue (excellent), red (very good), or white (good) — and a hand-written comment from a judge. Amy Herrick, chairwoman of the fair’s Food Department, gives her team of judges guidelines: recipe cards must be complete, products appropriately sized, colors appealing, textures good, and the taste delicious. Herrick says the kids like the competition, especially with the small amounts of prize money, based on a point system. “Some kids are shocked when they have to do something right,” she says. “The next year they try harder. They learn to do things correctly.”

There is also a “challenge category,” in which everyone enters with the same recipe, making it strictly a matter of execution and appearance. This year, Herrick has chosen peanut butter cookies. Fork hatch marks decorate one batch, a sprinkling of sugar embellishes a second, and chopped peanuts top yet another. It doesn’t always go so well. One year, Herrick recalls, the challenge recipe was whoopie pies, and one child — hopefully it was a mistake — substituted cinnamon for chocolate. “It was brutal for the judges.”

On opening day, Donahue’s club members head first to the food department and scatter to find out how their entries fared. Novice Brian Prato, 10, wins a blue ribbon for his peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. “Nice and crunchy,” one judge has written, but added: “Need to get cookies in uniform shape.” Graves earns a blue for her Oreo confections, and Couture cleans up in food preservation with Top Junior, Top Exhibitor, and Best Individual Exhibit for her blueberry lemon mint vinegar. Her baked goods get top honors, too.
As for the Donahue kids, Greg goes looking for those butterscotch bars — and finds a red ribbon. “Good color but tasted flat,” one judge has written. (His mom suspects he forgot the vanilla.) But his banana bread wins a blue.

Shannon’s apple cake also takes a blue ribbon, and she wins first place in the unfrosted cake category. Her sister, Sarah, takes Best Individual Exhibit with her Orange Blossom Coffee Cake, a fancy yeast bread. The judge writes that it had “great shape, texture, and taste.”
Some things, after all, never go out of fashion.

To learn more about UMass Extension 4-H, call Wendy Marcks at 781-891-0650 or visit www.mass4h.org.
To learn more about the Middlesex County 4-H Fair, visit http://www.middlesexcounty4hfair.org/.

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