There were more ingredients in this year's winning pancake recipe than years lived by the young chef who created it.
Arielle Quartuccio, 11, added a blue ribbon to her already extensive list of cooking awards with her Creamy Chicken-filled Crepes at Saturday's children's pancake contest at the Oklahoma State Fair.
With onions, mushrooms, chicken and peppers folded inside perfectly browned crepes — and plated with garnishes of oranges and parsley — the dish was a shoo-in before judges even saw most of the contest entries.
“It's breakfast, but it's more for like a big family setting or a brunch,” the Norman sixth-grader explained. “My dad, he's Italian and I get all my Italian-ness from him, but my grandmother, she always cooked Sunday brunches, and she always let me help.”
Quartuccio has been making cakes, cupcakes and pastries for four years and wants to be a baker when she grows up. She won grand champion in cakes this year for her strawberry cake with strawberry filing and marshmallow icing, but her skills have graduated to more formal dishes.
“She even fixes our supper now — it's great,” said her mom, Karen.
Quartuccio was one of 37 to enter Saturday's pancake contest. Sponsored by Shawnee Mills, the competition pitted kids against each other in two age brackets before a live audience on the cooking stage at the Creative Arts Building.
A pumpkin cinnamon pancake cooked by Sadie Milleson, 10, of Oklahoma City, won first place in the junior bracket, said Nancy Nortz, creative arts manager for the fair.
Other delectables: Red Velvet Crepes stuffed with cream cheese and topped with strawberry jam, Red Pepper and Green Onion Pancakes — “eat plain or with mustard,” according to the recipe — and Hawaiian Luau Pancakes, with pineapple, ham and cherries in the batter.
“That's all the syrup it gets? I like syrup on my pancakes,” said Melba Lovelace, a food columnist for The Oklahoman and one of two judges at the event. “But it has a good aftertaste. That recipe had ham in it but I didn't realize until after I swallowed.”
Lovelace said judging is based primarily on taste, but there are several other quantifiers.
“If we get caught up and can't make a decision then we really have to go with all the other things — eye appeal, creativity, ease of preparation,” she said. “But first we'll start with smell. If it doesn't smell good enough to eat, it's not going to be good.”
For the younger ones, the competition is an exercise in working under pressure.
James McAffrey, 9, spent much of his event with his head in his hands. The Oklahoma City boy, who joined his sisters Ariel, 14, and Ava, 12, in the competition, presented a Boston Cream Pie Pancake: Two stacks, with vanilla cream in between and melted chocolate ganache on top.
“The pancakes cooked faster than what he expected, so I think he was frustrated,” said his mom, Destiny. “He always gets an adrenaline rush, though.”
And the youngest of the competitors leaned toward traditional favorites.
Caleb McCullough, 6, of Oklahoma City, sprinkled chocolate chips into his batter and then sang his ABC's four times before turning his flapjack. Another two rounds through and his entry was done.
“Fliparoo!” he said, dumping his masterpiece onto the judge's plate.
“Oh yeah, I forgot my whipped cream. Do I shake it up first?”
His grandmother, Sharon Smith, a kitchen assistant for the competition, nodded, and so McCullough sprayed about half the can on top.
“Oops, I think I put a little too much on it.”
Cooking contests were once a main attraction at the state fair, but like canning and sewing contests, they lost some sparkle when compared with carnival rides and big-ticket entertainment events, Nortz said.
Other fair cooking contests this year involved grilled cheese, casseroles, baked goods and Spam.
For both adults and children, the competitions are about much more than food, Nortz said. Behind the range, while the judges look on, the chefs learn composure under pressure, confidence, and how to adjust to the unforeseen.
“And with the cooking channels it's had resurgence in popularity, especially with kids,” Nortz said. “They need to know they can create their own magic in the kitchen.”