Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Contest, A Food Network Star And A Good Cause

Gosh, did I have a lot of fun about a week ago! Pure, unfettered, delightful fun. AND it was one those times where the anticipation was just as good as the event itself, in fact, even better in some ways. I wish every week could be like last week, although I know that’s not possible, and probably not a good idea either, purely from a health perspective.

Just what am I talking about? I was a judge in a cupcake contest and I was allowed, no, REQUIRED to eat THIRTEEN cupcakes…in one sitting.

How did this come to pass? The estimable advertising agency, Ogilvy and Mather, was having a company-wide, big deal bake sale to raise money for Share Our Strength. As one component of the festivities, they decided to have a cupcake contest, which would encourage friendly competition amongst the different teams of folks working there.

Someone close to me (an Ogilvy employee) was asked to be one of the judges. With no hesitation at all, he said he had someone much better…ME! (He was soooo right, since I’m not entirely sure he’s ever even TASTED a cupcake.)

There were 4 other judges, all business types, who took their job as seriously as I hoped they would. I did a lot of technical research and came up with the criteria that we would be using to judge the cupcakes. Plus, like Kobayashi, I decided to prepare for battle by eating a few pies in the days before. ;-) I wish!!!

One thing that really impressed me was that the bakers took the challenge to bake the best cupcake very much to heart. There were wonderful, impassioned presentations by many of the teams and it was evident that a lot of thought and work had gone into each batch of cupcakes.

I think I'll sprinkle the cupcake pictures all around this post, so you can appreciate them more.

After each cupcake was presented to us, we gave it the once over in order to judge it on the first criterion - Overall Appearance.

Then we cut it in half and studied the interior. Why? Because you can learn so much about a baked good from studying its crumb. Was it overbeaten? Was it overbaked? Was the crumb moist? Was the inside doughy or perhaps there WAS no crumb? This criterion was “Moistness and Crumb Texture”, which is quite critical to the overall success of the cupcake.

THEN we tasted. That was Criterion #3. (We gave the cupcake 0 to 5 points for each category.)

We looked carefully at the Frosting Taste AND Texture. (#4) Was it too sweet? Was it too runny, too thick?

And lastly we evaluated the Uniqueness and Creativity of each cupcake. That was particularly appropriate, given the ingenuity of the bakers and the kind of work they do.

The winner was to be unveiled the next day in a grand awards ceremony with an incredible VIP in attendance. (I’ll get to that in a sec.)

About the judging, I can’t reveal what went on behind closed doors (actually, it was in the open space of the cafeteria) after the “public” left, but there was A LOT of give and take as we judges went through our choices and tried to determine which cupcake reigned supreme.

Finally, we had our top four, but there were meant to be only 3 winners. What to do? We added an Honorable Mention category for a particularly deserving cupcake. And we tousled with the order of the others somewhat. But when we left, I think we all thought we had done the cupcakes justice with our studied consideration of their merits.

The next day, for the big announcement, I and one other judge sat up on the dais. (Can it still be a dais if it’s on the floor?) The special guest was introduced and in to the packed room came…Sandra Lee!!! She was carrying a plate of all the cupcakes entries. The crowd was thrilled to see her and as she addressed them, (in front of the tables to be closer to her audience), I admit I was thrilled too.

Firstly, she is just lovely looking. Also, she is comfortable in front of a crowd and she was down to earth and even moving as she talked about her childhood. (Food Network Chefography fans know about her welfare childhood, lots of kids, ill mother.)

But it wasn’t a “With Hard Work, You Can Be Like Me” speech. It was a “I Know What It’s Like To Need Food Stamps And Assistance And SHARE OUR STRENGTH Is A Great Organization That Gives All Kinds Of Help” speech.

Then she talked about the cupcakes and the ones she particularly liked. (Hmmm. Only one that she mentioned had made our top four.) She even joked about her penchant for cocktails. What wasn’t to like?

THEN the floor was given to the judges – (or the two of us who weren’t too ill from eating all those cupcakes). I gave an impassioned address on the technical aspects of our judging.

I don’t think going into the moisture index of the baked goods was too abstruse, do you? There did seem to some relief when I gave the stage over to the next judge.

But, truly, it can never be wrong to go into the proximate constituents of the baking elements and a discussion of the wheat starch globals, as well as the vitreousness of the flour used.

Anyway, after my fellow judge had addressed the crowd, it was time for the winners to be announced. Sandy opened the envelopes and proclaimed the winners with just the right fanfare.

Honorable mention went to Sweet Summer S'mores.

The baking team was Rei Wang, Sophia McMasters, Madison Slavec, Kathryn McKinley, Sari Lewis, Julianne Niemaszyk, Jasmine Lipford.

Third place went to the unusual The Burning Sensation, flavored with mango and jalapeƱo.

The baking team (of interns) was Alyssa Rogers, Lauren Christensen, Maria Miller, Carin Pinto, Sydney Lopes, Brooke Smith, Shayna Makaron, Kendall Bird, MichaelVosters, Gabe Stein

Death by Mudslide took second place. (They become the winner should the first place cupcake be unable to fulfill its function as winner.)

That baking team was Amanda Millwee, Jamie Fox, Kim Healy.

And First Place went to Coconut Dreams – my own personal favorite.

It was baked by Gissell Campos and was a perfectly executed, moist vanilla cupcake with a lovely white frosting with a blue coconut topping. Plus the Coconut Dream Cupcakes were presented on a very lovely cake stand AND each one had a pretty scalloped wrapper, which enhanced the overall beauty of the cupcake. Really well done.

Here's the winner, Gissell, chatting with Sandy:

After the official ceremony was done, I got to…OH WAIT! I didn’t tell you about the part when Sandy put my face in her hands.

She was talking about how she loves crafting and what fun she had when she took her “sweetheart’s” daughter to Michaels and gave her 100 dollars to spend, which everyone in the audience agreed was A LOT of money…for Michaels.

Sandra pushed the other judge out of his chair and sat down right next to me. She said her favorite part of the day was when the girl took her face (that’s when Sandy took MINE) in her hands and said, “I’ve had the best day EVER!” I tried to look just like how the queen of tablescapes would look if someone said that to her. Back to the awards…

First prize was lunch with the big boss at a restaurant of the winner’s choice…Nothing personal, but frankly, I would have preferred a gift certificate for baking equipment.

After all the winners had been announced, I got to chat with Sandy. She was soooo lovely, so warm and so friendly that you couldn’t help but like her. She said judging these things can be so difficult that she doesn’t like to do it.

There was a long line of people waiting to meet Sandra, including a big group of kids. She stayed and talked to each and every person, and, whatever I may have thought in the past, I take it all back. I’m not saying I’m going to rush out and buy a case of onion soup mix, but I have a new appreciation for what a genuinely nice person she is. She did not have to be so wonderful to every single person she met and I completely admit that she won me over.

Now the actual reason that Sandra (the official spokesperson for Share Our Strength’s Great American Bake Sale) was there was to receive a donation check from Ogilvy to Share Our Strength. They raised over three thousand dollars in one day and presented her with the check. She said she would match it, which was a really nice gesture and it ended the festivities on a very positive note.

One more thing - To the organizers of ANY cupcake contest, I am available for judging duty. But I have to admit it WAS different from what I thought it would be. Before the contest, I was focused on the pure joy of eating that many cupcakes. The reality was that I had maybe a sliver of each.

Don’t admire my lack of gluttony, though. I was actually heady from the sheer power that was in my hands…in all of our hands. I do think we used our influence for good and I know that when Sandy announced the winner, there was a giant, exuberant uproar. I looked at the other judge and we agreed that we had given the win to a worthy competitor in a field of notable cupcakes, baked for a wonderful cause.


Ciao Chow Linda said...

What a fun day - but 13 cupcakes - I would have exploded.

Sue said...

Hi Linda,
It's amazing, shocking actually, how LITTLE we actually ate. I guess that was self-preservation kicking in. And I sure wished that I had sneaked some cupcakes into a Tupperware for later.

Pam said...

Seriously! Cupcake judge! Dream job!

Sue said...

Hi Pam,
I couldn't agree with you more.

Tracy said...

Sounds fun! I judged a chocolate cake contest once. Not only was it a difficult decision, I also thought I'd be sick ... so I can sympathize with the difficulty of the task at hand.

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

Note to self: Find a way to be a judge in a cupcake contest. I want to eat all of those cupcakes!

I think I'd be a little creeped out at being touched that way by a total stranger - even if she is a celebrity.

Emily said...

This is my dream.

I would love to taste all of those cupcakes! Were they all really good? Did you have one that wasn't?

The coconut dreams cupcakes looks GOOD. They all do. I know that one would be my favorite though.

I don't know... I do love mudslide and chocolate.

I'm glad Sandy was nice and pleasant to be around. I can't believe she had her hands on your face! That's nuts.

Sue said...

i think you told me ages ago how nice Sandy was at one of your cookoffs. You were right!

It was the best thing ever!

Sandra was sooo sweet and nice, it wasn't creepy at all. Really!

You would have been a great judge.

Did all of the cupcakes taste good? Every single one had SOMETHING remarkable about it, whether it was the taste, the icing, the presentation or whatever.

I guess I'm really easy when it comes to having someone's hands cupped around my face.

Babka1 said...

Next time I think I should come along next time as a judge in training. Oh, woe would be me having to taste each and every one.(Laughs)

WizzyTheStick said...

The mango jalepeno would have been my favourite as I love the combination. I make a version using scotchbonnet peppers. Yum. Thanks for visiting my blog. It is lovely to discover yours:-)

Sue said...

It was hard job, but someone HAD to do it...luckily for me.

Hi Wizzy,
It's nice to make your acquaintance. You're an adventurous cupcake eater, I see.