How To Judge A Casserole Contest

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When I gave up a career in the law for a career as a food writer, who knew I’d wind up a judge?

Well that’s exactly what happened last week when I went to Brooklyn Label to co-judge The Third Annual Casserole Party, the brainchild of casserole enthusiast Emily Farris. I was a second choice judge: the first choice, the godmother of foodblogging (and friend of Emily’s) Julie Powell couldn’t do it and so Julie wrote me (our first contact) and asked if I would replace her. I said “sure” and that’s how I ended up on the panel you see above, along with Ruth Graham, senior editor at Domino, and Miriam Garron, a sous chef at The Food Network: a casserole court to be reckoned with. [Note: these pictures are pulled from Emily’s Flickr page.]

Actually, before I could judge, I had to do some reckoning of my own. Even though I signed up without any hesitation, there was a secret I was keeping from my fellow judges: up until that point, I’d never actually had a casserole in my entire life.

Now I know you might find that shocking, but think about it: casseroles are mom food and even though my mom gets mad when I say she barely ever cooked for us growing up, she barely ever cooked for us growing up. [Note: this doesn’t mean she wasn’t an excellent mother–just that her mothering skills were put to better use outside the kitchen.] Though some might say lasagna counts as a casserole (and I’ve certainly eaten my fair share of lasagna), when I think casserole I think canned tuna or Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. These items have never entered my belly in casserole form. Who am I, then, to judge a contest of casserole?

And yet, when I considered it more, I realized that my inexperience actually made me an ideal judge: I was a blank slate, a tabula rasa. It didn’t matter how much I knew about casserole–if what I ate tasted good, it meant it was good regardless of the tradition in which it existed. I would greet all casseroles with an open mind and an open heart. I was ready for action.

So here’s how it worked. There were 24 casseroles from 24 entrants that were arrayed across the counter and divided between meat and vegetarian:

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Each judge had a runner. Our runners brought each of us eight pieces of casserole, specifically corner pieces because Emily feels strongly that the corner piece is the best piece and therefore the most accurate way to judge a casserole’s merits. We judges would sample our eight casseroles and then share our favorites with the other judges. From those favorites we’d choose a grand prize winner and award prizes in four other categories: best vegetarian, best meat, best dessert and best crust.

At around 8 pm, the gauntlet lifted and the casseroles started coming. I tried to put aside personal bias (against super spicy food, for example) and judge each casserole on the merits. Some were truly bland (learn from Next Iron Chef: salt matters!); some were texturally bizarre. None of the first few I tasted were worthy of accolades.

Miriam, too, was disappointed with her lot. “Try this,” she said making a face after sampling a casserole coated in panko (Japanese bread crumbs). I did and told her it tasted like the inside of a mattress.

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Disheartened, dispirited, and disgusted (at least by a few), I surveyed the casseroles before me and realized there was one left I hadn’t tried. It looked the most classic: a solid square of cheese and noodle and spinach with a crusty top burnished brown.

I dug my fork in, brought it to my lips, and chomped down. What I tasted was like instant casserole karma: all the ghosts of casseroles past, present and future danced across my lips as the splendor of casserole–the Platonic ideal of casserole–washed over me in all its glory.

“You’ve got to try this,” I told the other judges.

The dove their forks in and, after a few bits, smiles grew on their faces.

“That’s good,” said Miriam.

“Good and cheesy,” said Ruth.

An accurate assessment since, we later learned, this casserole was called “Cheese Love.” And, indeed, it was the cheese that made it excellent. It was high quality cheese–a mix of cheddar and something else, I think–and the quality of the ingredients is what allowed this casserole to soar above the competition. That, and of course, the execution. It was a perfectly rendered casserole.

“There’s no contest,” I said.

“No,” agreed Miriam.

“That’s our winner,” said Ruth.

We had no idea who made this casserole as each casserole was numbered and anonymous so we wrote down the winning number on a piece of paper, and the numbers of the other winning casseroles (the best vegetarian was made with eggplant; the best meat was a taco casserole; the best dessert was a noodle pudding and the best crust went to our grand prize winner). We passed the paper to Emily and eagerly awaited her announcement so we could bestow our love on the creators of “Cheese Love.”

Here’s Emily announcing the winners:

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And here’s who created our hands-down winner, “Cheese Love”:

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That’s Zach Schulman and Graham Kelly with Emily who’s presenting them with their prize: a Le Crueset Dutch Oven, from Brooklyn Kitchen. When the paparazzi backed away from them, and their adoring fans recused themselves to nosh on other less-worthy casseroles, I asked Zach and Graham if I could get the recipe so I could post it on my blog.

“Sure,” said Graham. “I’ll send you an e-mail soon.”

Well it’s been a week and where is it?! C’mon readers, let Zach and Graham know in the comments: you want their recipe. Really, you do.

All in all, it was a spectacular night. It even had a twist ending. Look who’s here:

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Why that’s Julie Powell–wasn’t I supposed to replace her? Well, it turns out the trip she was planning to take this night was delayed, so she was able to make it after all. “But I’d rather not judge,” she confessed. “I’d rather just enjoy.”

She and I chatted it up at the end of the night; it was great to finally meet her. She even promised to teach me how to make liver (her favorite food) for an episode of AGTV.

Now, before I conclude this post (and this is the second time I’ve written this post, the first time I accidentally closed the window and lost everything) I’d like to address anyone who entered a casserole in this contest and didn’t win or plans to enter a casserole contest in the future. Here are some tips from a judge’s perspective:

– Keep it simple. That really complex, ultra-experimental casserole you have in your head may excite your inner Adria, but that’s not in the spirit of what makes casseroles great. Casserole, as far as I understand it, is a comfort food. It’s not meant to challenge, it’s meant to console a bruised spirit at the end of a cold day. Honor the tradition in which you are operating and you will be rewarded.

– Use great ingredients. The cheese in “Cheese Love” didn’t come from a can, it wasn’t a neon square wrapped in plastic. It was good cheese and believe me, we knew it the second we tasted. And boy did it make a difference. Good ingredients do the work for you–that’s true in casserole as much as its true in everything else you cook.

– Execute expertly. Many of our casseroles fell apart, or had undercooked/overcooked components. The winning casseroles, on the other hand, were all precise, properly cooked, and smartly layered. Practice your casserole-making and worry more about execution than innovation and you’ll be in good shape.

Anyway, those are my casserole thoughts–take them with a grain of salt, or, if you’re the maker of one of the bland casseroles, a few grains of salt. I’d like to thank Emily and Julie for the opportunity to judge, my fellow judges for keeping me in line, and, finally, Graham and Zach, for making a casserole convert out of me. Hope I get to judge again next year!

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14 comments

  1. Awesome post AG… Hey, that Miriam character is a regular on Flay’s show “Throwdown” – she seems very cool. You should try to get yourself into some more judging situations – sounds like fun!

  2. IMO, lasagna IS a casserole if macaroni and cheese is. I do wonder if you never had scalloped potatoes as a kid? My favorite casserole, I think, along with its hammy sister and au gratin cousin.

  3. As a mom of four, i get the whole casserole thing; it’s quick, easy to make ahead, and feeds everyone with enough starchy food to keep them satiated at least 1/2 an hour after dinner, at which point they delve into the fridge/snack closet/freezer for more food.

    Recipe please!

  4. Yes, recipe, please! I love casseroles so much and just about drooled on my keyboard when I first went to Emily Farris’ website.

  5. Even though casseroles appear everywhere, I think they are really prevalent down here in the South. Every visit with my mom produces at least two casserole dishes. I mentioned one time that I wanted some vegetables for a change, so she made a casserole. Of course it defeats the healthiness when the veggies are doused in cream of chicken soup, but whatever. She makes some good ones, though.

  6. Hiya,

    Yes, please give us the recipe for Cheese Love! Because I really love cheese….

    Okay AG, I’m pretty much in agreement with your list of what makes a good casserole… I mean good ingredients are key and I’m really a farmer’s market girl myself.

    However, nagging inside me is the memory of my mom’s much loved Cambell’s mushroom soup casseroles with the crunchy onions on top. I am still in love with these casseroles despite the frozen broccoli and canned water chestnuts!

  7. Are you kidding me? New Yorkers making casserole??! First of all, for many of us midwesterners, it’s known as “hotdish” and a casserole is something much more “fancy” and probably has french fried onion rings gracing the top.

    And yes Adam, it’s truly the most comforting thing to whip up in the middle of a dark winter afternoon when the sun sets at 4:30…

    All joking aside, had I been part of this casserole contest, I surely would have used my favorite ingredients that include wild rice, perhaps venison, and always a can of soup.

    The Lutheran ladies in my neighborhood would have had that prize in hand without fail. Mmmm I can’t wait for January…

    And in the meantime I could use some cheese love too.

  8. Hotdish is very upper Midwest; I never heard it in Missouri or Illinois until Garrison Keillor brought it to our ears. Casseroles are what they were called hereabouts, both the containers and the food itself, the latter with some appropriate modifier. (“Leland’s tuna caserole”, “that hamburger casserole”.) I can remember my shock when my best friend’s mother produced a casserole with water chestnuts in it, ca. 1960. I can’t imagine where she even bought them.

    Bring on the cheese casserole, darn it!