During her years of competition, Linda Amendt brought home bushels of blue ribbons. Now, it’s her job to determine which jams, jellies, pickles, relishes plus a plethora of pastries deserve to win top honors at the California State Fair.
Amendt, who lives in Murrieta in Riverside County, is the State Fair’s head judge of preserved foods and baked goods. Since 2002, she’s sampled an incredible amount of homemade treats. That was the year after she turned “pro” with the publication of her first cookbook.
“Once I was published (as a cookbook author), I could no longer compete, so I started judging,” said Amendt, an inaugural member of the Sure-Jell Hall of Fame.
Winner of nearly 1,000 blue ribbons in state and county fair canning and baking contests, Amendt now has five cookbooks including her brand new “Blue Ribbon Canning: Jams, Preserves, Pickles, Sauces and More” (Taunton Press, 268 pages, $21.95) featuring more than 140 of her recipes. Following her own advice, she still puts up lots of homemade preserves. We caught up with Amendt between batches of marmalade.
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Q: Is canning making a comeback?
A: We’re definitely seeing a resurgence in canning. People want to know what’s in their food. They take up canning so they can monitor what they eat and adapt recipes to their own tastes. A lot of young people – juniors and young adults – are taking up canning as a hobby. For some, that can lead to fair competition.
Q: How did you get started?
A: I grew up in Whittier. I started canning in my teens, about (age) 16. Like most people, the very first thing I made was strawberry jam. It was very well received, so I made more. My family had a lot of fruit trees – plum, apricot, orange, lemon – so I started making more jam and marmalade. ... I still love canning jams. I like trying new combinations of flavors. I’ll can just about anything I can get my hands on. Right now, I’m working on a large sack of grapefruit. Marmalade takes the longest time (of any preserve to make), simply prepping the fruit.
Q: What trends are you seeing in canning?
A: We’re seeing a lot more creativity. (At the fair), we’ll still get a lot of strawberry and blackberry – those are the most popular jams. But we’re also getting blended fruit flavors with two or three different fruit blended together. Or the fruit will be spiked with other flavors such as liqueur; that’s a big trend. We’re seeing a lot of mixed pickles, too. Instead of straight dill pickles, they’ll mix carrots and cauliflower or other vegetables.
Q: Which blends work best?
A: The stone fruit – plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches, cherries – all work together really well. I like to use two or three in combination. Strawberry blends with any number of other fruit and berries. All of the stone fruit work with strawberries, too.
Q: How to you keep your taste buds fresh while judging?
A: It’s an all-day production. We’ll judge more than a hundred jams and jellies in one day, then more than a hundred pickles, relishes, salsas and soft spreads on another day. Like wine judges, we cleanse our palate with water and plain crackers.
With the jams and jellies, we use cheese and lunch meat to freshen our palates, too. We have to take a protein break because there’s so much sugar. ... When I judge baked goods, I always ask for milk.
I try to give every entry the fairest possible judging I can give them. With jams and jellies, I look at them first. If the ingredients include strong flavors such as almond, mint, cloves or cinnamon, I’ll set them aside and taste them last. Delicate flavors such as pure peach I’ll taste first when my palate is freshest, then taste the spiced ones.
It’s a challenging afternoon, judging 25 strawberry jams. But I find the one really good (jam) will still stand out even after tasting 20 others.
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.
Cookbook author and food judge
Winner of almost 1,000 blue ribbons for canning and baked goods, she decides who wins now at the State Fair.