It’s really stupid to be jealous of a ten-year-old, right? I mean, I know it is, obviously, but I can’t help it. I put everything into my business. I’m a professional. People think fancy cakes are easy, they take a few hours, but it’s not true. TV has totally ruined people’s ideas of what it takes to make a cake that is both beautiful and delicious. Not unlike how TV has distorted how quickly crime scenes can be tested and evaluated, I might add! And I know, because I watch a lot of crime TV when I’m doing mindless tasks like rolling out huge sheets of fondant. But I digress.
All anybody in this town talks about anymore is Daisy Cakes. Never mind the fact that I was baking and supplying premier cakes of all varieties before she was even born. Her teeny little headshot was in the business section of the paper last week! They call it “highlighting young entrepreneurs,” but I call it free advertising, that’s what.
My cakes are prettier than hers. Well, damn, they should be, I went to culinary school, after all. I could be an artist, but there’s more steady income in edible art. But I admit, when it comes to my personal appearance, I look haggard most of the time. Perhaps slapping on some blush would boost sales. Or maybe it’s not even worth it. I’ll never be as fresh-faced, freckled and flirty as Daisy.
Yeah, Daisy’s cuter than I am. And everyone loves a little kid, even if they did learn all their skills from YouTube and they only have ONE cake design they re-use over and over. It makes me want to scream that I, too, can buy expensive “artisan” sprinkles! It’s a Catch-22 though. If I say one word, just ONE WORD about Daisy’s cakes being inferior to my own, well, then I’m a jealous old biddy and I’ll definitely never get business in this town again.
So I have no choice. I have to prove, in an undeniable way, that I’m better than she is. The best way to do that, of course, is to win the Christmas Cake Off at TinselFest. Then, then I’ll be super magnanimous and everyone will see me as a gracious winner and a kind soul. I’ll go over to Daisy’s table and give her a big old “good game” handshake. Maybe even throw an arm around her for a hug and fake a smile for the newspaper’s camera guy. I could use some of that free advertising.
Usually I’d consider the Cake Off beneath my dignity—it’s just a bunch of recently retired women trying to “perfect” their mother’s fruitcake recipe by doubling the booze. It’s not really my scene. But get this—while I was in the store the other day for a gallon of milk, I eavesdropped on two ladies comparing fancy cheese, and one of them was, no kidding, Daisy’s mother. And she says, Daisy’s gonna enter the Christmas Cake Off this year, and she’s got something really special up her sleeve, and it’s gonna blow the judge away and, “this Momma, could not be prouder!” That’s when I had to shove by her, and say a big loud exaggerated “Ex-cuuuuse me, Ma’am!” which probably didn’t actually mean anything to Daisy’s mom, since I doubt she knows me from Mariska Hargitay. Then I grabbed three cartons of eggnog and five dozen eggs.
I hustled my buns over to the seasonal aisle and just started loading up on candy canes, because peppermint seemed like it could be a good flavor profile. On second thought though, in the baking aisle, I wiped out the molasses, because gingerbread could be good too and also, maybe Daisy was going to go that route, you never know. And my head was swirling with ideas and buzzing with competition, so I went ahead and grabbed three bags of pecans and some mace and four big old cans of pumpkin and crystalized ginger and dark chocolate and white chocolate and marshmallows and red and green sprinkles and when I got up to the register the lady said, “That’ll be $165,” so I put it in on my credit card and thought to myself, well, that was an expensive gallon of milk.
I got home and unloaded all the groceries onto the dining table, so now it looks like a Christmas factory exploded in here. Worse than that, the kitchen looks like a fancy cake factory exploded, because I was just in the middle of making a cake for the Diller’s two-year-old baby’s birthday party tomorrow when I ran out of milk and that’s why I went to the store in the first place.
Melody Diller requested a three-tiered yellow cake with peach filling, Swiss meringue icing and gold leaf. I kid you not, for a toddler’s birthday party. But now I have no time for that, so I half-ass some cream cheese icing and stack the two layers I’d already made and call it a day. I’ve only got three weeks to perfect my Christmas cake, so I gotta get to work right away.
I set my timer for ten minutes and start frantically cleaning the kitchen so I can get to work. I’m scrubbing bowls and sorting measuring cups and when the timer goes off I sweep my arm across the counter and push anything left on it into the trash. It’s time to brainstorm.
I am baking every Christmas combination I can come up with. It’s like Master Baker Star or something, I think, I don’t know the real name though because I don’t really watch those shows. I try out a humble round gingerbread with dark chocolate chunks, no icing, just a dusting a powdered sugar. I thought it could bring back fond memories or something, but when I take a bite it is so stodgy it reminds me of the gingerbread cookies the neighbors used to bring over, and trust me when I say that is not the sentimental taste I am going for.
Melody Diller came by for the cake and we got into it. She was annoyed because “this was not what we had agreed on,” so I explained about the Cake Off, which made her scoff and toss her hair, which is not a good look on a teenager and definitely not a good look on her. Then I asked why she wanted a cake anyway, because from what I’ve heard, her baby is never allowed to eat refined flour, cane sugar, or artificial coloring. After that she just opened and closed her mouth like a goldfish and left in a hurry.
I know I need something more impressive than a gingerbread number, so I go the opposite direction and make a towering five layer snow white cake, with cranberry filling and white chocolate ganache. I pile sugared cranberries all around the base and arrange candied orange slices on top and then make a couple of nests from spun sugar to go at the bottom. It looks amazing, but I can’t help but think it’s a little pretentious. It’s reminding me too much of Melody Diller.
So I make a spiced pumpkin cake with a pumpkin mousse filling and stabilized whipped cream for the icing. Then I try out a chocolate cake with a peppermint glaze, but things went awry when I thought I would inject the cake with sweetened condensed milk to make it moister and the whole thing cracked in half.
Finally, I create a masterpiece, and then I make it and decorate it six times just to get the recipe right. Honestly, the whole experiment meant that I was hemorrhaging money and turning down calls for cake orders but I told myself it would all be worth it, because when I won the Cake Off I would have the glory.
TinselFest begins and I carry my masterpiece over to the Cake Off tables. I end up between Cynthia Blunt and Doreen McIntry. I don’t know what kind of cakes they are displaying, but Cynthia’s appears to be frosted with plain Greek yogurt and Doreen’s is baked in a jelly roll pan. They have to scoot their cakes over to make room for mine. As I expected, there is no competition here. I look at my cake and wonder if maybe I overdid it. I feel bad for all the ladies with their crumbly Bundts and bland chocolate rolls, but for some reason they’re all looking condescending at me.
Mayor Darby is the judge every year, which if you ask me, is a big mistake. He looks like the kind of guy who would put food of any caliber at all into his mouth, and that’s a good thing, too, because I’ve tasted his wife’s cooking. I watch him sidle down the line, oohing and aahing and complimenting every lumpy thing he tastes while the ladies simper back. “Oh staah-p,” the women say as they swat his arm. “It’s just an old family recipe. But no, of course, I can’t tell you the secret ingredient!” And then, in a ridiculous stage whisper, “It’s cinnamon!” I hope I don’t have to say that using cinnamon in a Christmas cake is no kind of secret, do I?
Daisy is at the end of the table, and you can hardly see her behind her tall, three-layer cake. It looks like an apple spice cake, with speckled frosting, wiped semi-naked on the sides and swirled rosettes on the top that contain a flood of apple pie filling. It looks pretty good, especially for being made by a kid. But I have to admit, if this were a beauty pageant, she’d win for sure. She’s got this ridiculously curly blonde hair, and it’s tied into two pigtails with candy cane striped ribbon. She has on one of those floofy, sparkly dresses that’s red and black and gold, and her face is cleaner than I’ve ever seen any kids face be in my life. I’m still wearing my whites smeared with frosting and flour, and I probably should have dressed up a bit, too.
“And what have we here?” Mayor Darby slides his big belly along the table and tries to make his voice sound like Santa Claus’.
I clear my throat.
“This, Mayor Darby, is my entry to the Christmas Cake Off. It is a sculpted eggnog flavored Genoese sponge, with a frozen cheese cake ‘lake.’ The ice skaters and skiers are made from stiff gingerbread and the snow is a buttercream icing with just a hint of… bourbon.” I try to lower my voice to speak confidentially, like the lady who told about the cinnamon, but the word comes out sounding like a burp. I clear my throat again. “And for the candy connoisseur, we have homemade cinnamon Evergreen tree suckers. From my Granny’s recipe.” That part wasn’t strictly true. My Granny did make cinnamon suckers, but her recipe wasn’t much good until I essentially re-invented it.
Mayor Darby looked at the women on either side of me, eyebrows raised. “Well, well!” he exclaimed. “I’m sure this will be as much a delight for my taste buds as it is for my eyes!” I cut him a piece, making sure that he gets some of every component. He puts the fork into his mouth, navigating it delicately beneath his bushy mustache, and closes his eyes.
“Mmmm, mmmm,” he says, and his moaning is making me very uncomfortable. “Nutmeg!” he cries suddenly, his eyes popping open again. “And cloves! Delicious! Amazing!” His dark eyebrows do a kind of wiggly dance across his forehead as he calls out the flavors. Then he nods pointedly at my cake as he moves on, and I know. I’ve got it in the bag. This year’s Christmas Cake Off winner is, me.
When he gets to Daisy he makes a big fuss over how she is “cute as a button,” and he looks like he really does enjoy the cake. But he doesn’t moan and groan like he did when he tasted mine. I’m glad for two reasons, you know the first, and the second is because that kind of noise is disgusting and indecent in a public setting.
“Keep at it, young lady,” he says, very patronizing-like. “You’re quite the businesswoman and baker! You’ve got a bright, bright future.”
I shift from foot to foot. I’m so tired from staying up all night long baking, I feel like I could fall asleep right here. Finally, Mayor Darby walks to the podium and says loudly into the microphone, “We have a Cake Off winner!”
There’s a drum roll from an honest-to-goodness snare drum. Mayor Darby is milking the moment, moving his eyes from one end of the table to the other and back again. Then he bellows my name.
Everyone claps politely and I step out from behind the table. This is my moment, and to stretch it out I begin walking up to the podium using big loping strides. But halfway through I feel stupid, so I rush up the rest of the way.
“It. Is. An. Honor.” I say, “to represent our town as the winner. Of this year’s…Cake Off.” When I say “Cake Off” I throw my hands up in the air, but this must not be the way they do it on those baking shows I don’t watch because nobody cheers, they just look at me, confused. I quickly drop them to my sides.
“There were,” pause for effect, “a lot of, great, cakes out there today. You all,” I look at Daisy significantly, “tried your best. But I think what they say is, ‘may the best cake win,’ and, it did.” Well, that was not the magnanimous tone I was going for at all. Now people are starting to look around, like they’re wondering when this acceptance speech is going to end, so I hurry up and finish. “And if you need a cake for your next special occasion, you can hire me: Cakes by Pam!” Melody Diller rolls her eyes.
Then I go back to my cake and serve pieces to everyone who comes by. Good thing it’s a massive cake because everyone wants to taste it, and though they are skimpy with the compliments, if you ask me, I can tell they think it’s good.
There’s still a good chunk of cake left, but the line has dwindled. I’m just about to call it a day and head home when Daisy approaches. She holds up a plate and cocks her head to the side questioningly. I cut a big slice, to show my generosity, and give her a sugary smile. She stays by the table while she takes a bite.
“Wow, Miss Barnhill,” she says, her bright blue eyes open wide. “This cake is amazing! Did you use dark brown sugar in the cheesecake?”
I raise my eyebrows in surprise. First of all, nobody calls me “Miss” anything, just Pam. And second, I actually cannot believe she could taste that. I still kind of want to be fake-nice, but I am 100 percent impressed for real.
She’s got a little bit of frosting on her upper lip. That’s the way I’m used to seeing kids and I think it makes her even cuter. “Yes Daisy, I sure did,” I say confidentially. “And that’s not my only secret ingredient.”
But I’m not sure I want to give away all my secrets yet, so I hedge.
“I have been eyeing your apple spice cake. Do you think maybe I could taste it?”
Daisy puts her hand on her chest, like she’s thinking, ‘Who, me?’ and then she nods, speechless. Me, a professional, and the Cake Off winner, wants to taste her cake. She puts her tiny hand in my big rough one and it’s like a little fire warms my arm all the way up to the shoulder. She leads me over to her table and serves me a big slice of cake.
It is good, and not just for a kid. It is better than any Cake Off entry I’ve ever tasted, save my own.
No cameraman makes an appearance, but you know what? The hug is genuine.