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Island figs star at the Fig Cake Bake-Off

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Islander Ruth Toth, left, is the traditional winner in the 2015 Fig Cake Bake-Off, and Danielle Kalnas, right, of Gibston, NJ, wins the innovative cake category.

Text and photos by Connie Leinbach

Aug. 15–Danielle Kalnas of Gibston, NJ, won top honors for her innovative fig cake Friday during the Fig Cake Bake-Off in Community Square.

“I love to bake,” said the hairstylist about besting 14 other entrants in the day’s events.

Islander Ruth Toth’s cake won over 12 other cakes in the traditional category.  Traditional Ocracoke fig cakes are plain  with no icing or other embellishments.

The retired owner of the former Café Atlantic, who had never entered the contest before, said she baked a cake just in case there weren’t enough entrants.

Toth also entered a cake in the innovative category–a fresh fig, walnut and rosemary upside down cake.
“I was going to make an upside down cake,” said Kalnas, but she opted for a richer cake–one with walnuts, fig preserves purchased at the Variety Store, fig glaze, caramel sauce, dark shaved chocolate and caramel cream cheese frosting.

Danielle Kalnas with her winning innovative fig cake.

Danielle Kalnas with her winning innovative fig cake.

“We had a test run this week,” said Angela Kalnas, Danielle’s cousin-in-law, adding that they are among a family of 40 from New Jersey who vacation on Ocracoke every second week in August. “Then she changed it and added lemon and cream cheese.”

Among the innovative entries were cupcakes, tarts and even fig fritters made by Sue Luke of Scotia, NY.

“They’re on the order of hush puppies,” she said about her own creation. “There were a lot of unbelievably creative things here today.”

North Carolina food writer and UNC-TV host Bob Garner, a celebrity judge for the Fig Cake Bake-Off, is interviewed by Daphne Bennink for Ocracoke's community radio WOVV 90.1 FM.

North Carolina food writer and UNC-TV host Bob Garner, a celebrity judge for the Fig Cake Bake-Off, is interviewed by Daphne Bennink for Ocracoke’s community radio WOVV 90.1 FM.

The event

was sponsored by the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association.

Among the eight judges recruited by Sundae Horn, Ocracoke Civic and Business Association travel and tourism director, was Bob Garner, North Carolina food writer and UNC-TV host.

“I love Ocracoke,” he said as he chatted with fans and signed copies of his new book “Foods That Make You Say Mmm-mmm.”

“My grandkids gave me that name for the book,” he said.

While this fourth of his published books contains recipes, it is mostly about categories of food, things that are disappearing, and points people to restaurants serving these items, or how to make them, he said.

One of those food items (and recipes in the book) is Muscadine Grape Hull Pie.

“It’s like an heirloom pie,” he said, “because no one makes it anymore.”

Islander Ruth Toth, left, gets one of UNC-TV host Bob Garner's book.

Islander Ruth Toth, left, gets one of UNC-TV host Bob Garner’s book.

A journalist by trade, Garner said his career as a hard news reporter changed when he married his wife, Ruthie,  (whose family made North Carolina barbeque) and he was assigned to do a story on it.

“Her brothers taught me how to make barbeque,” he said. “People liked it (the story) and I began to slip out of hard news and into food writing,” he said.

A future television show he’s working on will focus on serious subjects through the lens of food.
“We have some real problems in the fisheries and agriculture here,” he said. “We’ll do a special approaching it as delicious food and along the way will lead (viewers) to facts they need to know.”

Among the crowd awaiting the end of the judging with a plate in his hand was Marshall Grossman of Manteo, whose friend Chris Hannant was photographing the event for “Our State” magazine.

“I love figs,” he said noting that he eats them off the tree in his mother’s yard. “It’s an important food item for Ocracoke.”

Andrea Weigl, a food writer with the Raleigh News & Observer, covered the event for a story next year in “Our State” to go along with Hannant’s photographs.

“It’s wonderful,” said Robin Payne about the number of cakes in the contest and the turnout of locals and visitors.

The display of 15 innovative and 13 original fig cakes prior to judging. Daphne Bennink is center and Sundae Horn, event coordinator, is at right.

The display of 15 innovative and 13 original fig cakes prior to judging. Daphne Bennink is center and Sundae Horn, event coordinator, is at right.

“People are learning how to make the traditional cake.  It celebrates the roots of Ocracoke culture.”

All of the attendees got to sample many of the entries before they were consumed, and several locals had booths selling fig-related items.

Ocracoke Preservation Society gave out two gallons of yaupon tea sweetened with fig syrup, said Amy Howard, OPS administrator.

Debbie Leonard, right, pours fig syrup on a fresh fig for a visitor to taste. Amy Howard, Ocracoke Preservation Society administrator, is in center.

Debbie Leonard, right, pours fig syrup on a fresh fig for a visitor to taste. Amy Howard, Ocracoke Preservation Society administrator, is in center.

Robby Lewis was almost out of the stock of fig preserves he recently made from sugar and pound figs.

“I did 33 cases this year,” he said, starting about mid-July.

His preserves are for sale at the Pony Island Restaurant, and several other island shops sell local preserves.

 He’s been “putting up” preserves for four or five years, since his grandmother Peggy O’Neal died.

“She taught me how to make preserves,” he said. “I thought I’d do it again to honor her memory.”

The cakes are judged.

The cakes are judged. Justin LeBlanc, right, is one of the judges.

The Ocracoke Rockers conclude the Fig Fest.

The Ocracoke Rockers conclude the Fig Fest.

The Fig Cake Bake-Off in Community Square

The Fig Cake Bake-Off in Community Square

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