High School Gastronomical (Battle Almond Cake)

An enthusiastic high school senior named Jonny G. wrote me recently to say that he was going to make my beloved Almond Cake (well not mine, Amanda Hesser’s) for a class trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Only one of his classmates, Tally, planned to make an almond cake of her own with the claim that hers would be better. I told him to take a picture and to write up the proceedings and that I’d post the results on the site. Here’s some happy high school Monday morning entertainment.

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It all started about two weeks ago in Art History class. While the class discussed the details about our upcoming field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, someone in the class, aware of my limitless and awe inspiring talent in the kitchen, asked if I was planning on making anything for the train ride to New York. Upon hearing the question I flipped through my favorite recipes in my head and finally landed on Almond Cake. I use the same recipe as the one that “will save your soul”, and I can attest to that statement having reunited more than one teacher to a soul that they had lost somewhere over the years teaching kids like me. I told the class, Almond Cake it is. I received some intriguing looks, even some “mmm”‘s. It would be perfect, no?

Suddenly, all was not well. The following series of events caused tension to reach an Art History class all time high! Another peer of mine, let’s call her Tally, mentioned that she too makes an almond cake. How cute! And, that it is “really good”. Well, that’s nice. And, that “it’s probably better than yours.” All went silent. Then laughter ensued. Funny. As I found the comment amusing, her less than happy face gave me enough of a hint to realize she didn’t intend her comment to be taken as a joke. Long story short, I was challenged, to a no holds barred Almond Cake-Off. The rules: best Almond Cake wins.

The weeks until the field trip turned into days. Each Art History class period became a combat zone, a time for me to prove my superior knowledge of cooking, and a time for Tally to attempt to maintain at least some of her resolve:

Me: “So, would you like a tip, Tally? I shouldn’t do this, but I just don’t want to taste something too disappointing.”

Tally: “I hardly need “tips”, but since I haven’t had a good laugh in a while, let’s hear it.”

Me: “I guess some people laugh at brilliance…the tip is just a pinch of fleur de sel.”

Tally: “Fleur de sel? Huh??”

Me: “You’re in way over your head.”

And so “Judgment Day” arrived. I looked at my cake, and was near giddy. The execution was flawless. My class met at the train station, and after hearing Tally’s spiel about how my almond cake would be “amazing, in the same way a Salutatorian did amazingly in High School”, any nervousness I had, turned into anxiousness — anxiousness to embarrass.

The train came, we found our seats, and the unveiling began. Tally had hers pre-cut, a nice cheap touch I suppose, and the color did take on a somewhat attractive golden color. No worries still. First, we tasted each other’s. I took one bite of hers. Chewed.

“I taste a little acidity, subtle finish, weak flavor.”

She ate mine. “Bready, not cakey, overwhelming flavor.”

Oh, how the peons cannot respect a sophisticated flavor. But, nevertheless, there are six other members of my class, and they would be the true judges. Now fast forward to a startling scenario. One more judge is left, and I am in the lead 3-2. Up to this point, the naysayers of my cake seemed to dislike it on circumstantial points. “Too rich for the morning” But since when was time of day a factor in this competition? An opinion is an opinion though, and a vote is a vote. Another of the “Tally voters” I was able to accuse later of clear sexism, he voted for boobs. She has boobs, I don’t. I proposed that I get breast enhancement before I make something again for judging.

Anyway, back to the climax, the final voter, Julia, the same girl who had instigated the whole competition in the first place by innocently asking if I was going to make anything for the trip. She tasted both, deliberated, remained silent. And then she delivered her decision, as if reciting a monologue:

“I tasted both, and they are both exceptional. Tally, I enjoy the lightness of your cake. Jon, I love your flavor. I realize the power of my vote and if I were not required to, I would not vote at all. But, I’m sorry Jon, but the freshness of Tally’s cake, especially because of the strawberry on top, edges yours out just slightly, I vote, Tally.”

……….3-3, I tied because of what will now be known as “the bullshit strawberry”?! A tie is a tie, and I’ll take it, but is that how such an epic duel should end? With a cheap gimmick? I scoffed at Tally’s adorning each piece of cake with a quartered strawberry. I was disappointed in myself, and my classmates.

But now, what to do? Surly I was not happy with a tie, and neither was Tally actually, even though a mere strawberry saved her from culinary shame. We negotiated, and decided that a Round 2 is necessary. I gave her the choice of dish and eventually we agreed on the ultimate in desserts, a dish that only has one purpose, a dish in which there can be no dispute over time, temperature or any other meaningless factor with respect to taste.

Our next showdown will be called: Iron Chef: Chocolate Cake.

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