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Jeanne Kemper of Bagdad has been so busy cooking and baking for the past month that she has been going nonstop, getting her 45 entries ready to enter in the Kentucky State Fair.
And as usual, she really cleaned up after all the cooking, earning 33 ribbons in the honey cookery and bread categories – 21 were blue ribbons – as well as the sweepstakes prize for each of those categories.
But this year – her 28th for competing in the state fair – she said something strange happened that really shocked her.
A recipe came to her in a dream, she said, so she decided at the last minute to throw it together and submit it in the favorite cake category.
“I didn’t think it stood a chance because I whipped it up so fast,” she said. “I said, ‘I know I’m just wasting my time.’ There’s usually forty-some entries or even fifty, a lot of really good entries.
“I had family that went with me, and all the cakes that didn’t win were displayed, and my cousin came over and said, ‘Your cake is not in there. And I said, ‘Well, it’s probably so bad they threw it away.’ Then here she came running back and said, ‘You’ve got third. It’s over in the case with a ribbon on it. I was so shocked, I laughed.”
Kemper’s “paradise cake,” as she named it, is a banana cake with date nut filling between one layer and pineapple filling between another, topped with and coconut cream cheese icing.
If that sounds impressive for just being “thrown together,” just the mere mention of her prize-winning breads, such as her braided cinnamon loaf and yeast raisin bread – her family’s favorites – and her honey recipes, divinity candy and pecan pie, to name a few, is enough to excite any sweet tooth in the vicinity.
But her treats earmarked for the state fair are safe from her family, namely, her husband, Leonard, she says.
“He knows better,” she said with a chuckle. “He’ll lose an arm or something.”
She has promised, however, to make one of her paradise cakes just for him.
“You don’t get to try it if you’re making it for the fair,” she said, a fact that makes her last-minute prizing winning recipe so astounding, because she didn’t know how it was going to taste.
Even before she got into state fair competition, Kemper was entering her baked goods at the Shelby County Fair, something she still does.
“I’ve been doing it at the county fair level ever since I’ve been in 4-H,” she said.
Going for big prizes
What’s her secret to winning so many ribbons?
“I always try for the sweepstakes,” she said. “In each division, they have so many classes, and then they give you ribbon points on the classes, and whoever gets the most points wins the sweepstakes.
“I tried for the bread and honey sweepstakes this year, and then I tried for favorite cake. I’ve won the bread sweepstakes four times and the honey sweepstakes six times,” she said, explaining that you are only allowed to enter the bread sweepstakes once every four years and the honey cooking sweepstakes every other year.
Kemper, who was down a bit from her 56 entries last year which won three sweepstakes, said she has a system for getting all her yummy treats ready to go in time for the fair in between her chores on her farm near Bagdad, where she and Leonard operate a dairy and raise cattle, corn, hay and tobacco.
“I have to start at least three weeks ahead of time,” she said. “It takes up to four hours to make a loaf of bread. By the time you make your dough, let it rise, then shape it and let it rise again and then bake it, you’ve got four hours in a loaf, so I’m lucky to get two a day between the work we do here on the farm. It’s very time consuming.”
Sharing just a morsel of her culinary expertise, she confides that cooking with honey can turn out some very sweet treats.
“I think honey makes cookies taste better than anything you can put in there besides butter,” she said. “You can also substitute honey for sugar; sometimes I use both.”
Not just a cook
In addition to turning up the heat in the kitchen at fair time and keeping her family in their personal favorites – her daughter is into “chocolate anything,” her son loves butterscotch and Leonard loves chocolate pie – Kemper is also an artist.
“I branched out into art,” she said, explaining that she loves to do portraits in oil.
“I didn’t get anything this year, but the last two years, I got a ribbon.”
“I’ve been doing that for several years,” she said. “I really enjoy it. I’ve sold a few, but I mostly give them away.”
She adds that her other interests are “a little bit of everything.”
“I like to fool with flowers in the yard,” she said. “At county fair, I like petunias, zinnias, marigolds. I just like to garden, I’m not really into arrangements.”
Kemper also enjoys the social aspect of competing at the state fair.
“We make it a family thing, me and my sister-in-laws,” she said, referring to Brenda White, who won a blue ribbon this year with her quick banana bread and Charlotte White, who brought home two blue ribbons and two second-place in the small cakes and cookies category.
Shelby at the fair
Check out how Shelby Countians fared in some categories at the fair, Page B3
Shelby County winners in Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s horse shows, Page A5