Critic-Turned-Cook Competes in Cake vs. Pie Contest


You know that sinking feeling when a recipe goes wrong? I felt that flutter in my gut when a portion of my cake slumped onto the plate as caramel icing dripped down three layers—it was a sweet sticky mess.

This was after I had spent all day working on my entry for the Cake vs. Pie competition put on by fellow Serious Eats contributor Jessie Oleson at her adorable new Cakespy shop.

What had I been thinking when I signed up to represent cakes? I knew my way around a pie, especially after taking a class earlier this year from Kate McDermott, the pie whisperer. I rarely made cake, especially the super-challenging recipe I chose: Ann Cashion's Caramel Cake.

Yet, somehow, I felt I could pull it off. Maybe my cake confidence had a little something to do the time I spent in the Tom Douglas pastry kitchen. It was my very first job in the professional kitchen and it was so daunting, I barely slept the night before my first 6 a.m. shift.

I arrived at the doorstep that morning a true flour-phobe. Thank goodness the extremely talented crew was welcoming and my pastry mentor, Phil, put me to work piping rosettes onto their famous Coco Pie bites. It wasn't long before I found a rhythm. I so enjoyed the behind-the-scenes view—it gave me a new appreciation for the efforts made to create all those beautiful bites.


So, more than a year later, I took the plunge into the molten hot business of making caramel. I got help from my sister Laurel, who was visiting from Los Angeles. She's my favorite sous chef, but even she was kind of horrified by the prospect of stirring the pot of caramel: "It's like lava!"

We managed to get the mixture to 235°F without a trip to the ER. We finished it off with a 15-minute whirl in the Kitchen Aid standing mixer. It was looking good.


But by the time the cake was finished, it was lopsided. A leaning tower of caramel. I'm not exactly sure what went wrong, but the one thing I knew I had going for me and my sticky creation was that it going to taste great. We tried a sample from a second cake after dinner that evening. The simple yellow cake was the beautiful blank canvas for the stunning caramel icing. What a winning combination, no matter how it looked. While watching Mad Men, and eating that slice of heaven, my hubby came up with a catchphrase for the cake: "It's not pretty, but perfection is on the fork."

I could have pulled out of the contest. I thought about it. But I decided to take my less than pretty cake and give it my best shot.


The competition was fierce; a long table was loaded with gorgeous cakes and pies, and the room was buzzing in sugary anticipation. Before the judging began, a poet read a Pie-Ku.

By the time the ribbons were awarded, I knew my bacon was cooked. Still, I was buoyed by the compliments my caramel cake received. I was not a winner, but I was definitely not a loser.

A pie ended up being the winner at the competition. Where do you stand on the question of cake vs. pie? Do you prefer crumb or crust?