Connie Bates messes up sugar, flour, and other ingredients in her kitchen lab. She calls herself a “kitchen chemist”.
“Sometimes it explodes. Sometimes that’s not the case, ”she said.
But for this Idaho National Laboratory (INL) employee, baking is a matter of blue ribbon. This year, his culinary concoctions won accolades and awards at the Eastern Idaho State Fair. The judges called her pear pie “perfection”, awarding her the coveted Best in Class rosette, the gold medal in the cooking competition. “Perfect rind in terms of color and texture and the pears were harvested at the perfect time,” wrote one of the judges.
Bates also won blue ribbons for its oatmeal and raisin cookies, cake baking cookies and caramel candies, and second place ribbons for its Big Hunk candy bar and cherry syrups.
And if dominating the pastry competition wasn’t enough, she also won a blue ribbon for a silver and green bracelet and Christmas decoration, as well as an assortment of second-place red ribbons for other crafts, a old camera and beaded toilet paper. earrings and necklace. This was her fourth year in the competition jewelry category.
“It was like winning the Olympics,” she said.
Bates, who worked for INL for three decades, got into competitive cooking about four years ago after watching other kitchen wizards in the making. “I thought if these people could do it, so could I. “
Competitive cooking requires extreme attention to detail, which comes naturally to Bates, who for 10 years served as administrative assistant to the nuclear science and technology branch at INL, the backbone of the first nuclear power laboratory in the country. She said juggling schedules, arranging trips, and filling out expense reports isn’t all that different from baking.
Both require patience and perfection. “If you don’t do it right, it doesn’t look good,” she said. “If you don’t have the right ingredients, it doesn’t taste good. You should keep letters looking professional and not have spelling mistakes in documents.
Bates knows all the key ingredients to keep the office running smoothly. His supervisors and colleagues strongly agree.
“Connie approaches her baking the same way she approaches her work at INL – with great dedication, attention to detail and the joy of doing what she loves,” said Monica Regalbuto, Chief Strategy Officer. of the nuclear fuel cycle. “At INL, she is good at networking, which makes her the go-to person when someone has a question. She applies the same networking skills to her baking, as she searches for the best ingredients and will travel any distance to get them.
Perhaps that explains why she dominates the cooking competition. But there was a steep learning curve. “The first year I failed miserably,” Bates recalls. She started out by making caramels so soft that “even squirrels” wouldn’t eat them.
She didn’t give up. She experimented with cherry syrups and other sweets that were successful at the fair and found winning ribbons to be “addicting”. She now competes every year with a few new additions.
When it comes to baking, his colleagues are “quality checkers”.
“I love Connie’s Cherry Almond Mousse. It’s to die for, ”said colleague Hollie Shipton. “Our administrators love all of his desserts so much.”
Jeni Baker said Bates’ coconut bread has taken her to new delicacies. “This is the first year I’ve tasted his coconut bread, and I was in heaven.”
NS&T COO Pete Wells is eager to return to the office when pandemic restrictions are lifted so he can test one of Bates’ latest creations.
“Connie makes magic in her kitchen. Not only does she know how to put the ingredients together, but she does it with patience and love, and as a result, everything tastes amazing, ”Wells said. “We all can’t wait to get back to business as usual, if only to try out one of Connie’s latest recipes. “
But don’t ask him for his recipe. She never measures anything or uses a kitchen thermometer.
“I’m going to touch it,” she said. “I am my worst critic. If it doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t leave the house.
Bates, from Idaho Falls, grew up with a spatula in his hand. She baked bread and cookies, and canned peaches and pickles when she was young. At seven, she collected cookbooks, not dolls.
“I think I inherited my love for baking from my mother. She taught me how to conserve peaches. We looked messy, ”she recalls, laughing at the memory of being covered in sticky sweet residue. “But the peaches looked good in the bottles. And there was the thrill when you heard the seals burst.
More people are preserving peaches, and you would be hard pressed to find canned products of any kind at the fair. “It really is a dying art,” she said, nostalgic for the days when her family was growing and canning all of her own food.
But she keeps old traditions alive at the annual fair, mixing just enough old ways with her new creative twists to win the blue ribbons.
The inspiration for her recent award-winning pear pie came from an old recipe she found in a 1960s cookbook (called Grange cookbooks, they were written by the women of farmers who gathered in the local barns for social evenings).
Every year, Bates ventures into something new, with their standard cookie, pie, candy, and craft staples. It could be something ambitious that would be unrecognizable to fairground enthusiasts a generation ago.
Winning isn’t easy, after all. Competitors must follow strict cooking rules. Serious contestants like Bates spend hours poring over exhibitor manuals to make sure the judges don’t question whether they tampered with it.
The most important rule? “Everything has to be homemade,” she said.
Years ago, she watched in amazement as contestants haul boxes of assorted pastries and pies to state salon cooking contests. “I am that lady now.”
Now that the fair is over, she is focusing on the holidays. Friends and family eagerly await his delicious treats.
“I like the feeling I have when I give something really good and they appreciate it,” Bates said. “Sweets are a must have as a Christmas present. It’s fun to do. I like to do it.