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Laurie Figone of Petaluma grew up on the 1,000-acre Leveroni Brothers Dairy ranch in Novato and studied agriculture at Petaluma High School.

Nowadays, the 55-year-old mother of two uses the lessons she learned on the farm to win one top prize after another in amateur cooking contests. It's her claim to fame.

When she got married 28 years ago, her grandmother taught her how to make a family recipe for ravioli. That ravioli became Figone's signature dish, a labor of love stuffed with meat and smothered in tomato sauce.

"Word of mouth got out," she said. "One Christmas, I made 10,000 raviolis."

In 2009, Figone decided to enter her Tomato and Brie Focaccia in a contest sponsored by Taste of Home magazine. It won in the tomato dish category.

"That's how I got into recipe contests," she said. "I'm a perfectionist, and I was trying to perfect my focaccia."

At the moment, Figone is a finalist in the 2013 "Get Wild with Wild Rice" contest sponsored by the Minnesota Cultivated Wild Rice Council.

In November, she will head to Las Vegas to compete in the World Dessert Championship as part of the World Food Championships.

"There will be 50 people just in the dessert category alone," she said. "And there are professional pastry chefs competing with home cooks."

On the first day of the competition, Figone will make a signature dessert and a "build," meaning an original dessert using the same ingredients that were given to the other contestants.

"After the first day, they will pick 10 top winners," she said. "Then the 10 finalists bake on Saturday, and that winner goes to the Final Table on Sunday."

The 2013 World Food Championships showcase classic American cuisine in several categories, with about 350 contestants vying for best barbecue and chili, burgers and sandwiches as well as desserts. Champions in each category win $10,000, and the Final Table champion takes home $50,000.

So far, the cooking contest venture has been an exciting ride for Figone, who has connected with dozens of "Facebook foodie friends" through the process.

"I don't enter near as many as other people," she said. "You could enter a contest a day."

The stakes are high. One of Figone's Facebook friends won $10,000 from Foster Farms and $25,000 from Scharffenberger chocolate.

In 2010, Figone won $500 from Kraft's Real Women of Philadelphia Contest for her recipe for Lean Green Slaw made with honey-nut cream cheese.

"That was huge, because there was a lot of competition," she said.

In 2010, she also launched her own TV show, "Cooking with Laurie," in her home kitchen. The show airs on the Petaluma Community Access station.

"I'm visiting all the local growers and producers," she said. "Then I come back and cook."

In 2011, she entered Gilroy's "So You Think You Can Cook with Garlic" contest, taking home first place and $1,000 for her Triple G Almost Famous Focaccia Bread.

In 2012, she was one of three finalists nationwide to fly to Oregon for the Bob's Red Mill "Spar for the Spurtle" U.S. Porridge Making Championship. After winning there, she flew on to Scotland, where she won the 19th annual "Golden Spurtle" World Porridge Making Competition with her Italian Pinhead Torta. ("Pinhead" is slang for the steel-cut oats she used instead of rice, while a spurtle is a rod-like wooden kitchen tool used for stirring porridge.)

In June, Figone flew to New York as a finalist on NBC's "Today" show for its Father's Day Burger Battle.

Her burger — a West Coast Grilled Pizza Burger featuring tomato sauce, chopped olives, bell pepper and smoked olive oil — was supposed to be stuffed with Camembert cheese. However, when the burger arrived at the judges' table, there was no cheese inside. It didn't win, and Figone was horrified.

"That was a huge learning experience, to have a food stylist making my food," she said.

Still, Figone has no regrets and is looking forward to her first trip to Las Vegas to compete in the World Food Championships on Nov. 6.

"This passion has taken me around the world, and I never imagined any of it," she said. "I'm having so much fun."

This recipe earned Figone a spot in the World Food Championships next month. "With the smell of sweet, locally grown strawberries calling, I stopped in at a local roadside stand," she said. "By the time I got them home, I was dreaming of a fresh Strawberry Daiquiri ... so you can have your drink and eat it, too."

Strawberry Daiquiri Trifle

Makes 1 trifle

For Rum Spiked Lime Curd:

8 egg yolks, room temperature

2 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1/2 cup cornstarch

3 1/2 cups water

1/2 cups fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon lime zest

1 tablespoon white rum

For White Rum Bars:

11 ounces Ghirardelli Classic White Baking Chips

1 cup butter

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon white rum

1 tablespoon lime zest

4 eggs, room temperature

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

For Whipped Cream:

1 pint heavy whipping cream

3/4 cup powdered sugar

For Rum Spiked Lime Curd: Whisk together egg yolks and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, mix together sugar and cornstarch until completely combined. Slowly add water, mixing constantly to insure there are no lumps. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a boil. Remove from heat and slowly add 2 cups of the hot mixture to the beaten egg yolks, whisking constantly (you want to add this slowly, so as not to make scrambled eggs).

Whisk tempered egg yolks back into saucepan. Return heat to medium-low. Stirring constantly, bring to a boil. Boil, stirring, for 1 minutes. Remove from heat.

Pour curd into a bowl. Stir in lime juice, butter, zest and rum. Place plastic wrap directly on top of curd and refrigerate until chilled. If you need to do this in a hurry, place bowl of curd in an ice bath and stir until cold.

For White Rum Bars: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 13x9x1-inch pan with foil and coat with cooking oil spray; set aside.

In a medium-sized microwave safe bowl, add white chips and butter. Microwave for 1? minutes, remove and stir until chips have melted. Whisk in sugar, rum and zest. Then add eggs and whisk to combine.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt. Add to egg mixture and stir just to combine. Pour into prepared baking pan. Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes, until golden brown and top feels firm to the touch.

Let bars cool completely. Cut into 1-inch squares when ready to assemble trifle.

For Whipped Cream: Put mixing bowl in the freezer for 10 minutes; this will help your cream to whip faster.

Remove mixing bowl from freezer. Add whipping cream and whip on high speed just until cream begins to thicken. Shut the mixer off; add sugar. Continue beating on high speed until cream will form a stiff mound. Do not overbeat.

For Macerated Strawberries: Wash and dry strawberries. Remove stems and slice into ?-inch thick slices; gently toss with rum.

For assembly: Using a 10-inch round, 6-inch deep glass bowl, first layer in a quarter of the rum bar cubes, a quarter of the custard, a quarter of the whipped cream and a quarter of the strawberries. Continue layering until all ingredients have been used. Cover and refrigerate until serving time.

Optional garnish: a little lime zest on top.

"This recipe has been passed down from my great-grandmother, Nana Julia Leveroni," Figone said. "My grandmother taught me how to make it when I was growing up." Citron is a fragrant citrus fruit.

Nana Julia's Torta

Makes 1 torta

1 loaf sliced, sweet French bread (one day old)

4 cups milk

3 eggs, beaten

1 cup sugar

2 heaping tablespoons ground, sweet chocolate cocoa powder (Ghirardelli)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1 pound raisins

1 cup pine nuts

1/2 cup citron

1/2 cup butter, melted

Put the bread in a large bowl or pan; you want enough room to mix everything together. Cover the bread with the milk and let it sit for 5 minutes. Then mix and squish to break up the bread, using your hands. Stir in the beaten eggs.

In a small mixing bowl, stir together sugar, chocolate and spices. Add to bread along with raisins, pine nuts and citron. Mix together well. Once it is all mixed together, stir in the melted butter.

Butter a 13x9-inch Pyrex baking pan. Spread mixture evenly into the pan. Bake at 375 degrees for 1 hour. Let cool in pan for 1 hour. Cut into squares and serve.

"I have a Meyer lemon tree in my back yard that produces lemons year round," Figone said. "I love Meyer lemons for their sweeter, less acidic flavor. ... I've also added toasted pine nuts to the crust for an Italian flair."

Pulverized Meyer Lemon Bars

Makes about 25 bars

5 to 6 Meyer lemons (depending on size)

2 cups brown rice flour

1/2 cup powdered sugar

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon xanthan gum

1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted

1 cup butter, very cold

6 eggs, room temperature

2 cups sugar

1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare the lemons. Zest them first and set aside 1 tablespoon of the zest. Cut away the white pith, then cut the lemons in half lengthwise and cut each half into four segments, removing seeds as you go. Put the lemon segments into a measuring cup (you will need 11/2 cups of packed lemon segments). Set aside.

Place flour, powdered sugar, salt, xanthan gum, pine nuts and zest in food processor. Pulse a few times to mix. Cut cold/frozen butter into 1/2-inch slices and add to food processor; pulse until butter is the size of small peas. Press this mixture evenly into a foil-lined 9x13x1-inch baking pan that has been coated with cooking oil spray. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, until crust is just starting to turn golden brown.

While crust is baking: In the same food processor put lemon segments and sugar. Pulse until lemon is pulverized. Add eggs and 1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum to food processor and pulse just until mixed. Let sit until crust comes out of oven.

When crust is done: Lower oven temperature to 325 degrees, pulse egg mixture a few times just to blend and then pour slowly on top of hot crust. Return to oven and bake just until set, about 25 minutes. It is done when the top no longer jiggles when you shake the pan.

Let cool on the counter and then refrigerate at least 2 hours. Carefully remove foil from pan and cut into 2x2-inch bars. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve at room temperature.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.

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