By Suzanne Oaks Brownstein
What happens when you take two Junior League cookbook committee co-chairs, mix in a secret ingredient, and add a dash of healthy competition?
The “Iron Leaguer” competition – inspired by the Food Network’s hot show “Iron Chef” – pits two Junior League of Tampa volunteers against each other in a battle of wills. . . or at least a battle of blenders. The contest involves two participants preparing recipes from a JLT cookbook, using one common “secret ingredient.” The finished dishes are sampled by attendees at the monthly JLT general membership meeting, who then vote – in an anonymous taste test – for their favorite dish. No cash prize, but the bragging rights are priceless.
At the recent October general membership meeting, we had in one corner Aspen Kahl, preparing Palma Ceia Margarita Pie (p. 307 in Tampa Treasures), and, in the other, Denise Schultz, preparing Cucumber Aspic (p. 59 in the recently released 50th anniversary edition of The Gasparilla Cookbook). The secret ingredient? Gelatin – always a tricky variable.
As this year’s cookbook committee co-chairs together, these ladies are otherwise great friends, close collaborators, and good “hang” buddies. But the contest revealed an underlying competitive spirit beneath their friendly smiles. I decided to dig into this competition a little further. Below is a Q&A with them both:
How did you choose your recipe?
Aspen: “I wanted to mess with my competitor’s mind. I knew she was going to choose a traditional gelatin recipe, so I wanted to go ‘outside the box’ – or should I say, ‘outside the mold.’ Also, I liked the idea of a modern recipe that called for gelatin.”
Denise: “The Cucumber Gelatin just caught my eye. I love cucumbers and find them to be refreshing; I thought that this would make an interesting dish.”
How did you size up your competition? Were you intimidated?
Aspen: “I knew my competitor could cook, but I also knew she was a novice gelatin chef. No, I wasn’t intimidated….”
Denise: “Are you kidding? I, the non-cook (who, I would like to add, is a cook now) was up against one of the best dessert chefs and hostesses of the League. However, I knew I could talk trash to rattle her cage. I figured I would try something unique, not sweet. I had a feeling she would go with a dessert, and I wouldn’t have a chance against her in that arena. I also planned to put some extra thought to the presentation.”
What did you do to mentally prepare for this “Iron Leaguer” cooking contest?
Aspen: “Mentally I would say I was pretty ready for the competition. The one thing I did do was look up what it meant to ‘soften the gelatin.’ Other than that, game on.”
Denise: “Meditations and listening to mellow music. I also tried some psy-ops against my competitor while I was shredding my veggies: I kept asking her ‘Do you hear that? That’s me shredding the cucumbers and now that’s the onion.’ I was trying to get her guard down with this talk. But her reply to all this was just ‘Gross.’”
Did you experience any challenges in preparing your dish?
Aspen: “There were a few moments that I did not think my pie was going to set, but in the end it turned out perfect.”
Denise: “The recipe I made was not enough for my mold so I had to double the boiling water and gelatin from what the original recipe called for. That was a bold move for me, given that I’m a follow-by-direction chef at this time. But it seems as though I managed to pull it off.”
Were you happy with the final product?
Aspen: “Yes, I was. But I didn’t try the absolutely final dish because I’m pregnant and the pie had enough alcohol in it to catch a buzz just by smelling it. Rumor has it that just one piece can make you blow a positive on a breathalyzer!”
…and we have a winner!
Ultimately, Aspen won the first “Iron Leaguer” competition with her Margarita Pie – by one vote. When asked if she was satisfied with the outcome, Aspen noted that “a close race makes for a good competition,” and Denise echoed her thoughts: “I was happy that it was only by one vote that Aspen won, and that she didn’t clean house.”
The contest continues….
But even after the polls closed, and the dishes were put away, the competitors were still at it: “I’m not sure that the judging was completely fair because my competitor was present at the tasting/voting table – she might have persuaded some voters to throw the results her way,” Aspen claimed. Denise as well continued to argue her case: “I do believe that if the competition were judged strictly on presentation alone, I would have blown her out of the League.”
Look out for the next “Iron Leaguer” contest at the GMM in November!
Two other members of the JLT Cookbook Committee are primed to compete in next month’s Iron Leaguer event. One competitor is already trying to psych out her opponent: “I’m confident that whoever is up to the challenge can’t match my cooking skills. I’m in my element for all things fall-flavored. Bring it on!” Tune in for next month’s results….