Variety the spice of recipe contest

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

There may only be 12 Days of Christmas, but there are 18 finalists in the Thorne’s Holiday Cookbook Contest.

None of the finalists fell in the traditional list of Christmas favorites. Roasted chestnuts? No. Figgy pudding? Negative. Fruitcake? Uh-uh.

This year, the foods vying for the top spot included entries with such salivary-gland-activating titles as: chocolate lasagna, peppermint crumble bars, cheddar swirl breakfast bars, Italian sausage dressing cups, and curried beef stew.

The songs may not mention those, but they should.

The grand-prize winner came from the vegetarian dishes – the pepper jack tomato soup by Amy Jo Ransom.

That makes Ransom a back-to-back winner. In the 2012 event, another of her spicy soups, the crock pot chicken wing soup, won the grand prize.

Unlike last year, there was no doubt about this year’s grand prize.

There were a number of new faces and several returning veterans involved in the competition this year.

“It’s just amazing the amount of entries that we get, the amount of people that come down, and the amount of people that just come to watch,” BiLo Manager Brandon Parker said. “It lets people showcase their cooking and baking talents. It’s nice that they share their recipes.”

Parker said the organizers have discussed adding new categories to the event for next year.

The finalists each receive BiLo gift cards. The top prize is $100.

A $100 prize notwithstanding, the judges were the real winners.

A total of 10 judges, six from Thorne’s BiLo and four from the Times Observer, sampled each dish in turn.

The appetizers included ranch herb deviled eggs by Tamara Pudder, Italian sausage dressing cups from Kim Williams, and festive pomegranate and scallion dip.

Some of us had doubts about the mixture of pomegranates and scallions. Those doubts were quickly removed. Anne Farrell’s dip was the overwhelming winner of the category and not because the other two were less than good.

The buffalo chicken garbage bread – another questionable name – dominated the bread category. Former grand prize winner Madison Hanks brought two versions of the bread – regular and gluten-free. Both were excellent. Asked her secret, she said she experiments with dishes by not measuring particularly carefully. When cooking for the cookbook contest, however, she makes sure she has the numbers so others can make dishes that come out the same.

Tara Casey’s cheddar swirl breakfast bars and Cathy Pearson’s coconut banana (coco, cocobanana?) bread ran into a buzzsaw there.

The aforementioned pepper jack tomato soup dominated its category. As with the other categories, the zucchini casserole by Casey and the cabbage sweet potato soup from the kitchen of Pam Hanna were good, but not good enough.

The main dishes included only soups and stews. The vegetable ham soup by Carol Wilcox defeated both the curried beef stew by John Deming and the Guinness beef stew by Lynda Church.

The sweets came at the end and both the holiday favorites and desserts categories featured close finishes.

Among the desserts, the chocolate lasagna (Pearson) edged the blueberry torte (Casey) and the mini pumpkin cheesecakes by Deb Ward.

The holiday favorites voting was so close judges had to resort to their fourth-tier tie-breaker. Tabulator Julie Miller of the Times Observer added up the scores. The cookie pies by Kim Williams and the peppermint crumble bars from Jenna Chase were in a dead heat over the strawberry pretzel salad by Michelle Apthorp. Miller was not a judge, but she was the first tie-breaker. However, by the time the results were added up there were no cookie pie samples left.

So, the two nearest judges were consulted. Each favored a different dish. When four more judges were brought over, their votes were also evenly split. Parker brought in an impartial judge who had sampled both dishes and the tie was finally broken. The cookie pie was named the winner.

The first place winners received $50 BiLo gift cards. Second place was good for $25, and third took $15.

The judges were Gayle Perrett, Todd Bines, Ellie Rockwell, Kathy Gurdak, Erin Christy, and Parker from Thorne’s and Kelli Shagla, Brian Ferry, Jack Albaugh, and Carrie Collins of the Times Observer.