Absent from our friendly competition is a starched white tent standing regally amidst the English countryside. Instead, a yellow and white striped tent sways languidly in the heat, shading metal banquet tables and folding chairs. Industrial strength oscillating fans stand like sentries, panting and wheezing in an attempt to circulate the air. Inside the tent, it feels slightly cooler than Death Valley; the poor baked goods are feeling it, too, fighting valiantly to hold their frosted heads high.
Perhaps most affected by the sweltering heat is the Unicorn cake. Anyone who works with me knows how I feel about this particular cake craze. Wednesday’s Unicorn entry was well executed, its buttercream mane a dizzying combination of all colors patriotic, piped with a star tip, capped off with a golden horn crafted out of gumpaste. Starting the day standing proudly amidst the other contenders, the mythical cake quickly became a victim of the beastly heat and humidity. By the time the judges had circled the table, the poor Unicorn, particularly the horn, was suffering from a severe case of wardrobe malfunction. I had no choice but to look away.
The contest rules insist that each entry be accompanied by an exhaustively detailed index card. Stating more than the recipe’s particulars, the card offers the judges a glimpse inside the baker’s kitchen. One would think that a list of ingredients and a brief blurb about the origin of the recipe would suffice. However, the index card is chock full of food safety warnings, informing us whether the baked good has had a brush with peanuts or gluten or edible markers. As we like to say, the more you know.
True, our Bake-Off may be lacking in British-ness, but we more than make up for it in allergy sensitivity awareness. Sure, we’re pleasantly casual, more Mayberry and Aunt Bea and less starched and proper, less BBC. Though we may be shy on treacle tarts and Victoria Sponge, we boast ready-to-spread frosting and tri-color sprinkles with unbridled abandon.
Had Mary Berry been judging the competition, she would have undoubtedly pointed out the occasional soggy bottoms (there were a few) and the aforementioned gum paste meltdown. What would the doyenne of British baking have thought of the over usage of red, white, and blue embellishments? Though she might have applauded the enthusiasm of the participants, I suspect she would have admitted that some of the flavor and visual pairings didn’t really work for her.
This year, participants were encouraged to submit their best cherry pies for consideration. This was the category that egged me into attending, based on my great respect for strictly-from-scratch cherry pie bakers. Sadly, only two cherry pies attended the festivities, though both were well executed and quite tasty. One pie boasted a generous splash of bourbon with a side chaser of bourbon infused ice cream. The second pie was more traditional, supported by a fine crust and no soggy bottom. Cherry pies are tricky business, and kudos to anyone willing to tread the cherry pie waters. Special mention goes to a young pie baker who crafted an impressive blueberry-cherry slab pie, complete with pastry stars and stripes.
Noticing that my water bottle had been drained dry and becoming slightly dizzy from the onslaught of sugar fumes, I decided it was time to go. Bobbing beneath the tent and stepping out into the park, I was assaulted by everything fair-goers love and I tend to avoid. There were whirly-gig amusement rides guaranteed to induce queasiness, antique cars baking in the sun, a neon cupcake truck, and plenty of unhappy, over-heated children. Wandering from one end of the parched field to another, I attempted to negotiate my release with the local authorities. “You have to go around,” they informed me, pointing to the opposite side of the field. Taking matters into my own dehydrated hands, I scaled an ever-so-small wire mesh fence, only to encounter the cognoscente of the crosswalk. I was immediately turned over to a man of the law. “I just want to leave,” I explained, feeling the slightest bit like Burt Lancaster pleading with the no-nonsense guards in Alcatraz. Feigning heat stroke and promising to cross with the light, I was released on my own recognizance. Pausing for mere moments at the corner, I looked right, then left, then promptly jay-walked across the rainbow intersection at the corner of Oakview and Valley.