The Tunbridge World's Fair in Vermont at dusk

If you want to really get a feel for the creative cooking energy on the ground in America, get yourself to one of the many state or regional fairs across the country. If you care about good food, there’s no better place to make a connection to where it comes from and how it’s produced.

I'm talking about the agricultural displays, where the competitions are, not the Avenue of Deep Fried Delights that every fair also includes. While it will be a few months before fair season begins, if you've ever had a hankering to see how your baking stacks up against your neighbors', you could think about entering a fair competition.

King Arthur has been an enthusiastic sponsor of regional and state fairs for years. And once again, we’ve gathered the winners of cake-baking fair competitions from all over the country, and had the difficult task of choosing the best of the best as the winner of our Great Cake Contest.

The finalists included recipes for carrot, coconut, lemon, pecan, and chocolate cakes. The recipes were judged on ease of preparation, recipe clarity, and of course, yumminess.

This year's winner? Sharon Kurtz of Emmaus, PA. Her cake took top honors at the Great Allentown Fair. Here it is, waiting on the table for judging:

As you can see, she took a lot of care with the look of her cake, with a basket-weave design and lovely fresh raspberries on top. The filling is one of the easiest versions of a mousse I've ever tried. Dying for a taste?

Let's make Sharon's Chocolate Mousse Cake with Raspberries. You can get the ingredients and recipe by clicking on the cake's title.

This cake is designed to be four layers tall; the recipe also works in three 9" pans. Fair cakes are usually pretty big, in order to command attention on the judging table.

You can bake the cake in two deep (3") 8" rounds and split the layers; use four 8" pans if you have that many; go with three 9" pans, or for a smaller version, cut the entire recipe in half and bake just two 8" layers. However you choose, grease the pans and line the bottoms with parchment circles. Gather your ingredients and preheat the oven to 325°F.

Sift together or whisk the dry ingredients through a strainer into your mixing bowl. Combine the oil, buttermilk, boiling water, and vanilla, and add to the dry ingredients. I used the paddle attachment for my mixer. In any case, you need to scrape the bowl here, because there's usually some dry mix lurking at the bottom.

Once that's loosened up, turn the mixer back on medium speed, and beat in the eggs, one at a time.

Once the eggs are in and the batter is smooth (it will be thin), time to divide it among the pans. Since we have plenty of 8" pans in the test kitchen, I used four pans to make the cake. I like to use my scale and calculator to divide cake batter.

First I weighed an empty mixing bowl (I have two on my station, which makes me twice as productive) to get a tare weight.

My 5-quart bowl weights 1 pound, 9 ounces and change. And as you can see, my scale's battery is about to go belly up. I hit the tare button, then put the bowl with the cake batter on it.

3 pounds, 2 ounces = 50 ounces, divided by four pans:

So, 12 1/2 ounces of batter per pan. Due to the flying flour and egginess at my station, my calculator wears a raincoat in the form of a plastic sandwich bag.

I put each pan on the scale, then added 12 1/2 ounces of batter to it. That way all the layers are the same thickness when they're baked. They went into the oven for 28 minutes (be sure to match your baking time to the size of pan you're using), until the cake began to pull away from the edge of the pan.

The layers can cool while we make the filling. First step? Whip cream to soft peaks.

Whisk together the confectioners' sugar and ClearJel, and add this to the cream. The ClearJel will help the whipped cream hold up when mixed with the rest of the mousse ingredients. You can also use whipped cream stabilizer for this step.

See how the cream gets much thicker, with just a few more turns of the whisk?

Tuck this into the refrigerator while we do the next part. Remember the part about two mixing bowls? This is where they come in mighty handy.

Put the cream cheese and butter from the mousse ingredients list in your bowl. They should both be at room temperature.

Whip until they're light and evenly combined. Once the mixture is smooth, add the vanilla and confectioners' sugar.

Beat again, until smooth. Time for the melted (cooled) chocolate chips.

Mix until smooth. Now we'll combine both mixtures. Add a third of the whipped cream to the bowl, and use the whisk to "comb" it through the cream cheese mixture to lighten it up.

Once the color is close to uniform, we'll continue folding in the rest. I'm switching to a spatula for this, so I can make sure I'm scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl as I go.

Last but not least, in go the mini chips.

There. Time to begin building our cake. The layers are totally cool, without a hint of that "clothes warm from the dryer" feel. I've chosen my serving plate; I'll put one layer on it, bottom side up, and peel off the parchment circle that helped it plop out of the pan so nicely.

Before I go near any of the filling, I'm going to put strips of parchment just barely under the edge of the layer to keep the plate clean while I'm finishing the cake. Next, 1 cup of the filling is spread on the layer.

Cut 1/2 pint of fresh raspberries in half, and place them on top of the filling. Besides the fact that raspberries can be expensive, the reason to cut them is to keep them from acting like ball bearings and letting the layers slide around on top; keeping them in a single flat layer like this helps the cake stay more stable.

We'll repeat this action twice more...

After the third layer, the fourth caps the top. By now, we're closing in on 5" in height.

I had a little mousse left in the bowl once I got everything put together, so decided to use it to fill in any gaps on the outside of the cake; sort of like a pre-crumb coat.

After schmearing the sides, I popped the cake in the freezer to firm up while I made the frosting. The first step is to cream the butter and shortening together.

Put the confectioners' sugar and cocoa into a strainer over the  bowl and whisk them through to take out any lumps.

Mix until everything comes together, then add the vanilla and enough milk to loosen up the frosting to a smooth, spreadable consistency.

As you can see, the bowl needs scraping here, before the final "whompity-whomp" from the paddle to make the frosting nice and fluffy. Here's the finished product:

Once the frosting is ready, take the cake out of its cool hibernating spot and coat the top and sides.

Isn't it cool, how the finish layer goes so smoothly over the chilled cake? Magic. Once the top and sides are covered, we can go for the extra ruffles and flourishes that really make the cake beautiful. Confectioners' sugar frosting won't give you a perfectly smooth surface like buttercream will; this frosting does pipe nicely, though, so I decided to do ribbed sides (emphasizes the height, you know) and a piped the top and base, each accented with our chocolate pearls.

The final result? A cake that's as delicious as it is tall and beautiful.

Congratulations on your wonderful recipe, Sharon, and we thank you for entering our Great Cake Contest.

Please read, bake, and rate our Chocolate Mousse Cake with Fresh Raspberries recipe.

Susan Reid
The Author

About Susan Reid

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.

View all posts by Susan Reid