Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Yes, while desperately dodging the SOTU, I wound up (sigh) watching "Cupcake Wars"


The winning cupcakes from last night's auto-show-themed Cupcake Wars, by Kim Thurman (of Valencia, CA, online cupcake delivery company Bake You Happy), left to right: pumpkin spice with brown-butter butter cream, chocolate with ganache-and-marshmallow frosting, and caramel apple with vanilla-bean cream-cheese frosting (with fondant license plate).

by Ken

Rub it in if you wish. "Okay, people," I wrote last night in the video-clip caption with my post "Counterprogramming the SOTU" (to which Howie, in an orgy of irony, appended the prepared text of the speech!),
how desperate are you to dodge the SOTU? What if I told you that at 9pm ET, Food Network is offering an episode of the appalling Cupcake Wars which has to do with the L.A. Auto Show? Just think, cupcakes for the Auto Show!
As I mentioned, I still had two Breaking Bad repeat episodes stored on the DVR, but for that I would have had to go into the other room, an initiative to which I was apparently unequal. And so, instead, I wound up watching . . . well, you know.

For a show I dislike as much as I claim to dislike Cupcake Wars, I sure watch it a lot. I attribute this to the odd genius or clairvoyance by which the Food Network programmers seem to dump the show into so many time slots when I'm near desperation for something to watch.

Maybe I should explain why I dislike Cupcake Wars so much. It just seems silly to me to have so many people making such a fuss over, you know, cupcakes. Don't get me wrong, I love cupcakes. Goodness knows, I've eaten my share, or probably more than my share, though probably the overwhelming majority of them have been of the TastyKake (seen in the photo -- yum!) or Drake's or Hostess variety. I can certainly see how the product can be elevated, even ennobled, with the application of superior skills in baking and frosting and of course superior ingredients. What I don't see is why anyone would bother. In the end, it's still only a cupcake. (Ace of Cakes's Duff Goldman famously hates cupcakes. But then, he was dragooned into being the "event" and a guest judge for a Season 1 episode of Cupcake Wars.)

Of course much of the imagined payoff of cupcakes-as-gourmet-treats comes from the "presentation," which bumps us up against my problem with the whole modern-day world of culinary "presentation." Sure, you want food to look good, and there's truth to the cliché that we eat with our eyes before we taste. But a little of that goes a long way, and most of what passes for "presentation" has nothing to do with qualities of food or eating -- it's food as an entertainment medium, and I don't buy that. The showbiz razmataz of Cupcake Wars, including bratty host Justin Willman, clearly isn't my thing.

At the same time, there does seem to be something about the show that sort of draws me back, or at least renders me willing to have the thing on in the same room with me. And sure enough, I was fascinated by one of the contestants on last night's episode.

Not the winner, Kim, who did a nice job among what wasn't exactly the strongest group of contenders. No, it was Evelyn Dieppa, working with her sister and partner Lorena Castro, of 2 Girls & a Cupcake Wholesale Cupcake Company in Hialeah Gardens, FL, who was eliminated in the second round.

I you've never seen the show, there are three rounds. In the first, four contestants, each working with a partner, produce a cupcake that usually has to incorporate an assigned theme (last night's, as I mentioned, was the L.A. Auto Show) and/or ingredients. One contestant is eliminated and in the second round the three remaining contestants have to produce three cupcakes on the show's theme, which will serve as prototypes for the 1000-cupcake the two surviving contestants will produce as part of their display in the final round.

I didn't pay much attention to the first round, and the judges weren't thrilled either. There wasn't much question about who was to be eliminated, though. One contestant, Kory, had produced a vanilla cupcake in which the judges couldn't taste any of the gas-station-themed ingredients that had been specified for the challenge. And oh yes, he had only managed to frost one of the three judges' cupcakes.

In the second round, where the remaining contestants have to produce three different cupcakes, Evelyn made an initial decision that astonished me: to use the same batter for all three, reasoning correctly that this would save her and Lorena lots of time in batter preparation which could be applied to decoration. She insisted, as she would again when she walked off the set after being eliminated, that the fact that the frostings were different -- and hers unquestionably were -- made the cupcakes different, and I suppose she's right, technically speaking. Practically too, if she had been, say, making cupcakes for her niece's birthday, and the birthday girl had requested three different cupcakes.

No, I take that back. Even the niece would have noticed that she was getting, not three different cupcakes, but the same cupcake decorated three different ways.

The thing is, this wasn't a home baking project. It was a high-stakes TV competition. And again, the challenge in this round was to produce three different cupcakes. Granted, in this round 50 percent of the judging is based on presentation. Still, it's a competition, for goodness' sake, where you're showing off the quality and range of your cupcake-making skills, not just for the judges -- including the formidable Florian Bellanger, the Simon Cowell of cupcakes (only even more withering with his French accent), onetime U.S. executive chef for Fauchon -- but for the national TV audience.

Since the Cupcake Wars contestants all have going businesses, the promotional bonus of the TV showcase counts for more than any prize they could win. And while clearly the largest bump goes to the winner, all the contestants get TV exposure, and the quality of that exposure is in proportion to how well they do, which is influenced by their choices as well as their skills and execution under pressure. What kind of message are you sending to prospective customers by dodging one of the basic features of the challenge? If you lived in the Hialeah Gardens area and were in the market for cupcakes, would this be your cupcake-maker of choice?

Hadn't Evelyn ever watched the show??? (If not, how foolish is that?) They're in Season 2 now, but all of Season 1 had surely aired by by the time the new season went into production. Had she ever seen a baker use the same batter for all three round-two cupcakes?

As it happens, as best I could tell, Florian didn't much like Evelyn's cupcakes to begin with (with his accent, to get what he's saying you sometimes have to listen more carefully than I was doing last night). Of course she had inadvertently stacked the deck against herself by using the same batter for all three -- if the cake itself didn't impress the judges, it was then going to not-impress them three times over, with no other opportunity to win them back. But regular judge judge Candace Nelson, founder and pastry chef of Sprinkles Cupcakes, "the world's first cupcake bakery," did express surprise that the three cupcakes seemed to use basically the same batter, though on her Food Network blog all she says about Evelyn's round-two offerings is: "Evelyn went cheeky with fuzzy dice and whitewalls, though [guest judge] Brendan [Flynn, the Auto Show communications director] thought they were too kitschy for true car enthusiasts."

I expressed fascination recently, in writing about a number of the new breed of TV cooking "competition" shows, that many contestants seem to think wanting to win is by itself a qualification for winning, perhaps even that the person who "wants to win" most should automatically be the winner. Of course, wanting to win is important, provided that it stimulates the contestant to channel all of his/her skills and energies into doing what's needed to win. You'd think it would be obvious to anyone entering one of these competitions, no matter how cheesy, that what matters is the result you produce.

In which connection I observed another frequent characteristic of these competitors: a stunning lack of self-knowledge. It's amazing how clueless many of them are in evaluating their own work, and

This is certainly understandable in the case of amateurs, as in Food Network's Ultimate Recipe Showdown, though you would expect even an amateur good enough to warrant being chosen to appear to have some basic culinary standards and critical faculties. And when it comes to ostensible cooking professionals (forget that they're trying to pass themselves off as "chefs," since the designation no longer seems to have any meaning; all you have to do these days to be a chef is to call yourself one), the dreadful self-critical faculty is hard to believe.

I understand that with cameras rolling a cook doesn't want to be saying, "Man, is this crap I made," though sometimes some of them do, and sometimes some of them at least express doubt or apprehension. But the number of them who resolutely defend dishes that clearly are crap, or have really fundamental major defects, is, well, unbelievable. (The extreme case is Fox's Hell's Kitchen, where the grand prize, after all, is becoming head chef at a well-financed restaurant, and the contestants are all ostensible kitchen professionals. Understood, most of the contestants are chosen for their "character" rather than culinary attributes, but jeez, it's amazing how many kitchen stumblebums the producer cast each season. Given the number of people nowadays who want to be "chefs," and presumably have at least some qualifications for the job, you have to wonder.)

As I noted in my earlier piece, judging certainly involves subjective elements. But we're not talking about those, not talking about fine nuances. We're talking about pretty straightforward basic evaluation. And again, even as Evelyn was making her Cupcake Wars exit march, she still thought she deserved to move on to the next round, and she was still insisting that her cupcakes were really different.

No, Evelyn, they weren't. They were half-different. Choosing to make one batter for three cupcakes instead of three is the very definition of somebody who isn't up to the challenge. The only way she could have advanced from the second to the third round is if one of the two other contestants had screwed up worse, and that would hardly be grounds for defending your own products.

Of last night's final-round cupcake displays -- Kim's at left, Glenn's at right -- judge Candace writes on her blog:

"Glenn’s vintage filling station certainly told a beautiful story, but we find it too quaint for the gearheads at the Auto Show. Kim’s display was a striking mix of lights and chrome, which tied in perfectly to the look of her cupcakes and the theme of the day. She managed to make cupcakes look cool and sleek…quite a feat! Kim [seen in the photo here] drives off with the win!"


Food Network is casting now for Season 3.

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At 8:51 PM, Anonymous Evelyn said...

Thanks for the mention in your post :) Glad you liked the show!
Whenever you're in Miami pass by, I promise we have a variety of different cakes to choose from.

Have a Cuptastic Day!

Evelyn "Batter Girl"

At 11:22 PM, Anonymous DeanOR said...

Desperate to avoid the SOTU, I fell asleep reading a spy novel, which was more realistic than the SOTU kabuki.

At 11:47 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Hey, Dean, I hear you!

And hi, Evelyn! Thanks for visiting.

I checked out the 2 Girls and a Cupcake website and learned that you offer all sorts of cupcake flavors besides the vanilla ones you made on Cupcake Wars -- including chocolate, carrot, red velvet, marble, cookies and cream, strawberry, guava, vanilla colada, vanilla peanut butter chocolate chip, vanilla coconut and tropical coconut, cinnamon, and several dozen cocktail-inspired flavors. I'll bet viewers as well as the judges would have enjoyed seeing some of those others.


At 4:29 PM, Anonymous Bil said...

Hmmmm, now I thought that the spectacle of WHO the dates were each elected rep had, as well as WHAT members of our Activist Supreme Court might show up seemed like EXCITING enuf reality theater...

The Food channel, public tv and old weird movies are always my fall back but I have requested that my partner euthanize me asap if she catches me EVER watching the Cupcake Wars OR saying "okeedoke".

At 5:15 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Bil, I did note Al Kamen's report that six of the justices showed up for the SOTU -- all, that is, all but Nino and Clarence in addition to Sammy (I don't recall the others' alibis, or if they even produced any, like maybe a "Please excuse -----" note from Mom), meaning that it wasn't after all just what the Washington Post kiddingly referred to as the four "liberal" justices who showed up. That about exhausted my interest in the subject, though.

As for watching Cupcake Wars, yes, I think you're on to something -- that does sort of correlate with saying "okeedoke." All I can say is, again, that Food Network seems somehow to have found time slots for it that correspond to my lowest levels of willpower. I suppose I could claim that my interest is scientific: an effort to puzzle out whether that host, whose name I can never remember without looking it up (Justin Something, isn't it?) is a real boy.



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