Princeton peaked at new levels of saccharine-sweet this past Friday, April 29th. Some of you woke up at 4:45 AM to watch William and Kate’s Royal Wedding (4:45? why?!). And some of you wandered haplessly into Frist intending to get pizza for lunch, only to find an elaborate cake-building show in full swing. There were cameras trained on the three cake-building teams, “Chocotigers,” “Spelman 61,” and “Blue and Yellow.” University bakers had chosen the final three-member teams out of a pool of 17 applications. (Yes, even for cake-baking, there’s an application.) Each team of undergraduates worked with a professional baking advisor.
A University chef played announcer, making rounds with his microphone to cheer on the cake progress or read off a few statistics about the gastronomic tendencies of Princeton undergraduates: “Last year, you’ve consumed 80,000 dough balls of pizza. That’s about a half a ton of dough. If you cut those pizzas into eight slices, you’re talking about a half a million tons of pizza.” He concluded that sickening data set by urging us to “keep eating pizza.” It was an unreal scene—reminiscent of the priest who, just that morning, cartwheeled down the aisle at Westminster Abbey, or the postmodern hats worn by the Royal Wedding guests. (Come to think of it, some of the hats resembled cakes. And some of the cakes resembled hats.)
During the hour-long competition, a smattering of bemused lunchers and a handful of kitchen staff stood around making eyes at the confections. At the center were the judges. Heather Minnich, University Pastry Chef, surveyed the cakes coolly behind the judging table. USG President Michael “Yaro” Yaroshefsky prowled past the workbenches with a look on his face like a child anticipating Christmas. Dean Malkiel, in demure pink, paced regally behind him. Her husband, Professor Burton Malkiel, stood back unassumingly like Prince Philip.
I can only imagine the genesis of the Dean’s Bake concept. A USG officer hooked on Cake Boss or some other Food Network show wants an excuse to do a Princetonian version of the competition. “Aha!” says his or her roommate, mind drawn back to the indelible scene in Roald Dahl’s Matilda when the Trunchbull forces “sack of cement” Bruce Bogtrotter to eat a massive chocolate cake. “Why don’t we advertise it as a celebratory farewell to Dean Malkiel, but leave it to the imagination what we mean by ‘celebrate’?” Finally, to make it all worthwhile, there has to be an incentive: fake money, or Paw Points. “What shall we call it?” Rhymes with Dean’s Date, but delicious instead of disastrous. (Alas, this is not in fact what happened. Yaro tells me that he and Director of Dining Services Stu Orefice cooked up the idea some months ago during a meeting.)
Each team had baked two cakes: a presentation cake (a sculpture judged for theme and presentation) and the tasting cake (a regular circular cake). The teams had an hour to build, ice, and decorate their presentation cakes. Then slices of tasting cake were gingerly cut, artfully arranged on the plate, and presented to each of the four judges for taste testing.
The Chocotigers had only finishing touches to make; they had baked and assembled the cake the previous morning in the bake shop in the basement of the Rocky-Mathey dining hall. They opted for a Princeton shield made of chocolate cake, with layers of marzipan-based Grand Marnier orange-flavored cream, candied orange peel, and diced almonds. The cake was coated with chocolate ganache, then sealed with a smooth dark chocolate ganache. They colored the shield with orange-dyed buttercream, garnished with swirls of icing, and wrote across the cake in careful cursive, “Farewell Dean Malkiel.”
Team Spelman 61 went for a four- tiered circular vanilla cake, layered with apricot jelly and iced with cinnamon buttercream. The mauve cake, meant to resemble West College, was decorated with windows of fondant, an orange Princeton flag, curlicues of ivy, and a tiny blond fondant Dean Malkiel. Her little sugared arm was raised in a farewell wave—or perhaps she was singing “Old Nassau,” or perhaps she was boogying down to ABBA, or perhaps she was heiling Hitler. Whatever it meant, it showed impressive culinary craftsmanship.
Team Blue and Yellow also opted for chocolate cake, but separated the layers with a light hazelnut cream. They took the risks of fine icing detail and blatant brown-nosing, and succeeded on both counts. The rectangular base of the cake was a brown suitcase decorated with stickers of each residential college seal, commemorating one of Dean Malkiel’s less-discussed achievements. The cake was rimmed with dark chocolate truffles. Two books stacked atop the valise read “Harvard” and “Smith” on the spines, and a third “open book” lay blank—an unwritten future.
Then the judges took their fateful forkfuls.
Let’s cut—through Yaro’s excited eyebrow dramatics and Dean Malkiel’s careful diplomatic bites—to the chase. That is to say, the cake. Because even though presentation counts, we all know that taste buds are the real seat of power.(Evidence: Hoagie Haven.)
As a neutral cake-loving third party, I dipped my reverent fork into slices of each cake to determine which team deserved the true blue ribbon. I sniffed the cakes, swirled them on my tongue, tested, hummed, hemmed, and hawed. Here are the results.
Chocotigers: A smooth, rounded explosion of moist chocolate, pierced by the lively, fruity orange and crunchy almond texture. The outer ganache was Oh Hot Dang. Its richness complemented the light, atmospheric, faintly alcohol-tinged orange filling. Three bites were enough to overwhelm, like a tempestuous chocolate-eyed lover.
Spelman 61: When the tempestuous chocolate-eyed lover broke my heart, I turned to the palate-cleansing, angelic apricot darling. This cake’s icing tasted like warm cinnamon bun, and the apricot added a bright, surprising perfume. As a bonus, there was no hint of the ethanol flavor that plagued the first cake.
Blue and Yellow: I am a diehard Nutella fan and expected to love any- thing that starts with the word “hazel” and ends in “nut.” Yet the hazelnut ganache underwhelmed me, silenced by the bland fondant coating and a lingering ethanol flavor. It was only when I bit into one of the decorative truffles that I fully experienced the whole cake: mature, nutty, elegant. The smooth dark truffle melt submitting after the initial outer crunch, commingling with the hazelnut—stunning.
It was a complete and balanced lunch, if I do say so myself. Dean Malkiel called it “the most remarkable experience … [awkward pause] …I can remember” and lamented being forced to choose just one winner. “Even if there are three first-place-worthy cakes, I am being told that I can’t grade them according to their quality.” Oof. Too soon.
The judges’ final tallies put Chocotigers in first place with 102/120 points, Blue and Yellow in second place with 100/120, and Spelman 61 in third place with 97/120. But my taste buds disagree. I think Spelman 61 deserves first for their innovative, summery cake, Chocotigers second for approximating a Santana guitar solo, and Blue and Yellow an unfortunate third for some of the best truffles I ever ate—oh, and some decent cake too. Finally, I applaud all three teams for demonstrating actual practical skills. Here’s hoping that the USG sponsors another event combining creativity and pragmatism—how about a gift-wrapping competition?