Cookware greased and hairnets applied just right, school-lunch cooks across Maryland spent the week toiling, but this time, not for their kids. They were instead preparing goodies for today's annual school food services bake-off in Ocean City.
School cafeteria bragging rights are at stake.
Edith Brown from Guilford Elementary in Baltimore will be there with her bread pudding. So will Patsy R. Kreppel, bringing a blueberry tea cake from Chesapeake High School in Essex. And Dianne Snyder, presenting almond cookies from Friendship Valley Elementary in Carroll County.
Baked goods are a far cry from what the lunch line was historically famous for: The meatloaf. The Salisbury steak. The, errrr (what was that stuff?) mystery meat. They were all homemade, but kids were often afraid to ask about the ingredients.
Today, many cafeterias, hoping to entice pupils and stamp out the stigma, have refashioned themselves. They serve fries, burgers, chicken nuggets and cheese steaks -- mostly pre-made. But capturing a slice of the homemade past, some cafeteria staffs still prepare homemade cookies, cakes and breads. And the bake-off, said event chairwoman Beth McCreery, encourages that.
"It gives them a chance to be creative," she said. "What do you do to make lunches different? The pizza is the same. The green beans are the same. The peas are the same. Your baking is what can be different."
Some cafeteria staffs make their baked goods part of the school lunch; others offer them as treats. All say kids these days are too accustomed to fast food and deserve a taste of something made from scratch. The bake-off offers them a chance to see other recipes they might use in their own schools.
But don't for a minute think it isn't competitive, and this year's contest looks fierce.
One veteran to fear is Margie Bading. She's been cafeteria manager at Westminster High School for 29 years, and she doesn't mess around. She types her recipes for the bake-off, while others write them by hand. She alphabetizes her spice racks.
Dozens of ribbons decorate a bulletin board behind carts of frozen chicken patties and frozen Mexican pizzas. Bading and her kitchen staff have won a blue ribbon in Ocean City seven of the past nine years.
So they basically rule the state?
"Awwww, nooo," said Irene Pickett, a baker at Westminster High.
"We do," Bading said.
In 1995, Westminster entered Morning Glory muffins in the Carroll County bake-off that determines who goes to Ocean City. When the muffins lost, Bading was sure something was wrong with the judges. She entered the exact recipe the next year, and it finished first in the county and state.
"I just knew they were so healthy," Bading said of the muffins. "If the judges had only looked at the ingredients."
Items are judged not only for taste and appearance. Since the intent is to find foods suited for the cafeteria, judges favor low-fat treats and ingredients approved by the National School Lunch Program.
Entries compete in six categories -- yeast breads, quick breads, cakes, bar cookies, rolled or dropped cookies and baked fruit goods -- and awards will be given this afternoon.
The bake-off, sponsored by the Maryland School Food Services Association during its convention, attracts about 60 entries per year. It has been held for more than 25 years.
From heavily favored Westminster this year comes an old-fashioned apple crisp with raisins, and a pear bread. The apple crisp -- the secret, those who have tasted it believe, is ginger, which brings out the flavor -- is served as part of school lunches.
Whereas Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford and Baltimore counties get many of their desserts from packages -- those counties don't have local bake-offs -- desserts, breads and soups are made from scratch at many Carroll schools.
"This is Carroll County, and it's our way of doing it," Bading said.
It is no surprise that Westminster has a rival in this bakers' haven. Just down the road at Friendship Valley Elementary, Snyder, the cafeteria manager, stood under a "Milk Helped Cal Become the Ironman" poster and examined two cookies, fresh out of the industrial-size oven. Snyder said it was a test batch, to see if the batter had to be altered.
"If they just go pfffffffttt," Snyder said, "you need to add more flour."
("Pfffffffttt," she said, means the cookies flatten when heated.)
The cookies did not go pfffffffttt, and Snyder began plopping blobs of batter in perfect rows onto an 18-by-24-inch tray.
Snyder's cookies -- spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, and topped with an almond-flavored butter-cream icing -- are sold to pupils for 20 cents each.
Lunch cooks -including a smattering of men who bake in school kitchens -- are busy and devoted types, and the kids come first. Setting up the salad bar or dessert line is much more important than baking for a bake-off, and much much more important than any interview.
As her staff busily stirred pineapple chunks into a suitcase-sized bowl of Jell-O, Edith Brown, manager at Guilford Elementary and Middle in North Baltimore, paused -- briefly -- to talk about Ocean City. She'll arrive there toting bread pudding with raisins, an apple pie and sweet potato pudding.
She said the key is her staff of six.
"It's no secret," Brown said. "We're all good bakers."
In Baltimore County there is no local bake-off. Kreppel, the Chesapeake High cafeteria manager, has decided on her own to enter a blueberry tea cake in Ocean City.
Kreppel baked the bread with her salad preparer, Bridget R. Wiley. The recipe was borrowed from Wiley's grandmother.
But there was a question about the cake -- does it belong in the fruit products category or a bread category? Kreppel was going to enter it in fruit products. That was until she realized that to do so would have required using eight cups of berries.
"That would be a lot of blueberries," said Kreppel. "It would make it too wet."