Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Well, we didn’t win but we sure had fun. Nearly four hours after the start of the bake-off, the results were in. The two-tiered “present cake” (as it was fondly and unofficially dubbed by fellow participants in the bake-off) came in first place, winning its bakers $100 and points in the College House Cup. This cake—complete with a “wrapped present” exterior made of fondant and a raspberry coulis—dazzled the senses and the judges. My team’s cake slices, however, well… didn’t make the cut.

My friend Peter and I formed Team Nine of the College House Bake-off which took place in the Hill dining hall this past Friday. Together we created a delicious dessert: carrot cake with cream cheese icing—a family recipe. Each step of the recipe flowed smoothly, and there was a natural ease with the two of us in the kitchen; one of us would hand the other a spatula the moment the other seemed in need. As two bakers, we clicked, and it showed in our culinary result. The carrot cake batter came out with the perfect consistency and cooked evenly in the convection oven, gently pulling away from the sides of the pan in which it was baked. The icing, silky smooth, was delicious—just the way my mom makes it.

But, of course, there was that inevitable moment of putting our cake on the presentation table, comparing our results to those of our competitors, and eagerly awaiting judgment. As we placed our cake on the stand, Peter and I knew our faults: our competitors has used intricate chocolate drizzles, multiple icing colors, three dimensional fondant, and hardened sugar structures. Shoot. Our cake tasted amazing, but in a competition in which “presentation” and “creativity” accounted for two-thirds of the points, we were the underdogs.

The results were announced and we didn’t win, but it didn’t feel like a loss whatsoever. Do you know what? We had a blast. During the competition, music had blared from a speaker which was attached to another participant’s iPod. Peter and I danced our way through grating the three cups of fresh carrots the recipe required. The fun continued as we cleaned (and danced around) our cooking space while the cake baked in the dining hall’s convection oven, and as we put the final touches on our finished cake, Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” kept the beat.

Win or no win, this competition was a way for people to get back into the kitchen—even if it was that of Hill dining hall. Spirits were high. Friendships formed. Compliments and helpful tips bounced around in all directions, as members of separate teams interacted positively with one another. Moreover, the sense of competition in the kitchen was tempered by the friendliness and generosity of the bakers. The sifter and handheld blender Peter and I used to make our cream cheese icing was borrowed from another team. Our measuring cup was used by several other teams. Yes, there were nine teams in this competition, but altogether they formed a unit, sharing the space of one large, communal kitchen. The competition occurred in a dining hall kitchen, but somehow it soothed the soul. Perhaps that’s the magic of cooking, that the activity itself is so comforting that even the most industrial of kitchens can feel like home.

And at the completion of the day—whether it was spent in class, at the office, or running errands—it’s really nice to put an end to all the chaos and spend some quality time in the kitchen. Lots of fun. Good friends. Good love and a good meal—or for us, carrot cake with cream cheese icing.

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