Lydia Korman scoops two cups of flour from a canister, measures out shortening in a plastic cup and adds six tablespoons of cold water. Moments later, her experienced hands are rolling out the kind of pie dough that won her a blue ribbon at the Maryland State Fair last year.
Watching her work the dough on the smooth, white counter of her north Baltimore County home is to affirm that baking is at least as much art as science. She doesn't use pie cloths or plastic wrap to keep the dough from sticking to the surface.
"I'm heavy on the flour," says Korman, 58. "I know they say use a light dusting, but [more flour] helps me."
Last year, the judges agreed, awarding her a special recognition for her pie dough - one of a dozen ribbons she won for baking and canning.
Korman will be back at the state fair again this year - this time with 20 kinds of cakes, cookies, pies and canned goods.
State fair officials expect more than 600 baked items and 850 canned goods to compete in this year's state fair in Timonium, which runs from Friday until Sept. 4. Judges will taste at least 30 kinds of chocolate chip cookies and nearly as many entries of poundcake, says Susan Yoder, general superintendent of the home-arts department.
"After a while, I feel sorry for the judges," she says.
While poundcake, fudge, fruit pies and chocolate chip cookies are old standbys, the fair has tried to keep up with the times, adding categories, like bread-machine breads and diabetic candies, Yoder says.
Korman says she usually tries something new each year as well. This time, she'll enter a new recipe for canned sauerkraut and a fuzzy navel cake flavored with schnapps and peach filling.
Korman started entering fair competitions in 1994, after she retired from Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, where she had worked 28 years as a seamstress. With the first try, her applesauce cake took second prize, and her coconut cake won honorable mention.
She was so thrilled to see the colorful ribbons adorning her creations that she has returned to the fair ever since.
The success with the pie crust last year came as something of a surprise. Korman says for years she was afraid to make her own dough. But over the years, she learned little tricks that made it easier. She uses ice water, Crisco shortening and Gold Medal Flour, and mixes the ingredients with a pastry blender. She is careful not to overwork the dough and lets it rest in the refrigerator several minutes before rolling it out.
She complains that she can't make a perfect circle with the rolling pin, but the shape doesn't matter after she puts it in the pie shell, trims away the excess and flutes the edges.
"I'm not a professional cook," she says. "I'm a country cook."
Korman, who grew up in Patapsco in Carroll County, has been cooking since she was 11 years old, when her mother died.
The oldest daughter in a family of four children, she cooked dinners each night for her father, brother and sisters.
At first, cooking was difficult, she says. She remembers the first time she fried hamburgers, they turned out as hard as bricks.
But with help from an aunt and cousin who lived nearby, Korman gradually learned.
Doris Dixon, the cousin, says Korman was a natural.
"She picked it up on her own," says Dixon, who calls Korman "Betty Crocker." These days it is Dixon who often calls Korman with cooking questions.
While Korman doesn't quite look like Betty Crocker, her country good looks and pleasant smile would make a perfect picture on a box of cake mix.
Korman can't really explain what makes her a good cook. Maybe it runs in the family. Dixon says Korman's mother was a good cook and Korman's daughter, Pam Sumner, won a Carroll County chili cook-off a couple of years ago.
Maybe it's fresh ingredients; Korman grows many of the fruits and vegetables she uses in her recipes on the farm where she lives.
But Korman says the most likely explanation is that she enjoys cooking.
To her, food is more than nourishment or even entertainment. Food is a comfort for sick neighbors or grieving friends who have lost loved ones. Food is a way to celebrate reunions and church socials.
"It's something I've done for so long. I guess I feel like I can do that better than some other things," she says.
And though she helps her husband, Robert, run a 140-acre dairy farm in Upperco, Korman cooks every day.
After she feeds the cows and helps with the morning milking, she heads to the kitchen where she prepares a big lunch, such as roast chicken and mashed potatoes or meatloaf and corn on the cob.
At first glance, her kitchen seems much too tidy to entertain any serious cooking. But then, Korman points to the shelves filled with cookbooks and the television where she catches her favorite cooking shows. And as Korman cuts a slice of Candy-Apple Pie, one suddenly sees the kitchen as the clean canvas for Korman's creations.