A dispatch from the Evan Williams Bourbon Cooking Competition at the Kentucky State Fair
If judging a cooking competition sounds like a lot of fun, I can tell you that it definitely is, especially when all the recipes contain Bourbon. It’s fitting that at the Kentucky State Fair there would be a bourbon cooking competition – we’ve also got Bourbon tourism booths, still displays, and the winning cake for the general baking competition this year had Bourbon baked right in. This particular Bourbon cooking competition was judged in front of a live audience, which made judging a bit precarious.
Each entrant had to be an amateur home cook. The recipes were judged based on taste, originality, ease of preparation, and appearance and name. Some of the winning recipes make it into the Evan Williams Cookbook, which is printed every few years.
Dishes ranged from a fried chicken and watermelon mint salad in a waffle bowl to a sort of Bourbon samosas to shrimp cocktail with a Bourbon glaze. Some of the standouts were shepherd’s pie and a beef stew with pumpkin in it, all of which had the distinct flavor of Bourbon somewhere in the mix.
There were a lot of entries. Three two-judge teams took two tables each, which meant that each judge had to try upwards of 20 dishes in front of the people who made them. The biggest challenge was not expressing how much we liked or disliked a particular dish since the judging was done in full view of the people who made it – although much to my relief there was nothing that was truly off-putting in the whole lot.
There were a lot of beef dishes, from fajitas to beef stew, but I found the Bourbon tended to come through better on more vegetable-forward dishes. In a lot of the dishes the Bourbon was in a sauce of some kind, which can highlight the Bourbon nicely. I tended to like the dishes where there was a subtle hint of Bourbon cooked right into the recipe, not just a recipe with a little Bourbon sauce added at the end. It takes a lot of work to find the balance in such recipes – sometimes adding Bourbon to standard recipes becomes a recipe for disaster.
As we ate our way through all the dishes on the table the emcees kept the audience busy with Bourbon trivia, and let me tell you Kentuckians REALLY know Bourbon trivia. Audience members won books by some of my fellow judges, Sara Havens, Fred Minnick, and Steve Coomes, as well as tickets to Bourbon & Beyond and Hometown Rising among other items.
The judging was tough but we were able to narrow it down to the top two dishes from each team. The final six dishes were brought on stage where we tried them all – some of them again – to determine which we liked best. All the points were tallied up and the top three dishes were chosen and the winners brought on stage to receive their ribbons.
The winning dish this year was a sweet potato casserole with a Bourbony glazed nut topping which had just the right amount of bourbon so you knew it was there without overpowering the dish.
I sincerely hope I am invited back again next year to judge this competition. There’s nothing better than seeing Kentuckians highlighting our Bourbon heritage in such a delicious way.
Here is this year’s first place recipe:
Plant Butter Bourbon Potato Casserole
Lisa Echsner, Louisville, KY
6 large sweet potatoes
½ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon of vanilla
½ cup plant butter
¾ cup Evan Williams Bourbon Whiskey
1 cup dark brown sugar
2 T. flour
¼ cup plant butter
Cook, peel, and mash sweet potatoes. Add brown sugar, butter, eggs, and vanilla. Mix together and spoon into a 9 inch round casserole dish. For topping, cut butter into flour and brown sugar and sprinkle on top of mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for about 35 minutes.
Here is last year’s first place recipe:
Mr. Williams’ Country Ham and Tomato Pie – Christy Cox 1st Place
Baked Parmesan pastry shell (recipe below)
1 egg white
2 medium sweet onions, diced
2T unsalted butter
½ cup Evan Williams Bourbon, divided
6 slices thick bacon, cooked and diced
¼ pound thin-sliced country ham, diced
½ cup mayo
1 cup grated mozzarella
1 cup grated extra-sharp cheddar
¼ cup whole milk ricotta cheese
2T fresh dill
1T Evan Williams Bourbon
1 tsp salt
1 egg, well beaten
¼ cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese
Make pastry and blind bake until done. Cool. Scramble 1 tsp water into egg white. Brush on bottom of cooled crust. Sauté onion in 2T butter. When caramelized add ¼ cup of Evan Williams bourbon. Allow to fully absorb, set aside. Cool completely. Pour remaining ¼ cup Evan Williams bourbon into small pan, boil until reduced to 1T. Cool completely. Slice tomatoes into ¼ – inch slices and lay on paper towels. Sprinkle with 1 tsp salt. Allow to drain for 30- 60 minutes. Toss bacon and country ham together. Set aside. In medium bowl, combine all cheese mixture ingredients and blend well. Stir in reduced bourbon and caramelized bourbon onions. Refrigerate until ready to assemble.
Place single layer of tomatoes on bottom of baked crust. Spread with 1/3 of cheese-onion mixture and top with ½ of ham/bacon. Repeat. Then add last 1/3 of cheese-onion mixture and top with last of tomatoes. Sprinkle top with Parmesan cheese. Bake on cookie sheet in center of oven for 45 minutes or until center reaches 165 degrees. Cool before cutting.
Mix together 2 cup flour, ¼ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese and 1 tsp seasoned salt. Cut in 2/3 cup butter flavored shortening until mixture is very fine. Sprinkle with 6T ice water and mix with a fork. Gather into a ball and roll into a 13 inch circle. Place in a 9” tart pan (2-inches deep) with a removable bottom. Blind bake until completely done. Cool.