Monday, October 24, 2011

In the beginning...

Cake is love. Where does the name of my blog come from, you ask? Grab a cup of coffee (a frappy, if you are able) and find an old copy of Cooks Illustrated. Then, use the coffee to bake a chocolate cake. Drink the frappy.

In all seriousness, the title of my blog comes from a little taste-test event my best friend, Jenny and I organized years ago.
It was in the fall of 2002... I remember the frost on the ground and Jenny and Jeff's house on Dewey Ave with the long skinny kitchen, and bright, open dining room. We had a plan, Jenny and I. Her husband, Jeff was a huge fan of chocolate cake. Neither of us were sure what was the 'best' chocolate cake recipe, however, so we decided to find out so she could make it for his birthday. We each invited judges- for me it was Minh&Matt and for her it was Debbie&whats-his-name, and her brother-in-law, Mark. We prepared for days, testing cake recipes, deciding on the final twelve (!!!) options to sample.
The answer key! Note the chocolate smudges!

We each had made 2 types of chocolate cake:(Curly cake, Black Magic(BM), Godiva Chocolate Raspberry Cake, and Triple Chocolate Celebration(T3)) and with several frostings/toppings that made a total of 12 pairings. With our group of judges, that meant we would need 9 plates, each with 12 tiny slices of cake. But how to rank them? And what to name each one? Or to use numbers?
It was complicated... until we realized we didn't have to number or name the samples- we could use letters!
"W" "H" "Y" "C" "A" "K" "E" "I" "S" "L" "U" "V".  Twelve unique letters, Twelve pieces of cake. And we'd put each letter on a little piece of paper taped to a toothpick. So we decided couples could share a plate and we made 60 of them (4 couples+1 single*12 pieces of cake each). We also stayed true to each original recipe, so for example Triple Chocolate Celebration Cake had the proper frosting/fillings for letter "K". The Godiva cake had the proper fillings for "L", but we also tried other fillings with "Y" and "A". We had our favorite chocolate frostings that we included: cocoa frosting and sour cream frosting(SC). The day of the event, when I arrived at Jenny's house with my two cakes, frostings, ballots and toothpicks, Jenny told me about the interloper. Some friend of Debbie & Jenny's from high school was in town and he loves cake and Debbie told him about our little taste test and he wanted to come so she said 'sure!" I was peeved! Not so much that he was coming (just one more plate of 12 pieces of cake, ugh) but he WAS BRINGING HIS OWN CAKE TO ENTER. As if this was a contest. Nooooooo!!!! We had already printed the ballots, made the toothpick labels, made a huge mess of Jenny's kitchen and I just said, 'no.' He can come, he can bring his blasted cake, I don't care, but he isn't entering it. If people want to comment on his cake, fine. But this is a scientific study on home made chocolate cake! The interloper was bringing a doctored box cake mix! With doctored box pudding filling! Blasphemy!

My friends made me proud. Especially my then boyfriend (now husband), MJM. His ability to discern the merits of each cake and frosting combo was to be admired. And Minh and Matt did a bang-up job judging, too. Honestly, after days of chocolate cake baking and frosting making, and bowl-licking and crumb munching I could barely tell the difference. I was overwhelmed, but tried my best to rate each one both in terms of flavor and texture for both the cake and the frosting. Poor Jenny couldn't even fill in the ballot. We were exhausted!
MLG (me) on the left (notice how everything is mostly 8s and 9s) and Jenny's ballot on the right.
MJM on the left and JAS (Jeff) on the right
Minh on the left and Matt on the right
What's his name on the left and Debbie on the right
Mark on the left and Interloper on the right

My initial plan was to do statistical analysis in Matlab on the results to determine the winner. Unfortunately, that meant a delay, which was deemed unacceptable by the crowd. So we leafed through the ballots... I found it interesting that the frosting or topping really affected the perception of the cake! Consider Jeff's ballot (the only one that really mattered, after all). "W" "E" "S" and "V" were all the same cake- Black Magic cake, but the different letters had different frostings. However, he gave W a perfect 10 and E got a 9 and 8, S got two 8s and E- two 6s!! But I'm sure the only thing you care about is what was decided! Which cake was the winner!? The consensus winner was "W": a combination of 'Black Magic Cake' on Hershey's website and 'Cocoa Frosting' from the Belimar book (a book our friend, Belimar recommended), The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Book of Desserts. A great book, check it out.

But most importantly, what we learned from this experience was: be careful what you wish for. Maybe it wont sound surprising to you, but Jeff actually requested a non-chocolate cake for his birthday that year.

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