Second Best

And just like that, it has been over a year since I last posted. If you want an update on what I have been doing this past year, check out this article I wrote for Dwell that briefly catalogs the process of planning Brady and my wedding at our faux farm. We have been up to the usual things: gardening, solving chicken mysteries, and culling (I won’t go down that road today). Instead, I will take you along for the journey of my year-long baking quest that while not necessarily fruitful has been….cake-full. (SORRY!!)

Last September, I realized our local fair would be happening following a year off from Covid, and I had canned, gardened, and could create things to submit for judging. Brady and I consider ourselves keen-eyed and relish the opportunity for judgment whether we are worthy judges or not. We spent years at the Pennsylvania Farm Show viewing exhibits and pretending we knew the finer qualities we were looking for. Brady’s preference was for the Christmas trees and produce, whereas my interest lay in the children’s potato or bowling pin decorating contests. 

As a child who grew up getting my thrills through accumulating Accelerated Reader points and participation trophies, the prospect of winning any ribbon is appealing. Even better, the winners of select categories are eligible for the aforementioned statewide farm show in January. One of these categories is the chocolate cake contest. So, I submitted for judging a jar of my grandmother’s recipe for sweet pickles, homemade spaghetti sauce, and a chocolate cake. 

As an avid watcher of The British Baking Show and an Art school graduate, I have always seen assignments as a prompt, rather than a requirement. For the cake, I decided on an espresso chocolate cake surrounding a salted caramel mousse and salted caramel with chocolate buttercream icing. At this point in time, my Instagram explore page had not been filled with cake-decorating tutorials, and I had not yet invested in a slew of tools that would make icing and assembling the cake easy. As a result, my lumpy, leaning, and sloppily-decorated cake was entered into the contest. Thanks to its taste, it won second place but lost out on the chance to go to the big show in January. The spaghetti sauce won third, and the pickles, (as my grandma would be proud to boast were she alive) won first place. I, however, was not satisfied.

Before entering the cake contest, I already had cake on the brain. I was asked to create the wedding cake for my brother and sister-in-law, and I saw my second-place loss as an opportunity to level up my skills, materials, and fine-tuning. Also at this point, gallery-worthy cakes with uncommon flavor combinations and unusual decorations were popping into my Instagram feed, and I was visually devouring all of it. 

What followed was a year of test cakes, my in-laws’ wedding cake, babys’ birthday cakes, Brady’s birthday cake, another test cake, and my wedding cake. Once again I had found myself at the tail end of September with the chocolate cake contest on the horizon. In the past year, I learned how to create clean tiers, decorate with flowers, piping skills, how to make Italian meringue buttercream, Swiss meringue buttercream, a clean crumb coat, and what items from my garden were and were not edible or appealing on top of a cake. I was ready!

This year, the cake would be chocolate (naturally) sandwiching a layer of peanut butter mouse, surrounded by a layer of chocolate swiss meringue buttercream, and topped off with chocolate-peanut butter buck-eyes dotting the top of the cake. I didn’t change the cake recipe from the prior year, but I had leveled up everything else; the frosting, the execution, and the appearance. The finished product looked like it could be sold at a bakery. It stood up straight and had no lumps.

 I got second place.

Now, to give some context before we see this as the bitter defeat it feels like, I also leveled up all my other submissions and added in a few this year. The pickles were the same, and once again snatched a first-place ribbon. I de-seeded the spaghetti sauce and made my tomato paste from scratch, which resulted in another blue ribbon. I entered in habanero salsa which garnered a third, grape jam which got a second, habanero peppers which also got a third(if my memory serves?), and finally, the variegated celiosa that I had grown for my bridal bouquet won a best in show ribbon. 

Despite these wins, it was the second-place cake that was irking me. Let me take you back a few steps. To see the placings, participants must roam the exhibitions and view all of the selections with the rest of the public to see how they did. (just imagine you are the grower of that Christmas tree at the farm show listening to Brady and me talk about how it is not good because it is too stringy or too fat, the hubris!) When arriving at the fair on opening day, Brady knew I couldn’t wait, and we walked to the exhibition building. I was pretending to be casual and not sharing the monomaniacal vision I had of me sharing the news of my cake going to state with my nearest and dearest. I think I said something like, “oh we’ll see!”. Other utterances included “The pickles won, great”, “Wow that sauce won, cool!”. “…Surprise about that jam I thought it was too sweet” (FYI they love too sweet in Central PA, for reference, the pickles are way too sweet for my taste). When we got to the cakes, I got quiet. The cakes themselves had been removed for auction and all that was left of them is a small slice with a few bites taken out on a paper plate covered with plastic wrap. It was hard to see what my cake looked like without all of its decoration and heft, so I had to search for my tag, and When I spotted it she was in the exact same place as last year. 

The flower building was next, and a pleasant surprise, but I couldn’t shake my disappointment. So much work had gone into the endeavor and my competitive and participation-rewarded inner child required outside validation other than what I could feel for myself because that doesn’t matter to me. All of the baked goods were to be auctioned off so I stuck around to see if I could see what my cake went for because, again, I needed some sort of validation that it was indeed a good cake, and a dollar amount would do that for me, surely. The cake went for $20, which didn’t help (not sure what amount I was hoping for?), and I decided to give up my quest and go and look at the petting zoo with Brady. He pet a baby kangaroo and said it was the softest thing he ever felt in his life. We got some free popcorn and headed home. The next day my disappointment did not keep me from making Brady take a picture of me with my ribbons (see below).

In the months since, as I watched this most-recent season of The British Baking Show and saw completely competent home chefs be sent home for “boring” flavors or safe takes on a prompt, something occurred to me. What if my problem was not the added flavors or the adornments? What if I had just not followed the simple assignment? Make a chocolate cake with chocolate icing. I had spent so much time trying to put a twist on it that I hadn’t even made sure that the actual cake recipe I used was that good. I didn’t even use a chocolate filling in either cake. The fair is not a competition for creativity, at least not in the baking, canning, or produce categories. It is about being the best in that category while staying within the rubric. So, once again, I have a year to plan and practice. A year to test recipes, to improve upon what has not been improved upon before.  

(Please, if you need a cake, let me know because this testing usually requires a willing participant to eat it.)

Next time – and there will be a next time soon! -Tune in for a chicken mystery and another iteration of our theme, “two dummies who don’t know anything figure it will all be fine; what could go wrong?”

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