By Connie Leinbach
Kristi Reichard watched as three judges sampled eight innovative fig cakes at the Fig Cake Bakeoff Saturday in the Berkley Barn during the Ocracoke Fig Festival Aug. 4 and 5.
Hers was four-layer vanilla sponge cake filled with fig preservers and fresh figs covered with a honey fig mascarpone whipped frosting and topped with fresh-cut blue figs.
A frequent island visitor, she had known about the festival but had missed it in years past.
Then, her cake was crowned with the top honors among the innovatives, followed by fig popsicles, created by islander Austin Daniel, who owns Stockroom Street Food takeout restaurant in Community Square.
“It was beginner’s luck,” Reichard, of York Springs, Pa., said after she collected her ribbon. “I’ve never done a baking competition.”
All cake entries are blind judged.
New islander and first-time judge Marlena Sexton spoke for the judges in the innovative category.
“It was the prettiest and you could taste the figs,” she said about Reichard’s cake. “It was delicious and had a wide variety of fig use.”
Among the other innovative entries were gluten-free Italian fig cake with whipped cream made by Anne Becker, Pyrat Rum fig cake by Rob Temple and fig ice cream by Allison Moote O’Neal.
“We loved meeting Chester Lynn and Philip Howard,” said McCray Harris as he and Monica Tate watched the judging. “We have a fig tree and started making cakes and fig preserves.”
Bud Gray of Buxton was the upset winner of the nine traditional cakes entered.
Although Gray was not present when his cake received top honors, he said in an interview that figs and fig dishes are in his blood since he now lives in the 150-year-old house his grandmother, Olivia Austin, lived in and with whom he visited in the summers since he was a boy and inspired his cooking fig preserves and cakes, the only cooking he does.
“I’m an old-time Gray on Buxton,” he said.
He had entered the contest last year, which was won by Ocracoke islander Trudy Austin, “and she’s the girl to beat,” Gray said.
He then tweaked the traditional recipe, which was enough to take it to the top.
Islander Mike Dalgliesh was the runner up.
Former islander Ricky Tillett, whose mother, Gaynelle, was renowned for her fig cake, which was sold by the slice for many years in the Ocracoke Fish House, was one of the traditional judges.
“It was like a hot dog-eating contest,” he said about the marathon tasting.
In the savory category, of the four entries, the charcuterie tray by Michelle Thornell took first place.
“It had a wide variety of fig use,” said new islander Dr. Jeremy Sexton, who was one of the judges, of the charcuterie tray. “That was an incredible presentation.”
Second place was B.J. Beasley for his vinegar-based fig BBQ sauce.
Islander Debbie Leonard captured first place in the peoples’ choice voting among 16 traditional entries.
Runner-Up went to Ocracoke local Marlene Mathews.
In the Innovative preserves category, Ocracoke local John Simpson took top honors for his Fig BBQ sauce and Currituck resident B.J. Beasley was runner-up with his blueberry-fig preserve.
In the youth category of the cake bake-off, a focaccia made to look like this year’s Fig Festival poster was the only entry and was made by Addison Woods, age 14.
Bill Smith, retired chef of Crook’s Corner, Chapel Hill, was the celebrity chef, who was one of the innovative cake judges and contributed fig tamales for the fig dinner that was held Aug. 2.
He was the featured guest on “What’s Happening on Ocracoke,” the Firday morning news/cultural show on WOVV, Ocrcaoke’s community radio station.
Festival organizer Sundae Horn was happy with the event, which experienced some rain Friday night, but saw a good crowd.
The festival included music by several island bands at the Barn and in the Ocracoke Community Center, a book signing by Smith, a fig talk with Chester Lynn and various vendors.
The festival is put on by the Ocracoke Preservation Society, which benefits from any proceeds. Next year’s festival is scheduled for Aug. 2 and 3.