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‘County Fair’ cookbook highlights award-winning recipes from across the country

Liza Gershman has been a fan of the Sonoma County Fair since she was a kid.

As a young girl, she entered the photography contest and sewing competitions and volunteered at the Hall of Flowers exhibits. Her mother, Nancy, a talented oil painter, won Best of Show awards for her art.

Gershman’s enthusiasm for county and state fairs, from the rides to the baking contests to the livestock displays, has continued and maybe only intensified in her adult years. In November, the author and photographer released her latest cookbook, celebrating not only the Sonoma County Fair, which starts Thursday, but the tradition of fairs across the United States.

“County Fair: Nostalgic Blue Ribbon Recipes from America’s Small Towns” (Images Publishing Group, November 2021) is a compilation of blue-ribbon-winning recipes from county fairs across the country, but it goes beyond the delicious simplicity of American pies, pastries, pickles and preserves. It’s a visual feast, with photos styled and shot by Gershman herself, and transports you to a warm summer day scented with cotton candy and kettle corn, too-sweet lemonade and a secret kiss atop the Ferris wheel.

“Fairs have always been a passion,” Gershman writes in the book’s introduction. “The cacophony of the big top ... the scents from the farm ... the sweetest pink cotton candy. It’s easy to get lost in the pavilions and the carnival and spend hours mesmerized by suckling pigs, horses racing, whirring Ferris wheels, hand-sewn quilts, homemade pies and mouthwatering pieces of fudge.”

By the time she set out to write “County Fair,” Gershman already had authored 19 cookbooks, but she hadn’t gotten around to her longtime desire to write a cookbook featuring prize-winning recipes from fair competitions. So when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out and she returned to Sonoma County from the East Coast to be closer to family, she realized it was the perfect time to work on a county fair passion project.

“Working on this book really cheered me up,” Gershman said in a recent interview with The Press Democrat. “It gave me something creative to focus on that brought me a lot of joy. It also gave me an opportunity to stay connected with family and friends who helped make it happen.”

Gershman said immense research went into creating the book, which includes almost 80 blue-ribbon-winning recipes. She read anything she could get her hands on about county fairs. To obtain the blue-ribbon recipes, she began by compiling an astounding list of all 3,000 county and state fairs in country. But during the pandemic, which put a hold on nearly every fair in America, it was difficult to reach past contestants in fair cooking and baking competitions.

Fortunately, local newspapers across the country had chronicled many of these fairs and competition winners. They turned out to be a great resource for Gershman to find blue-ribbon-winning recipes.

After choosing at least one winning recipe from each U.S. state, Gershman enlisted friend Jennifer McMurry, a pastry chef and currently the executive chef at Kivelstadt Cellars, to help with recipe testing and development. Another friend, Marissa Miller, assisted with recipe formatting, photo shoots and production. Gershman’s mother, Nancy, created the beautiful watercolor illustrations throughout the book, while friends and family members served as photography models.

To create a sense of nostalgia through her photography, Gershman sourced vintage bakeware, cooking tools and textiles from antique shops in Sonoma County, including Yankee Girl Antiques in Petaluma and Whistle Stop Antiques in Santa Rosa. Then she sought out local vintage-style kitchens to serve as a backdrop for many of the desserts.

“A huge part of this book is how essential county fairs are to their communities,” Gershman said. “And honestly, I couldn’t have made this book without the support and encouragement of my community.”

As important generators of revenue and employment — for many months before opening day — fairs can be a big boon to local communities. Tawny Tesconi, former CEO of the Sonoma County Fair and involved with the fair industry for more than 30 years, said fairs also give people a chance to shine. As manager of the community exhibits at the Sonoma County Fair, Tesconi oversaw the extensive food and art competitions, which could see upward of 30,000 entries in a single year.

“People could get incredibly competitive!” Tesconi remembered. “They would submit 40 to 50 items each — jams, jellies, canned vegetables, baked goods — in all flavors and categories. Some people would get up at 2 a.m. to bake everything fresh and have it ready in time for the competition later that day. But it’s really an opportunity for people to build esteem and showcase what they can do.”

For Gershman, chronicling the county fairs of America showed her how passionate people are about celebrating their communities. She said that gave her hope.

“There are so many things tearing us apart these days,” Gershman said. “County fairs really bring people together.”

The following recipes are from “County Fair: Nostalgic Blue Ribbon Recipes from America’s Small Towns,” by cookbook author and photographer Liza Gershman.

Orange Chiffon Cake

This orange chiffon cake was inspired by a recipe from Donna M. Hayes, who entered it in the North Alabama State Fair. It’s gluten-free and a good choice if you’re sharing with friends who avoid eating gluten.

Makes 1 cake

6 egg yolks

1 cup plus ½ cup sugar

1 cup potato flour

2 tablespoons baking powder or cornstarch

½ teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon lemon juice

6 egg whites

1 cup orange juice

Blackberries and orange slices, to garnish

Confectioners’ sugar, to garnish

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Beat the egg yolks. Gradually add 1 cup sugar, a little at a time, and beat well. Mix and sift together the flour, baking powder or cornstarch and salt. Add to the yolks, stirring until blended. Add water and beat thoroughly. Beat egg whites with lemon juice in a clean, dry bowl until stiff, but not dry. Gently fold into cake mixture. Pour batter into ungreased 9-inch tube pan. Bake for 1 hour.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool. While the cake cools, mix orange juice and ½ cup sugar in a small bowl. When mostly cooled, invert cake onto your serving dish or cake stand and pour orange juice and sugar mixture over cake while it’s still slightly warm. Add a few blackberries and sliced oranges on top, sprinkle sifted confectioners’ sugar over cake to garnish and serve.

Apple Crisp

This simple recipe was inspired by Nathan Moore, who won a Blue Ribbon Prize for it at the Addison County Fair in New Haven, Vermont.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

4 cups peeled, cored and finely sliced tart apples

½ cup maple sugar

½ cup all-purpose flour

½ cup rolled oats

¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¾ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease an 8-inch-by-8-inch-by-2-inch baking pan.

Layer apple slices in pan. In medium bowl, combine sugar, flour, oats, cinnamon and nutmeg. Cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle mixture over apples. Bake until topping is golden brown and apples are tender, about 90 minutes. Serve in bowls with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or freshly whipped cream. Top with a drizzle of Grade B Vermont maple syrup.

Peanut Butter and Jam Bars

Makes about 36 cookies

This recipe was inspired by Gloria Rankin, who won Best of Show for it at the Conway County Fair in Arkansas.

½ cup granulated sugar

½ cup packed brown sugar

½ cup shortening

½ cup peanut butter

1 egg

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

¾ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon baking powder

¾ cup raspberry jam

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream together sugars, shortening, peanut butter and egg. Stir into the peanut butter mixture the flour, baking soda and baking powder to create the dough for crust. Set aside 1 cup of dough.

Press the remaining dough into an ungreased baking sheet to create the bottom crust; spread with jam. Make small crumbles with the reserved dough and sprinkle over jam layer. Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool and cut into bars.

Key Lime Pie

This classic pie was inspired by a recipe from Kasey Meek, who won Best of Show at the Florida State Fair.

Makes one 9-inch pie

2 cups graham cracker crumbs

½ cup unsalted butter, melted

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, room temperature

¼ cup unsalted butter, room temperature

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

⅔ cup Key lime juice (optional)

Whipped cream and lime zest, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, thoroughly combine graham cracker crumbs and melted butter. Press mixture into the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch pie dish. Bake crust for 10 minutes, or until lightly browned. Set aside to cool.

Using a handheld or stand mixer, whip cream cheese until softened. Add butter. Once blended, slowly add condensed milk and then add the Key lime juice, if using. Combine until well blended, stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl as necessary.

Pour mixture into crust in pie plate, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

Garnish with whipped cream and lime zest.

Classic Apple Pie

Another fair and all-around American classic is apple pie. This recipe was inspired by Teresa Winder, who won a Blue Ribbon Prize at the Johnson County Fair in Iowa.

Makes one 9-inch pie

1 double pie crust for a 9-inch pie

5 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and sliced ¼-inch thick

3 Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored and sliced about ¼-inch thick

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1 tablespoon lemon juice

¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons flour

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon

1 egg white, lightly beaten

For the filling, place a large-rimmed baking sheet on the bottom rack of the oven and preheat oven to 500 degrees. Toss the apples with the lemon juice and zest. Combine ¾ cup sugar, flour, salt and spices in a small mixing bowl. Add the mixture to the apples and toss to coat the apples. Set aside while preparing the double pie crust.

Layer the apples into the unbaked pie crust bottom, mounding them slightly in the center. Be sure to layer so apples overlap. Place excess juice from apples into a microwave-safe bowl and cook on high for 1 to 2 minutes until thickened. Spoon thickened juice over the apples, covering them thoroughly.

Cover filling with the top crust and seal and crimp the edges. Cut vents in the top crust or cut a pattern, then thoroughly brush with egg white and sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar.

Lemon Meringue Pie

This recipe comes from one by Sharon Campbell, who won a Blue Ribbon Prize at the Yavapai County Fair in Arizona.

Makes 1 pie

1 pre-baked pie crust

For the filling

1 ½ cups sugar

1 ½ cups water

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup cornstarch

⅓ cup water to mix in with corn starch

4 egg yolks, slightly beaten

½ cup lemon juice

3 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

For the meringue

4 egg whites

½ cup sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

For the filling, combine sugar, 1 ½ cups water and salt in a saucepan. Heat to a boil. In a bowl, mix cornstarch and ⅓ cup water to make a smooth paste. Add paste to boiling mixture gradually, stirring constantly. Cook until thick and clear. Remove from heat.

Combine egg yolks and lemon juice, and stir in thickened mixture. Return to heat and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture bubbles again. Remove from heat.

Stir in butter and lemon peel. Cover and cool until lukewarm.

To make the meringue, add salt to egg whites and beat until frothy. Gradually add ½ cup sugar, beating until glossy peaks form.

The secret step that makes this filling heavenly is to stir 2 heaping tablespoons of meringue into the lukewarm filling. Pour filling into prepared baked pie crust. Pile remaining meringue on top and spread lightly over filling, making sure to reach the edge of the crust, sealing it. Bake at 325 degrees for about 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool.

Sonoma County Fair

When: Aug. 4-14 (closed Monday, Aug. 8). Gates open from noon until 9 p.m. The event will remain open until 10 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Where: 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa

Admission: General admission tickets for age 13 and older: $14 in advance and $18 after Aug. 3. Kids admission tickets for ages 6-12: $10. Seniors age 60 older, $1 Fridays only, and general admission other days; children age 6 and younger free every day.

Parking: $10-$15 in fair lots. Free bicycle parking available at entrance gate.

Information: 707-545-4200, sonomacountyfair.com

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or sarah.doyle@pressdemocrat.com.

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