Amy Hall had no idea whether a macaroni & cheese bake-off would be successful in the Capital City last January.
“It’s the first event of its kind in New Hampshire … none of us were sure what to expect, whether it would be a huge hit or be a huge miss,” she said. “We knew we had bakers preregistered so we knew the bakers would be there, but the question was, are people going to show up?”
Fifteen minutes before the start of the event, a line had formed at the door. The 2011 Macaroni & Cheese Bake-Off drew an estimated crowd of nearly 800.
Riding on the success of that debut, the second annual New Hampshire’s Own Macaroni & Cheese Bake-Off will be held at the Holiday Inn in Concord on Saturday, Jan. 14, from 2 to 6 p.m. Hall said the space for this year’s event has been expanded to give attendees to more room to move around, sit and sample.
Hall, director of Granite State Dairy Promotion, said the purpose of the event is to highlight local dairy farmers and the cheese and milk they produce.
“Basically it’s a way for people to come together, sample some delicious comfort food and show support for the New Hampshire dairy industry,” she said. “We have lost 699 dairy farms since 1970 in the state — that’s an 80-percent loss. There are only 130 family farms left.”
New Hampshire cheesemakers will have tables at this year’s event from which to sell and hand out samples of their products. A bottle of milk from a local farm will be included in the admission price.
“Some [of the farmers] are really pleased to have the exposure, to allow people the opportunity to cook with their product,” Hall said.
Bake-Off judge Ed Aloise, owner of Republic Café in Manchester, where local food is emphasized, noted that whatever can be done to enhance people’s awareness of where their food comes from is helpful, “even if it’s something as simple as macaroni and cheese or as complicated as what we do at Republic,” he said. “Both are good.”
More than 28 bakers have already signed on to participate in the 2012 Bake-Off, and Hall expects the number of entries to come close to last year’s competition pool of 38. Each baker chooses to have his or her macaroni & cheese creation judged in one of the following categories: Best NH Made (made with 100 percent milk and cheese from New Hampshire dairy producers), Best Traditional (“the kind grandma use to make,” made with any dairy product or brand), Most Creative or Exotic (past entries have featured sushi or smoked sausage) and Best Restaurant.
Each entrant must make enough 2-ounce servings of mac & cheese to serve 250 event-goers.
“People might say ‘Wow’ and tend to panic but it is only two large restaurant chafing dishes. Tops, you are looking at four boxes of pasta,” Hall said, adding that entries will be accepted until Thursday, Jan. 12 (forms are available at nhdairypromo.org).
Judges will be assigned to each category and will score the texture, taste and overall cheesiness of each dish. (Full disclosure: this reporter is on the panel of judges.) Each category will have first-, second- and third-place winners, with the winner of each competing for the chance to be named the 2012 grand champion. The winning recipe will be featured on the menu at Cotton restaurant in Manchester. Entrants will also have a chance to win the People’s Choice Award to be voted on by event-goers.
Hall, who will not act as a judge, said her favorite versions of the dish are creamy ones.
“When I make my own it always comes out dry … for me, as a chef, I could never enter this,” she said.
Aloise said it is the cheese that sets the tone for the comfort food dish.
“It’s the consistency of the cheese, the quality of the cheese,” he said, adding that the dish should not be so cheesy that “you will want to take a nap after two spoonfuls.”
“The key is: sometimes less is more,” he said.