5 Lessons From the Houston Rodeo Dessert Competition

Dessert judging at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo World's Championship Bar-B-Que Competition is serious business.
Dessert judging at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo World's Championship Bar-B-Que Competition is serious business.
Photo by Phaedra Cook

This was my second year to help judge the Dutch Oven Dessert Competition. I'm glad I had a little judging experience under my belt this time. I already knew what it was like being on the competitor side of the equation.

I used to participate in a private competition that Halliburton put on for its oil and gas clients. I worked in the IT department at the time and since I was a big "foodie," of course I wanted to be on the team. We did good, taking home first place one year and a chef's table award a different year.

I always made the dessert -- some variation on an Apple Betty -- as well as a brisket. We didn't have the same restrictions on the cooking vessel as the Houston World's Championship competitors do, so I used little individual cast-iron pans that I'd set atop the firebox to bake. Getting a nice brown crust on top was the trick.

Desserts arrive in a numbered Styrofoam box sealed with tape.
Desserts arrive in a numbered Styrofoam box sealed with tape.
Photo by Phaedra Cook

One of the judging rules of the Dutch Oven Dessert Competition is not to compare the desserts to each other and to rank each on its own merits. If you don't know the potential highs, though, it's hard to understand the lows.

Here's how the competition works: Judges are seated five to a table. There's a school-lunch-size carton of milk in front of each as well as a bottle of water in case anyone gets overwhelmed with sweetness or simply needs to clear his or her palate.

Every dessert is in a Styrofoam container that's sealed with tape and marked with a number. A container is placed in front of each judge. When the go-ahead is given, each opens the box in front of him or her. There is a stack of corresponding ranking slips for each dessert. Judges write their name and the dessert number on the slips, serve themselves portions, taste the dessert and write down their rating. They then pass everything to the judge on the right. Disposable plates and utensils are replaced as needed for hygiene and so as not to taint the next dessert with any flavor from the prior one.

There are two rounds of judging for each table. In other words, each table will judge eight to ten desserts, and that is what determines what will go for final judging.

This toffee-caramel topped cheesecake was the best dessert I got to try (in my opinion, of course). It was also the very one first I tasted, which made rating it a bit tricky.
This toffee-caramel topped cheesecake was the best dessert I got to try (in my opinion, of course). It was also the very one first I tasted, which made rating it a bit tricky.
Photo by Phaedra Cook

Here are five lessons I've learned in two years of helping judge the competition.

5. Set high goals. While the nature of Dutch oven desserts tends to be homey -- cobblers, crumbles, things like that -- the winning cook won with a strawberry turnover. There's no reason to be "nice" to a gloppy peach cobbler. Making a good dessert with limited resources is challenging, but it's not impossible.

4. If you believe in your product, don't give up.The winning cook turned in the same dessert last year and didn't win.

3. Looks aren't everything. Appearance doesn't matter much if the flavor's not good. A cute presentation didn't save a gloppy chocolate-strawberry bread pudding.

2. The very first thing you try might be the best. This happens to me all the time, especially with photography. I'll take a shot, fiddle with my settings and take five more. Which one is the best? The first, of course.

It was much the same with the dessert competition this year. Out of the ten that my table judged, the very first box I had was my favorite. It was a toffee cheesecake, and I thought it was outstanding. It nearly threw me for a loop and I questioned my judgment. Maybe I was really hungry? I hadn't had anything else yet, so maybe my perspective was skewed. I'm glad I listened to my instincts and gave it a "9" because it was indeed the best dessert I tried.

1. It's hard to be last, but sometimes being first is harder. No one wants his or her dish to be judged after nine other desserts, but as related above, having your food judged first isn't necessarily an advantage, either.

Making desserts with limited cooking resources is hard, and this past weekend's gray, cold, damp weather didn't make it any easier. All the dessert cooks who entered deserve respect for their efforts.

Dutch Oven

  • Champion - Tejas Cookers
  • First Runner Up - Tyler County
  • Second Runner Up - Jasper County
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