On the Saturday before the Minnesota State Fair opened, hundreds of Minnesota bakers descended upon the Creative Activities Building to enter their breads, cakes, cookies, bars and pies in the fair's popular baking competitions.

By necessity, it's a highly organized regimen, given the sheer volume of participants. A small battalion of contest professionals sorted nearly 3,100 entries across more than 70 categories. Over the next 24 or so hours, 17 well-pedigreed judges immersed themselves in the serious business of scrutinizing each baked good on the basis of appearance, texture, aroma, flavor and technical prowess. Scores were tabulated, then winners were selected and announced.

"When it gets rolling, it's a marvelous machine," said coordinator Mary Duncomb, a seven-year fair veteran. "It's a very hectic period of time, and it's very exciting. I feel like I'm learning something new all the time."

In a busy section of the Creative Activities Building, the winners — and their ribbons — are carefully exhibited behind glass, and their beautiful handiwork is given the same kind of well earned curatorial reverence normally afforded to, say, precious gems at Tiffany. A large percentage of nonwinning entries are also on display.

"The recognition is really nice for people," said Curt Pederson, Creative Activities superintendent. "It comes with bragging rights to the neighbors and the in-laws."

The enormous exhibition is a magnet for food-loving fairgoers, who ooh and aah over hunger-inducing rows of sculptural Bundt cakes, smoothly iced layer cakes, towering kransekake, beautifully domed bread loaves, meticulously fashioned sugar cookies and other goodies. As a Van Gogh retrospective might inspire a museumgoer to take up painting, the fair's bake-a-palooza surely nudges some fairgoers to preheat their ovens.

"The concept of the building is education, and people love to come in and have a look," said Pederson, noting that other Creative Activities disciplines include quiltmaking, needlework, woodworking, decorative crafts and food preservation. "That's why we have demonstration areas, so people can come in and learn from longtime practitioners of the craft."

Those attending this year's fair should notice a major improvement to the building's baking display area. Following the example of the 2018 renovation of the nearby demonstration kitchen, the display area's refrigerated cases were just replaced with roomier, state-of-the-art models.

Just in time, too; their creaky predecessors were there when Pederson began his Creative Activities career in 1976. The new cases were funded by a donation from a frequent competitor, Kim Mueller, and her husband, Mark Mueller of Shakopee.

"They came to us and said, 'What can we do to make Creative Activities even better?' " said Pederson. "It's nice to have people who understand and appreciate the system."

Looking ahead

For bakers considering entering next year's competition, here's a suggestion: Familiarize yourself with the rules. The many, many rules. (Find them at mnstatefair.org/competitions.) An important one limits the number of categories that a person can enter (it's 20), a safeguard that opens up the playing field beyond a select group of super bakers.

Another guideline to remember is that all entrants must now preregister, either online or via snail mail. (That started four years ago.) The cutoff is a week before the whole drop-off extravaganza.

"You can't just walk in the morning of, with a pie, like in the movie 'State Fair' with Pat Boone," Pederson said with a laugh. "This way, we know what we're in for ahead of time."

And as for snaring those coveted winners' ribbons, Duncomb has some advice.

"Come back, after the fair," she said. "People come back to pick up their exhibits [this year's dates are Sept. 8 from 1 to 7 p.m., and Sept. 9 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.], and we have a judge there, so if there's something they don't understand, they can talk to a judge and get their questions answered."

Another strategy is avoiding the categories that draw the largest number of entries. Do the math: Fewer competitors improve the odds of winning.

This year, the most popular categories were chocolate chip cookies (235 entries across three categories), apple pie (118 entries across two categories), banana bread (117 entries) and brownies (108 entries across two categories).

Following the trends

The fair is often introducing new categories. During the past decade, gluten-free and vegan entered the lexicon. This year's newbie was a contest involving the use of cricket powder, and it was sponsored by 3 Cricketeers cricket farm in St. Louis Park.

"Don't tell me that we're the old, staid department," Pederson said jokingly. "We hang onto the traditional, but we try to be responsive to current trends."

The cricket powder challenge drew 23 entries, and they included pineapple upside-down cake, cinnamon rolls, dark chocolate buckeyes and the blue-ribbon winning entry, "Crickety Ginger Snaps" from Anne Ahiers of Vadnais Heights.

"We wanted to do it because we just want to demystify cricket powder, and show how easy it is to incorporate it into foods," said 3 Cricketeers co-owner Claire Simons. "We had such amazingly creative recipes. We were just blown away."

(Fairgoers can learn more about cricket powder, when 3 Cricketeers — joined by Ahiers and chefs from Nixta and Owamni in Minneapolis — conducts free demonstrations at the Creative Activities Building's Cambria Kitchen on Sept. 5 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.).

Along with introducing trends and celebrating classics, there's also room for whimsy. This year's cake decorating contest had a "Minnesota landmark" theme, which drew several rendered-in-sugar versions of Split Rock Lighthouse.

"It's just unbelievable, the beautiful things that people do," said Duncomb.

During Pederson's 45-year tenure at the fair, he's filed away countless memories. Many involve the baking contests, including this one, from a few Augusts ago.

"It was 7 a.m. on baking entry day, and there were three ladies sitting by the front door, with all of their baking in little wagons," he said. "I told them that the doors didn't open for a few hours and they said, 'That's OK, the three of us met here in line 10 years ago, and now we meet every year, like a reunion.' It's that kind of thing that makes the fair a part of summer for so many people."

Crickety Ginger Snaps

Makes 48 cookies.

Note: Anne Ahiers of Vandais Heights won the 3 Cricketeers' Best Recipe Contest at the State Fair for these cookies, which are crispy on the edge and soft in the middle. The judges loved the cookie's texture and how the malt-like nutty flavors of the cricket powder enhanced the taste of ginger and molasses. This recipe needs time to chill before baking.

• 3/4 c. shortening

• 1 c. sugar

• 1 egg

• 1/4 c. light or mild molasses

• 1 1/2 c. flour

• 1/2 c. 100% pure cricket powder, such as 3 Cricketeers, sifted

• 2 tsp. baking soda

• 1 tsp. ground ginger

• 1/2 tsp. salt


In a large bowl, beat shortening and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and molasses; mix until well blended.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, sifted cricket powder, baking soda, ground ginger and salt. Stir dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until combined. Cover and refrigerate 1 to 3 hours or overnight, until dough is firm enough to roll into balls.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Shape dough into 1-inch balls and roll in sugar. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheets. Bake 9 to 12 minutes, until lightly browned and cracked. Cool 1 minute before transferring to a cooling rack.

Elvis on a Stick:  Peanut Butter Bacon Banana Bread

Serves 16.

Note: This Elvis-inspired Peanut Butter Bacon Banana Bread recipe comes from Karen Cope of Minneapolis, who took first place with it at the Minnesota State Fair in the Blue Ribbon Banana Bread Contest. Find more recipes at BlueRibbonGroup.net. If you skip the bacon (and bacon fat) add an additional 1 tablespoon of butter.

• 6 strips bacon (see Note)

• 1 tbsp. bacon fat, cooled

• 1 c. brown sugar

• 3 tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature

• 3/4 c. peanut butter

• 2 c. mashed bananas (3 to 4 large bananas)

• 2 eggs

• 1 tsp. vanilla extract

• 1/2 tsp. salt

• 1 tsp. baking soda

• 2 c. flour

• 2 c. mini chocolate chips, divided

• 2 c. peanut butter chips, divided

• 2 tsp. vegetable shortening, divided

• 1/4 c. honey roasted peanuts, finely chopped

• 2 tbsp. banana chips, finely chopped

• 16 wide wooden sticks, 3/4- by 8-in.


To prepare the bread: Fry bacon until crisp. Chop into fine pieces and reserve for topping. Save 1 tablespoon of bacon fat for bread batter.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-inch cake pans. Line bottoms with parchment paper.

In a large mixing bowl, cream bacon fat, butter, peanut butter, and brown sugar until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add mashed bananas, eggs, vanilla, salt and baking soda, and mix until smooth. Stir in flour, 1 cup mini chocolate chips and 1 cup peanut butter chips. Mix until just combined. Divide mixture between the two prepared pans and smooth out the tops.

Bake 20 to 25 minutes, until light golden brown and edges start to pull away from the sides. A toothpick inserted into center should come out clean, without chocolate. Cool on wire rack.

To prepare the glaze and toppings: In a small bowl, melt remaining 1 cup peanut butter chips and 1 teaspoon shortening. Mix until smooth; set aside. In another small bowl, melt remaining chocolate chips and 1 teaspoon shortening; set aside. Cut each round of banana bread into 8 wedges. Insert a wide wooden stick on the outer edge of each piece. Drizzle with peanut butter and chocolate glaze, then sprinkle with chopped peanuts, banana chips and bacon pieces.