Icing it Up

Cutthroat Kitchen, Cupcake Wars and Top Chef: We’ve grown to love televised cooking competitions.
    Whole Foods Market’s Top Cake competition skipped television for an on-location reality show. To crown the Mid-Atlantic Region’s best cake decorator, Whole Foods invited real people to its Annapolis store to taste and admire. If you showed up early enough, you could even get a ticket to choose a cake to take home.
    I got even closer as the only outsider joining store bakers in judging the inaugural Top Cake competition.
    Top Cake challenged the bakeries in the 42 stores of the Whole Foods Mid-Atlantic region to send their craftiest artisans to compete in four regional competitions. Joel Singer, regional bakery coordinator, hopes Top Cake will catch on as a company-wide competition as their seafood and meat department challenges have done.
    With more than 370 Whole Foods throughout the United States and the United Kingdom, that’s a lot of icing.
    The Annapolis store hosted both South and Central divisions over two days, January 9 and 10. Thursday brought eight representatives from Virginia stores, and Friday nine from D.C. and Maryland. Lined up side-by-side at stations, contestants each decorated four theme cakes. Three themes — spring, summer and St. Patrick’s Day — were announced before competition so the decorators could prepare.
    Six-inch blank cakes and a tub of buttercream were provided by the store. Contestants brought their gear (rolling pin, turntable and the like) and pre-made decorations. They had one hour to decorate all three cakes.
    The fourth cake was a mystery, testing the decorator’s ability to adapt and create on the fly. Virginia got Halloween, while D.C. and Maryland were challenged with Father’s Day. After 15 minutes of planning, the decorators had 40 minutes to create these cakes.
    Cake decorating is no piece of cake. Decorators had not only time limits but also crowds of shoppers and nosey judges breathing down their necks. A steady hand and level layers are a necessity.
    We judged on creativity, difficulty, originality, speed and organizational skills.
    There were no duds in the group, but there were standouts. The mystery cake was the defining cake for many of our decisions as we judged each decorator’s total package.
    In Virginia, Molly Berg from Short Pump with her bold and witty pineapple (summer), chick (spring), Frankenstein (Halloween) and Pot of Gold (St. Patrick’s Day). The Maryland-D.C. winner was Annapolis’ own Emily Snyder.
    The crowd walked away winners too, with all cakes raffled for free at the end of the event and free samples throughout.
    For more cake judging, visit the Annapolis store on Friday, January 31, 11am to 2pm, when the final five (four regions plus a wild card) decorate two cakes (Easter and a surprise) and compete for the big prize: a sash, crown and three-day class of choice at the French Pastry School in Chicago. Plus lots of bragging rights. Runners-up win $250 gift certificates and chef’s knives. I’ll be there too, clipboard in hand.