In a new blog for British Baker, former Blog Off writer Gerhard Jenne, and founder of Konditor & Cook, gives his view on the baking industry.
Having blogged about The Great British Bake Off before, I found myself at Cake International, Birmingham in the shoes of Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood.
I was invited to take part in the judging for the National Cupcake Championships. Of course, I also went along as the owner of Konditor & Cook, a small to medium-sized cake and food business in London, looking to be inspired, but more of that next time.
This week I want to spill the beans on what it is like to have the glamorous task of being a judge for the Cupcake Championships. If you like cake, and I do, it’s a dream job! Although, once you get to cake number 20 it starts to get testing!
Judging cupcakes is a serious business, especially when there are so many of them. From hundreds of entries, about 85 made it into the final four categories: Classic, Made with Alcohol, Themed and Free-from. And all four were there for both professionals and home-bakers.
Each category was allocated two judges. If you’re good at maths, how many judges were there besides me? (answer at the end). I found myself paired with the heavily pregnant ‘Cookie Girl’ Xanthe Milton, of Eat Me cupcake book fame, there to eat our way through the professional Free-from category.
Often, pregnant women have a craving for cake, so I thought this would be easy. The plan was to get her to taste them and I would just take notes. Little did I know that her first pregnancy gave her the craving for sweets and this time it was savoury. Anyway, we ended up sharing the task in this interesting category. Cakes were rated on looks, but needed to be commercially viable and, more importantly, taste good.
With the growth for demand for free-from products rising, it’s a market that should not be underestimated by baking professionals. Most of the cupcakes were gluten-free, some also dairy-free. For a cake to be classified as gluten-free it has to be made in a totally gluten-free environment, but it can be declared ‘wheat-free’ in a mixed bakery, I’m told. It’s worth pointing out that some icing sugars and baking powders also contain traces of wheat, and therefore gluten.
A cupcake should indeed scream ‘eat me’ and be visually enticing. A ‘wow factor’ was what we were after. And we got it - from the intensely sugar-crafted and difficult to eat, to the downright free-from any visual appeal.
Luckily, there were some excellent ones that broke the mould, not just visually but flavour-wise too; Chocolate & Turkish Delight, Bacon & Maple Syrup, Peanut Butter & Jelly and the eventual winner Pecan & Passion Fruit.
Sometimes a little more care over the décor would have nudged a great-tasting one above a rival, a hand-piped spiral following the piping of the frosting instead of a few jerky chocolate lines. Or the most beautiful buttercream piping paired with a rather sickly sponge.
As one of the other 16 judges remarked, when the final shortlisted cakes were grouped together, none of them featured sugarpaste, but all had very distinct flavours. And the winner, a lovely Lemon & Lime Meringue Cupcake, was sheer poetry. The creator ended up with a superb trophy and had his photo taken with baking divinity Mary Berry. It cannot get better than that - the glamour of it all!