There’s a famed cookery competition that’s not for the faint of heart – nor cold of oven.
It’s the Agricultural Societies Council of NSW’s Rich Fruit Cake (RFC) competition – and if you score a Highly Commended in it, you’re entitled to hang up your tea towel forever.
Lesley Cox of Yass could, but everyone who has ever tasted anything she has baked would try to convince her otherwise.
For those not in the bakery know, the RFC is one of the state’s most highly contested competitions. Every entrant had to use the same recipe for their local show. In Lesley’s case, it was a win in the 2011 Yass Show, followed by baking the same cake again for the regional titles in late 2011 in Queanbeyan and then going on to the Sydney Royal in 2012 where she was awarded the Highly Commended sash.
“Yes, I was quite pleased,” she said modestly. “When you take into account everyone is making the same cake, to the same recipe, it really gets down to the finest details.
Her recipe for success at the Sydney Royal?
“It has a lot to do with the way you line your tin,” she said.
“If two cakes are identical, except for, say, a crease where the lining has crinkled, that’s what it would be judged on – that small difference.”
Lesley, who has been a steward of the Cookery Section of the Yass Show since 2015 – and show secretary before that for almost 20 years – is, simply, one of the best country cooks around.
She learned from watching her mother, she says, growing up at Wattle Vale at Bookham, about 30 km from Yass off the Hume Highway. Her family has had a connection to that property since the 1860s.
“Being a country person, cooking is just part of the territory,” she said.
“You couldn’t be running to the shops every five minutes to buy things, you had to make do with what you had in the cupboard.
“My mother was not a competitive sort of cook, but she was a good one and I learned a lot from her. I suppose I’ve just gone on from that.”
After she married Philip Cox, a primary school teacher at Bowning school for many years, her love for cooking continued: “I remember making him a packed lunch every day to take to school”.
She also credits her husband, to whom she has been married for 44 years, with being able to do what she does because of his support.
“While I was involved at show secretary, he was involved in the junior art section of the show. He has always been a great support to me – I couldn’t do without him.”
For Lesley, cooking has a lot to do with tradition. Yes, she was Highly Commended in one of the most hotly contested competitions for country cooks, but she likes to think she has carried on with methods and traditions learned from her mother.
Like every Christmas, Lesley bakes the fruit cake her mother always did – not the competition one.
“I love this recipe that my mother had – you know, it was written on the back of her pay packet when she worked at Woolworths as a young woman.”
As cookery steward at the Yass Show, Lesley knows what ingredients are needed for success – and she also breaks down a few rural myths – like when it comes to scones, bigger is not always better.
“When you’re competing in a show, you have to bake them to the regulation size. But some entries come in much bigger. You still judge them, but they’re not going to win.”
Some would think ‘best lamingtons on a plate’ would be the most hotly contested category. Not so, says Lesley. It’s usually the sponge.
Asked what would be her best advice for making the perfect, show-winning sponge, she says it’s always important to take notice of your recipe.
“You also have to know your oven really well. But when it comes down to it, it’s all about practice. Trial and error. If you make something and it doesn’t work, change how you do it. Don’t keep making it the same way.
“What ingredients you use and how you use them are also important. With eggs and milk, for example, always use them at room temperature.
“But things like this will all come to you once you’ve been cooking for a while; it will be like second nature.”