I am a pretty competitive person. I’m not particularly athletic, but I get very into spectating at sporting events. Just ask my friends in high school and college who would leave basketball games with bruises on their arms (I have a tendency to hit and grab people’s arms when I get nervous or excited).
Since I can’t necessarily compete in athletic competitions, my drive to win comes out at other times.
Like cooking competitions.
I don’t remember ever participating in a cooking competition before, but when I heard we were going to have a finger food contest among the faculty and staff, I knew I had to win.
Not having much time to look for recipes and having zero time to practice, I spent a little time on Sunday looking through cookbooks and the internet for ideas. I toyed with the idea of making Pioneer Woman’s bbq stuffed jalapenos, thinking that they would probably be popular. But since I don’t like jalapenos, I wasn’t crazy about spending time making something I wasn’t even going to want to eat.
I soon realized it was going to be easiest to make a dessert. I didn’t want to worry about keeping an appetizer warm all morning or reheating for the judging at 11. So a dessert it would be.
And I wanted to make something easy; I had a pretty busy week ahead of me, and while I had all Monday evening to work on my creation, I wanted something straightforward and something I couldn’t mess up.
I’m not sure when the idea hit me or what inspired it. I think I was trying to think of a good finger food and how to apply that to dessert. I decided to focus on the “creativity” category of the contest. We were going to be judged on taste, creativity, and presentation. I figured if I nailed creativity, I might also succeed in the other two.
So I decided to make dessert breadsticks with a variety of dips.
My friend Tess makes parmesan breadsticks out of puff pastry that are always a hit. So why couldn’t I do something similar, substituting sugar for the Italian spices & parmesan cheese? The dips came together in my head pretty easily as well– something fruity, something with Nutella, and something with coffee, as a tribute to my dear colleagues in the St. Joseph building (we’re known for our coffee).
After deciding on my flavors, I spent some time looking around the internet for recipe inspiration. I came up with a good recipe for a lemon dip, using a half of a lemon dessert that featured phylo dough. I figured I could make the filling and not bother with the phylo.
I found several Nutella recipes online but was dissatisfied with all of them for one reason or another. So it was clear I was going to have to take inspiration from some recipes, yet at the end, take a leap of faith that my tweaking and altering would work.
I made the coffee one first. It was going to have a Cool Whip base, so I brewed some Italian coffee in my Moka on the stove and let it cool. I worried that melted chocolate and espresso would be too much liquid and would alter the Cool Whip’s consistency, but I couldn’t imagine making a coffee dessert without espresso. It was fun to pour the chocolate into the Cool Whip and then pour the espresso over it – it looked very much like my favorite drink in Rome — the caffe completo at Cafffe Camerino.
While the espresso gave the Cool Whip a bit of a kick, the chocolate was a bit more pronounced than the coffee. Afraid to add more liquid to the already compromised Cool Whip, I ended up stirring some Maxwell House International Cafe mix in as well. It gave it a nice layered coffee taste. I stuck it in the refrigerator and hoped it would firm up a bit.
I knew the lemon would probably work, since I was following a recipe. It had a whipped cream base. I added more lemon curd than the recipe originally called for, so the dip was pretty tangy. Again, I stuck it in the refrigerator and hoped it would firm up a bit too.
The Nutella one was going to be the trickiest. I had decided to pair it with mascarpone, wanting all three dips to have a different base. I wasn’t sure how the two would work together, although I thought I had seen a Nutella-mascarpone cheesecake once, so I figured it would somehow work.
When I started throwing stuff together- mascarpone and some whipping cream, mostly– I had my doubts. But as soon as I threw in the Nutella, the whole batch reached an incredible consistency, and it looked so heavenly I wanted to dive right in.
After it hung out in the refrigerator for awhile, the flavors became even richer and it was hard not to eat the whole bowl.
Each day, the dips changed a bit- this one kept getting thicker and thicker. I think it was best this first night, after just an hour or two in the fridge.
The breadsticks were by far the most time consuming. Rolling out the puff pastry dough, brushing it with egg white, sprinkling sugar over it, cutting it in small little strips, twisting the strips up, then sprinkling the whole cookie sheet with more sugar… When someone asked me the next day where I bought the sticks, I almost had a stroke. I made them. with my bare hands.
So here’s the finished product– I wish I had a cute little jar to put the sticks in, but I didn’t. I’m sure I could have worked on the presentation a bit more, but it was late and I wanted to go to bed:
They were calling out for cute little labels, so I got to make up names for each dip and create signs. The coffee one was named after my favorite drink (I just hoped that everyone would be able to translate caffe).
For as competitive as I am, I don’t like being judged. I was a little nervous when I took my dessert over to the main building to set it out with the others. A lot of the entries were purchased at the store, so I felt okay about my chances. But I still ran back to my office as soon as I put it out, not wanting to hear first impressions. I eventually returned to where everyone was chowing down and marking ballots for their favorites. And thank goodness I did return — several people asked me not only where I bought the breadsticks, but where I bought the lemon dip! So while the store-bought entries weren’t a threat to winning, they did skew reality for people. I had to reassure everyone that nothing but the ingredients was purchased at the store.
The next morning, the winners were announced– and in the “sweet” category, yours truly brought home the prize.
So until the next contest, I’ll rest on my laurels. And maybe make some more dip, because I have a few other ideas. Like Grace Ann’s amaretto pie filling…