Cupcake Wars

In real life, the best baked good is the most basic

I was robbed last weekend. Robbed of a title. The title was 2010 Grand Prize Winner in the Mt. Airy Village Fair Baking Contest. At least, I think this was the title. The Mt. Airy Village Fair is a community event, with lots of spontaneity (like the dude in the tallis who climbed up on an overturned bucket and started performing radical spoken word poetry), and the baking contest was sort of loosely organized.

Regardless, I should have won. I baked cupcakes. These weren’t just cupcakes; they were completely over-the-top cupcakes that could have been served at a wedding. In fact, I did serve them at a wedding last month. They looked gorgeous. They were topped with silky swirls of Italian meringue buttercream and miniature round white nonpareils. The cake was a classic yellow cake flavored with fresh orange zest. Inside each one was a surprise: a perfect mocha truffle made with bittersweet Valrhona chocolate.

The cupcake recipe came from Dede Wilson’s excellent Wedding Cakes You Can Make, the best book of the wedding-cake-instructional genre. When the cupcakes were baked and cooled, I poked holes in each with a long wooden skewer. These holes allowed the soaking syrup (a fragrant blend of simple syrup, Grand Marnier, and orange essence) to travel throughout the baking cup. Wilson recommends brushing a cake with soaking syrup to keep the cake moist. Most Americans are accustomed to very moist cake because of the ubiquity of boxed cake mix. Wilson calls this phenomenon the “Duncan Hines effect.”

For the filling, I made a rich mocha ganache by blending fresh local cream with La Colombe coffee and bittersweet Valrhona chocolate. I was introduced to Valrhona by my pals at John & Kira’s, a boutique chocolate maker here in Philly. Valrhona is a French chocolate, which means it tastes deeper and darker than American or Swiss chocolate, both of which tend toward the creamy. This type of ganache is typically used as icing on cake or as the filling in a chocolate truffle. Instead, I spooned it into a pastry bag fitted with a wide tip, and injected a hefty dollop of mocha ganache into the center of each perfectly moist cupcake. Fun fact: this is the same technique used to get the cream into the center of a Twinkie.

I packed a glass cake pedestal for presenting the cupcakes at the Fair, and some silk Phalenopsis orchids to scatter around the pedestal.

I will freely admit that I went overboard with the presentation. I may have also spent many hours baking when I could have been, I don’t know, writing or something. But I really wanted to win. Winning a baking contest seemed like such an old-fashioned kind of triumph. If I won, I’d be like some sort of awesome cross between Martha Stewart and Donna Reed and Mia Hamm. Serious competition is hard to come by in these collaborative times.

As the fair went on, I checked on the competing entries: diamond-shaped apple tarts, pumpkin bread, gingersnap cookies, mocha pecan pie, some miniature cream puffs. I thought I had it in the bag.

But I hadn’t counted on the kids. The baking contest judges were to be drawn out of a hat during the fair, and tons of kids signed up to be judges. I realized, with a sinking heart, that the kids weren’t going to like my cupcakes. Most kids hate the taste of Grand Marnier, for one thing. My son doesn’t even ask to lick the bowl if I’m putting booze in the icing.

Three of the five judges were kids. There was no hope. Know what won? The pumpkin bread. I’ve never liked pumpkin bread. I tried the prizewinning pumpkin bread, hoping there was something special about it. It made my lips itch.

The pumpkin bread’s triumph over the fancy cupcakes (and the cream puffs) speaks to the huge gap between television and real life. Having never entered a baking contest before, I had imagined that the Mt. Airy Village Fair Baking Contest would be something like one of those food competitions you see on the Food Network. The judges would have super-palates, I thought. They’d be able to taste things that regular people can’t, the same way that professional perfume smellers can detect fragrance notes discernible only to dogs.

But while I was imagining that I was baking for an Iron Chef competition, the judges were in the real world of the Mt. Airy Village Fair. The real world expects hot dogs and lemonade, not French chocolate and Grand Marnier. It being Mt. Airy, the hot dogs and lemonade were organic, and there were tofu dogs available for the vegetarians, but still. Ordinary food. Kid food.

To win, I should have made regular cupcakes. The simple kind. Just vanilla and chocolate, nothing too showy. Cooking for TV is a performance; cooking for real life is about making people happy. The mere existence of cupcakes makes people happy. It’s not necessary to get any more gourmet than sprinkling some jimmies on the icing.

I did win a prize in the baking contest, if not the grand prize. I received a $10 gift certificate to the High Point Café. I already used it. The day after the contest, I treated myself to a turkey and cheddar crepe. As I munched my crepe, I gazed longingly at the cupcakes in the High Point’s pastry display. There were carrot cupcakes, lemon cupcakes, and double chocolate cupcakes. I wanted to buy one, but the sense memory of my orange mocha cupcakes still lingered. I felt sad.

I suspect I may be a sore loser. I also think I’ll be making a Duncan Hines cake as a backup plan next year.

MEREDITH BROUSSARD is a journalist in Philadelphia.