CARY — The recipe for North Carolina’s top Karo syrup dessert was not honed over years of experimenting and taste-testing in the kitchen.
Beth Matheson concocted the recipe for Hot Toddy Pecan Bars and mailed it the day of the deadline for submitting entries to the North Carolina State Fair.
It won first place.
Matheson’s sister, Amanda, encouraged her to enter the contest. Matheson was reluctant, but then she read that contest participants get free fair tickets. That sweetened the pot.
Matheson searched the Internet and found a pecan bar recipe she liked, but tweaked some ingredients and added orange zest to make it her own. She mailed the recipe during her lunch hour at work – having never baked it before.
“I like taking recipes and redoing them to make them unique,” Matheson said. “In this case, I wanted to add things that reminded me of the fair.”
She particularly likes adding floral and citrus flavors. Her recipe for Hot Toddy Pecan Bars calls for shaved orange peel in the shortbread and a candied orange garnish atop the bread and whiskey-pecan filling.
She always tries to get organic ingredients from markets near her west Cary town house.
Matheson, a 30-year-old Shelby native, comes from a long line of avid bakers. Her mother, Susan Matheson, is known for her white chocolate cheesecake. Her uncle, Dennis, once had his chocolate chip cookie recipe published in his local newspaper. And her Mee-Maw, who bakes a cake every week, is family-famous for her coffee-can pumpkin bread.
Though Matheson has the baking genes on her side, she wasn’t confident about her chances of winning. She set her expectations low.
“I was hoping for, like, third place,” Matheson said.
The fair’s Karo Sweet-Treats for Sweet Hearts contest started in 2009 and is a national competition. Three judges grade entries for their taste, presentation, creative use of Karo corn syrup and ease of preparation.
This year, 14 people entered the contest. Fair officials announced the winners Oct. 26.
“They announced the third-place winner first,” Matheson said. “And after they announced second place, I thought it was over; I didn’t have a shot.”
Then they announced the first-place winner.
“And she just started laughing,” Amanda Matheson said, recalling her sister’s reaction. “Her mouth was wide open.”
It was the first time Matheson had won any contest.
“She kicked it up a notch with the orange zest,” said Lisa Prince, who organized the contest. “The judges thought she worked it in well with the other ingredients.”
The fair’s records aren’t complete, but Prince thinks Matheson is the first Cary resident to win the Karo cooking contest. Cathy Kirk, who also lives in Cary, won second place with her maple cashew crunch.
Matheson hasn’t mounted the ribbon the yet. But she thinks it’ll look just right on her refrigerator.
Ingredients for orange shortbread crust:1 1/2 cups flour 1/4 cup sugar 1 tablespoon orange zest 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup butter 1 egg
Ingredients for whiskey-pecan filling:1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into chunks 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar 1/4 cup Karo light corn syrup 1/4 cup heavy cream 3 tablespoons whiskey 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 cups coarsely chopped pecans
To make crust:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a 8-by-8-inch baking pan with aluminum foil. Pulse together flour, sugar, orange zest and salt in a food processor. Add butter; pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add egg; pulse until a dough forms. Transfer dough to prepared pan. Press the dough into the bottom of the pan in a single layer. Place the pan in the freezer until firm, about 15 minutes. Prick bottom of dough with fork. Bake until lightly golden, about 22 to 25 minutes. Let cool while preparing filling.
To make filling:
In a large saucepan, bring butter, brown sugar and Karo light corn syrup to a boil over high heat, whisking constantly until smooth. Continue boiling, without stirring, until slightly darkened, about two minutes. Remove pan from heat. Whisk in cream, whiskey and salt; mix in pecans.
To assemble and bake:
Spoon hot filling evenly over crust, using a spoon to arrange and press in nuts so they fit snugly. Bake until bubbling and amber-colored, about 18 to 22 minutes. Cool completely in pan. Lift bars from pan and peel off foil. Cut crosswise into four even strips; cut each strip into even rectangles to make 12 to 16 bars. For bite-sized portions, cut into 32 (2-inch) cubes.
Specht: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @AndySpecht