On June 11, 2011, Rock Paper Scissors, an art collective in Oakland, hosted its 3rd Annual Vegan Cupcake Bake-Off. It’s pretty awesome that it was vegan and they’d already had the bake-off two other times. But even better? Anyone could be a judge for $5.
I learned about the shindig just hours before it commenced and instantly knew I’d be there. Allie (of White Wires, Peach Kelli Pop) was in town and equally intrigued by the chance to 1) sample an undetermined number of cupcakes for a fiver and 2) decide the fate of one lucky baker.
I don’t know about her, but in the last year or so, I’ve become addicted to reality cooking shows: Top Chef, Master Chef and Master Chef Australia (which is basically a long, drawn-out Dr. Phil with aprons and spatulas, unlike its ridiculously cruel American counterpart), Chopped, The Great Food Truck Race, and even Top Chef Canada. Considering my sweet tooth, you’d also expect me to be a big fan of competitive baking shows such as Cupcake Wars and Ace of Cakes, but I’m not. They bore me, probably because I’m hopeless as a baker and don’t care to change the fact.
In any case, the judging on these shows always seems pretty straightforward: 1. Taste all the entries. 2. Pick the best one.
As it turned out, judging food is way harder than it looks.
This bake-off featured seven cupcakes:
Two contenders (lime raspberry-inthemiddle, blueberry surprise) made mini cupcakes; the rest quartered their full-sized versions to distribute to us judges. Receiving clumps of cupcake presented an unexpected challenge: Once I got all the entries on one plate, I had trouble visually distinguishing between several of them (rhubarb-apple, peach melba, cardamom); comparing them to the uncut cupcakes was not necessarily enlightening. Even more troubling, I still wasn’t entirely sure which was which after tasting them. But as an official judge, I had to soldier on and pick my favorite from the batch. My method? Process of elimination, weighing in flavor as well as technique.
Here are my comments, from least to most favorite:
7. Peach melba: dry cake; the raspberry sauce overwhelmed any peach essence the cake might’ve had.
6. Blueberry surprise: double blueberry action was darling but the cake was a bit dry and lacked flavor.
5. Rhubarb-apple cupcake with burnt sugar drizzle: tangy and moist but a little too pedestrian; did they forget the burnt sugar drizzle?
4. Lime raspberry-inthemiddle: topped with lime “cream cheese” frosting and garnished with a handmade lime and raspberry, this was truly a work of art. The raspberry in the middle of the cake helped maintain moistness, but overall the sweetness of the cupcake made my jaw hurt.
3. Cardamom cupcake with strawberry jam and basil buttercream: well-spiced, moist. Had the next two not been in the running, I could’ve stopped here.
2. Pastel de tres leches (cake of three milks) by Hella Vegan Eats: amazingly moist and rich, with a delicious, complex flavor profile due to the cake being soaked in coconut milk, rice milk, and almond milk. Accompanied by a grapefruit/lemon/mint cleanser.
1. Inlaw cupcake by Tastes Like Yum: chocolate/coffee decadence, with dark chocolate chunks, coffee buttercream, and chocolate coffee ganache. A definite buzz and everything I look for in a chocolate treat. It was so incredible I went back to the cupcake station and asked if I could buy one. Christina, the creator, wouldn’t take my money and gave me a whole one, much to my delight. It was then I noticed her Bake and Destroy shirt. (Funnily, Natalie, who runs the site, was in San Francisco that weekend but wasn’t able to make it across the bay in time.)
I managed to arrive at my personal favorite, but not without a heap of agony. Frankly, had this been a function with free cupcakes for the taking, I would’ve made the rounds and happily inhaled at least two of each. I’m not necessarily a chocoholic—I’ve often been torn between ordering, say, a chocolate lava cake, a fresh-fruit galette, a carrot cake, and a crème brûlée, and requested a non-chocolatey option. But I will say that whenever I do that, I usually pine over the chocolate dessert for a day or two afterward (that is, if I didn’t end up ordering it, too).
Yes, I have a problem. But the first step to recovery is recognizing it, right?
So how do professional judges put their personal biases aside? Or do they?
In the end, the pastel de tres leches took first prize. Allie and I weren’t able to stick around for the results, but I believe the inlaw got third place, which surprised me. How did the sole chocolate entry not get one of the first two spots? The mind boggles.
(By the way, I just discovered that Whole Foods carries vegan cupcakes in their bakery. The chocolate one is as gratifying as their non-vegan option, and far better than the crumbly slices of vegan cake they have.
Wait. Didn’t I say I wasn’t a chocoholic? Right. Like I’d ever buy vanilla cake.)