Frequent winner Karen Cope of Minneapolis submits the maximum number of entries in her annual quest for blue. In 2010, she won with a cake based on trendy whoopie pie cookies. "It's hard to beat a chocolate cake with a creamy marshmallow filling and chocolate glaze," she says. And it didn't hurt that her cake is baked in the signature Bundt pan—made in Minnesota.
Teresa Reese's blue-ribbon fever is contagious. Her husband and kids joined fair competitions after watching her win. The Osceola baker's top cake is a three-layer wonder that stays extra moist thanks to butter and buttermilk.
A fair competitor since 1980, Beverly Anhorn gets the most flavor from tart Nanking cherries by simmering—not boiling—them for juice. "It's one of the few cherry trees we can grow here," says Bev who lives near Max.
Cheryl Christiansen of McPherson won best in quick breads with this scone in 2011. A fair contender since 1979, she bakes multiple possible entries, then chooses what to take at the last minute. "At fair time my family knows to ask if they can have a sample," she adds.
"I'm convinced my husband married me for access to these rolls," says Kenda Friend of her mother's buttery, tender recipe. "Mom is truly the queen of yeast rolls," says this Indianapolis winner known for entering family recipes in competitions.
"The fair gives me a chance to learn new things when I visit with other contestants," says Denise Turnbull of Monmouth. The 27-year fair veteran says, "I go home with new techniques and lots of recipes." Her rich rolls with easy-to-handle dough won Best Bread of Show twice. No wonder her family prefers bread to dessert.
Give Sheila Bethia of West Allis a category, and she develops a blue-ribbon recipe for it. She's been doing it since 1977 with entries like these tiny tarts that mix cranberries and orange peel into her best pecan tassie recipe. Butter and cream cheese make the crust rich.
Louise Piper hauls her entries more than 100 miles from her kitchen in Garner to the fair. "Butterscotch pie is my favorite, and this is a lovely true butterscotch," she says. The trick to the filling in this winner? Stirring and stirring while it cooks. A flaky crust and whipped cream sandwich it.
Faye Hunton of Sedalia was hooked on competition for life after winning top honors for a black walnut cake at the 1987 fair. In 2011, Faye, who teaches pie-making at the local community college, earned a blue for her double-crust pie with big flavor from plumped apples, apricots and cherries. She also demonstrated pies and pastry alongside her state's first lady, Georganne Wheeler Nixon.
Catherine Blackwood of Columbus hasn't slowed down from taking home ribbons since 1979. She entered 64 foods in cooking and baking last year. "Because I have macular degeneration, I get help typing up recipes," she says. Her motto: "Figure out how to do something, not why you can't." Try her spice cookie: It's crunchy on the outside, chewy inside.
For 22 years, Sally Sibthorpe has cooked her way through Michigan cooking contests. Contests have taken her across the country and even to Paris. Her mantra: Persistence is the key to winning. "Don't give up and follow food trends," says Sally, who lives in Shelby Township. "The winning recipes are usually either timeless or timely." Sally's winning soup was inspired by the contrast between the mildly sweet squash and the distinctive taste of basil.
As a child, Susi Odden entered 4-H Club contests, but she reentered the South Dakota State Fair Food scene with her winning Hobo Delight. Susi, who lives in Ree Heights, decided to enter the Beef Cook-Off category because her family raises cattle. "Look for something that is eye-appealing — that looks good on the plate — as well as tastes good," she advises for other cooking competitors.