Bringing Home the Blues

James Lubetkin won top honors in the creative apple pie, vintage cake, quick bread, and pastry categories
Among the four blue ribbons James Lubetkin brought home to Amagansett from the New York State Fair in Syracuse was one for his French apple Breton pie, a version of which he was holding. Carissa Katz

James Lubetkin, an amateur baker who lives in Amagansett, brought home four blue ribbons and a second-place prize for baking from the New York State Fair in Syracuse, and was among seven people chosen to compete for the fair’s culinary grand prize.

Mr. Lubetkin, who entered 10 of the baking competitions, won top honors in the creative apple pie, vintage cake, quick bread, and pastry categories and second in the heritage cookie category. The pie, a French apple Breton, was also the top-rated apple pie in the state by judges at the fair, which ran from Aug. 23 through Sept. 4. 

His vintage cake was a seven-layer dobos cake, his winning quick bread was a pumpkin bread, and his apple strudel was tops among pastries, while his Austrian hazelnut linzer cookie took a not-too-shabby second place among heritage cookies. His chocolate raspberry valentine cake, frosted orange pound cake, and carrot cake received honorable mentions. 

Entries were graded on taste, appearance, and texture, he explained last week, but with everything generally delicious the competitions tend to be won or lost “based on appearance.” The tricky thing with a baking competition, he said, is that you can’t be sure the entry has turned out well because you can’t sample it in advance. “You can’t enter three-quarters of a cake having had a taste of it yourself.” 

“All the baking I did for the fair I actually did here in Amagansett,” Mr. Lubetkin said. He then froze the cakes and cookies, but “the cakes that had icing, or the cookies that had stuff in between them I took up there and finished in the Syracuse area,” where he rented a house with a kitchen for the duration of the fair. 

“The apple Breton is a fairly easy thing to make and it freezes pretty well,” he said, but “the one I liked most is a seven-layer cake.” 

Mr. Lubetkin, who is retired from a career in public relations and public affairs, entered his first county fair baking competition about two dozen years ago in Ohio and has been competing ever since. In the Cleveland area, he would often enter as many as 12 or 13 competitions, many of them happening simultaneously. The New York State Fair spreads the baking competitions out over more days, making it easier for bakers. 

“I grew up in New York City and my mom was one of those people who was always in the kitchen. Being the youngest of three kids, I always had time to spend with her.” He started off with Betty Crocker mixes and soon advanced to baking his own cakes from scratch. “When I had kids and they were really young, I’d ask them what type of cake they wanted for their birthdays, and it just grew into other things.” 

Closer to home, Mr. Lubetkin has been a contestant at the Long Island Fair in Old Bethpage, the Springs Agricultural Fair, and the chowder contest at the East Hampton Town Trustee’s Largest Clam Contest, where his Bonac chowder won the top prize in 2016.

Despite his culinary success, he says his wife, Marika O’Doherty, is the better cook in the family. “I do the stuff that people go wow over and she does the stuff that’s really good.” However, in addition to baking and making a mean clam chowder, Mr. Lubetkin also smokes meats, with brisket a particular specialty. 

And all this out of surprisingly modest kitchen. His oven, he said, “is the least sexy oven you can have.” Outside, “I have a small Weber grill and my smoker is about two feet by two feet square and about four feet high. It’s amazing how in those two little things you can get an awful lot done.” 

While he has won many awards for his baking, he is quick to admit his shortcomings. “The hardest thing for me are the real pies with the true crusts,” he said. As for his winning apple Breton, “This particular dough is almost like what you call a cookie crust. Anyone can really do this.”

One of the tricks to the recipe, which can be found online, is to cook the apples first. “It does two things: It keeps the pie from getting soggy and it creates a much more concentrated apple flavor.” 

His most important takeaway from his years of experience: Bake in advance and freeze. “For cakes and filled/frosted cookies that require many steps, the time-consuming part is the measuring, mixing, and then the actual time in the oven.”

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