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Mary Louise Lever of Rome, Georgia, is a veteran of the recipe contest circuit. In 1980, she entered her first contest and won first place and a blender in the fish category for her baked fish fillets in the Rich's Home Style Days. And then she was hooked.

Now, she's triumphed again with a first-place win in the Taste of Authenticity contest sponsored by Stella Cheese. Her dish? Tuscan-Style Gorgonzola Cheesecake With Fresh Strawberry Thyme Salsa.

"Cheesecakes have always been my favorite to create and cook," she says. "I continue to be inspired from my world travel adventures, especially Italy and the wonderful Gorgonzola cheese that I discovered years ago, so working with it and adding complementary ingredients in the recipe was really easy. I added finishing touches of a fresh strawberry thyme salsa to the cheesecake, and the first time out of the oven, it was perfect."

So she entered her sweet creation, which, she adds, makes a show-stopping dessert for the holidays, and was soon notified by Stella that her recipe had been selected as one of 25 finalists among more than 250 entries. Her dish was judged by a dozen culinary professionals who made the cheesecake and deemed it the grand-prize winner. Lever was notified via email.

"To say that I was thrilled would certainly be an understatement," she says.

Lever was awarded $3,000. As she's done in all of her wins, she donated a portion of the money to the Georgia Highlands College Foundation Belen Nora Nursing Scholarship.

Her most-memorable wins, however, took her on grand tours of Europe: The Bays English Muffin Contest awarded a 13-day culinary trip to Spain, and the GoldKist Chicken Contest came with a 12-day culinary trip to Italy. Both included cooking lessons, travels and tasting adventures throughout these countries.

"First class all the way," she adds.

Lever also picked up $25,000 for a win in the National Chicken Cooking Contest; she picked up another $6,000 in a House Foods Tofu contest. Just two of the more than 150 contests she's entered through the years. She's a longtime member of Cooking Contest Central, an online community for those interested in cooking and entering contests. The fee to join is $25, and Lever says it's money well spent.

"I would recommend anyone who's interested in this culinary hobby to join," she says. "Every month there's an email sent to its members giving the latest contests available and contest tips as well as winning recipes from past contests."

Here are some more tips from the cooking contest pro for those considering entering one:

* Always read the contest entry rules, then reread them.

* Make sure that the ingredient list corresponds with the preparation instructions. In other words, the ingredients should be listed in the order that they appear in the instructions.

* Be adventurous with the contest product, and make it stand out in the recipe, if possible.

* Presentation is important. Remember, one first eats with the eyes. Then, make sure the recipe lives up to its presentation.

Lever follows those tips with each entry. Here's the recipe from her most-recent win, one that she likes to serve with a sparkling Italian Prosecco, she says.

 

Tuscan-Style Gorgonzola Cheesecake With Fresh Strawberry Thyme Salsa

Crust:

1 1/2 cups crushed pecan shortbread cookie crumbs

1/4 cups chopped pecans

1/4 cups butter

Filling:

6 ounces Stella Gorgonzola cheese

4 (8-ounce) packages low-fat cream cheese

5 teaspoons cornstarch

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

5 large eggs

1 cup sour cream (not low-fat)

1 teaspoon pure lemon extract

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

Salsa:

1 1/2 cups chopped fresh strawberries

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped thyme leaves

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Cover outside of 10-inch springform pan with foil; spray insides with nonstick cooking spray.

In small bowl, combine cookie crumbs and pecans, and add in melted butter, mixing well. Press mixture evenly into bottom of prepared pan. Chill.

In large bowl with mixer on medium speed, beat together both cheeses until blended. Combine cornstarch and sugar, and add to cheese mixture, beating until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Beat in sour cream, lemon extract, lemon juice and lemon zest. Pour filling into prepared pan. Bake for about 1 hour and 15 minutes to 1 1/2 hours or until center of cheesecake is slightly shaky. Remove from oven, and run knife around edges of cheesecake. Cool on wire rack. Refrigerate overnight for best flavor.

Meanwhile prepare salsa by combining strawberries, sugar, balsamic vinegar and thyme in small bowl, mixing well. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve cheesecake with salsa, and garnish with thyme sprigs. Makes 14 or more servings.

 

GREEK BAKE SALE, ROUND 2

Thanks to the success of its fall bake sale each year, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 722 Glenwood Drive, is adding a Christmas bake sale. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the October sale was a virtual event, and the same goes for the holiday sale. Sale dates are Dec. 10-11, with pickup available between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. either day. Orders may be placed by logging onto annunciationgreek.org. Look for the "Bake Sale 2020" tag on the top of the home page to place your orders for savory and sweet treats for the holiday season. In addition to all the yummies sold in October — baklava, baklava cheesecake, spanakopita, tiropitas and other mouthwatering items — several news ones will be added for this sale:

* Pastitsio: Known as "Greek lasagna," it's an entree with Greek-style macaroni in a tasty meat sauce topped off with bechamel sauce. It will be sold frozen in half-size steam pans, ready to pop into the oven when needed. "Always a favorite for the holidays," says bake sale chairperson Thea Ballas.

* Floyeres: Rolled phyllo dough with ground walnuts and honey, and drizzled with chocolate.

* Saragli: A pinwheel shape with ground walnuts, rolled in phyllo and dipped in honey and lemon.

Orders will be taken online only, so visit the website now and make your list. Proceeds go to support charities around Chattanooga.

Email Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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Anne Braly
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