By Robin Garr
“Uh. Two things I don’t much like: Maraschino and Amaretto,” I whispered to fellow judge Caity DiFabio as yet another slice of cake dropped on our star-spangled table.
She nodded, and then we picked up our forks, and we were like “Whoa.” Whoever made this cake knew what to do with flavors. It was remarkable! Judge Josh Moore agreed, and the deal was sealed. Amanda and Eleanor B…’s almond maraschino cake with Amaretto had won the annual cake contest at the Crescent Hill Old Fashioned Fourth of July Picnic.
Peterson-Dumesnil House was fully decked out in red, white, and blue for the annual Independence Day event, and a crowd of revelers filled the grounds and packed onto the historic mansion’s porch for the early afternoon judging.
“We’ve been doing this since 1880. That’s the honest truth,” claimed contest co-organizer Scott Endres, although his partner and spouse Shannon Endres later confided that they’ve been running the event since 2018, with two years off during the pandemic; a previous contest had dropped off the program in 2010 after, by strange coincidence, Shannon won that year.
DiFabio, who is executive chef at DiFabio’s Casapela, and Moore, who holds the same position at Volare, and I have judged the annual event for the past several years spanning the pandemic, along with a changing cast of other culinary characters.
It’s always fun. It’s more of a challenge than you might think to carefully analyze a parade of tasty cakes fashioned by neighborhood home bakers and cooks. And an hour of cake tasting on a sunny summer afternoon imparts a memorable sugar buzz that takes hours to fade.
So what’s it like being a judge? What exactly does a cake judge do? When I posted my adventures on social media, I was surprised by how quickly the questions started coming in. Let’s talk about some of the basics, and then I’ll tell you about the amazing cakes.
How does one get on a tasting panel?
Basically, you have to get an invitation. For this event, it helps to live in the Crescent Hill neighborhood. Then, it’s good to have some relevant experience, such as being a food writer (me) or being a chef (Catie, Josh, and past judges Madeleine Dee and others). If you’re interested and think you have the appropriate résumè, reach out to Scott or Shannon Endres through Peterson-Dumesnil House.
What criteria do you use? Moistness? Classic taste? Unique taste? Looks—whether the frosting and any decoration look pretty?
I love a good, detailed question! Over the years, judges and organizers have come up with a simple scoring sheet. Each judge rates each cake on a scale from zero to 10 on each four criteria: Presentation, originality-creativity, taste, and baking technique. After I total my numbers on each card, I stack them in order and head for a private back room to compare notes with the other judges.
Do the judges’ criteria differ among themselves?
We’re all individuals, of course, but I’m always surprised that our ratings aren’t generally all that far apart. The best cakes rise to the top, and over recent events I can’t recall a time when we didn’t reach quick agreement on the prize winners.
Don’t your taste buds get tired from eating all that cake?
You’d think! Cake judging is a bit like wine judging in that you don’t want to overdo at the start. But at least we don’t have to spit out the cake unlike those poor wine judges who never get to swallow. We do get very small portions, though, and carefully parse out bits of frosting, filling, fruit, and the cake itself before tasting it all together. And even most of the tiny portions get left over.
Did you save me leftovers? Will gladly pay!
Yes, we saved you leftovers, if you were there! Organizers slice and box all the cakes after the judging, and they’re available to all, first come, first served, for $5 per slice. All the proceeds benefit the historic Peterson-Dumesnil House.
How can I enter a cake next year?
Go “like” the Crescent Hill Community Council Facebook page right now. Watch around mid-June for an announcement with details. Basically, the contest is open only to home and non-professional bakers, and entries are limited to 13 cakes, a Baker’s Dozen! Crescent Hill residents get precedence, but everyone is welcome to enter with no entry fee.
Tell us about this year’s entries!
There were nine entries this year, and all were excitingly good. The range of scores between my highest and lowest was very narrow indeed. Because they were all so delicious, I won’t name them in order, but I’ll say that I’d be delighted to find a slice of any of them on my plate.
Here’s the list in entry-number order:
1 – Dark chocolate raspberry
2 – Chocolate raspberry buttercream
3 – Lemon blueberry
4 – Esther’s orange marmalade cake
5 – Almond maraschino cake with Amaretto: The winner! Amanda and Eleanor Brainard’s entry, despite my initial concern about not being a fan of two of its ingredients, was expertly baked and finished and showed a professional-level command of flavor. A well-earned win.
6 – American Flag. This entry by Squish Schmidt won the judges’ Unicorn Award for most patriotic entry. A gigantic American Flag sheet cake, it was assembled from 10 separate pieces, used seven pounds of shortening, required an SUV for transportation, and needed to be tilted very, very carefully to get it through Dumesnil House’s 154-year-old doorways.
7 – Lemon lavender blueberry cake
8 – chocolate orange cake with orange flavor icing
9 – Triple layer chocolate brownie cake
Are you tired of cake now?
You might think so! In fact, though, going over my notes and photos as I write this, I’m kind of craving a slice.