When our columnist Theresa Cogswell asked me to help judge the America’s Best Raisin Bread Contest, I was honored and flattered, but I immediately suspected that she was up to no good. A nanosecond after agreeing to do it, I knew I should have trusted my instincts.

“How long have you been in the industry?” she asked. Twenty-something years.

“And how many times have you been to Manhattan, KS?” she grilled. Cough, none? For all I know, you just take the yellow brick road. Right, Toto?

“Well, you’re finally going to Manhattan, boy,” Theresa said.

After waking up at 4:30 on a cool, dark Saturday morning in October, I soon learned that judging the California Raisin Marketing Board (CRMB)’s fourth annual contest at AIB International was serious business. Even before the crack of dawn, the first of the 37 finalists had their game faces on. Most of the judges belonged to a league of their own and included master bakers who have competed in the Coupe du Monde or actually trained teams for the World Cup of Baking in Paris. I was the token palooka among the elite.

Initially, the judges spent the morning evaluating the finalists for their skill sets. If they veered from the formula, they got docked. If they didn’t prepare their products in a timely manner, points came off again. If they didn’t clean up after making up their products, they were penalized. Then the good part came, yes, after lunch. We judged their works for taste and, of course, the creative use of raisins.

For many of the finalists, this contest got personal. Several of them added raisins to their favorite formulas while others developed nutritional products because of the medical condition of a friend or family member. One winner, Rachel Crampsey of Tribeca Oven, created her nutrient-rich Currant Seeduction Bread to not only taste terrific but also alleviate cramping and other symptoms she experienced during her previous pregnancies. To emphasize the point, she came to the contest carrying her third child, due in two months, so I took her word on it. Some people will do anything to win.

On the other hand, Philippe Sanchez, an executive pastry chef with Marriott International, relied on molecular gastronomy to develop his Double California Raisin Whole Wheat Croissant, which substituted raisin paste for sugar in the dough and was topped with maple syrup pecans to add a crunchy texture. I’m not a rocket scientist, but his product soared through the roof.

Presentations ranged from simple sampling to elaborate displays of packaged products. Runner and baker Joanne Wilcox of Apple Crumbles presented her energy-filled Marathon Mini Loaf decorated with faux Olympic medals and accompanied by music.

For anyone who questions the future of baking, the student finalists “raisin-ed the bar” when it came to innovation. Take Maddy Beck, who presented her hearty Barbeque Raisin Bread along with with dipping sauces while Caroline Bacon impressed the judges with her Pecel Pop, inspiration for which she got from living abroad with an Indonesian family. Yup, these locals from Kansas State University as well as students from across the nation did their schools proud.

For the first time, the judges gave a couple of special awards for going beyond the call of duty. In the commercial category, we recognized Ron Guerrero of Caravan Ingredients for producing Gluten-free Raisin Bread that actually cracked the code when it came to gluten-free. I kid you not. (For more on the winners, seePage 14 of our December digital edition).

During the contest, Theresa and CRMB’s Larry Blagg chided me for soliciting bribes, but in the end, there were no takers. However, I did learn a few judges’ secrets from working behind the scenes. Check out my online-only column here. It’s free, and if you’re lucky, you, too, may get to visit Manhattan next year.

The Little Apple, that is.