Judging a cake competition is not as easy as it sounds. Don't get me wrong: it's one of the best jobs in the world—that and being a judge at Baconfest. But when you know how much work goes into a presentation piece, it's not just a cake walk.
Café des Architectes recently hosted a bûche de Noël—aka yule log—competition at the Sofitel and they invited me to judge. The event was called Holiday Rock & Roll and benefitted Share Our Strength—and I hope it will become an annual event. Fellow judges included CdA's Exec Pastry Chef Patrick Fahy; La Patisserie P Chef/Owner Peter Yuen; Lovely Bakeshop Chef/Owner Bob Hartwig; Time Out Chicago Features Editor Laura Baginski; my friend, Grub Street Chicago Editor Michael Gebert.
But everyone judged, really. Attendees tasted all the cakes and voted as the people's choice winner the bûche you see above, by Spiaggia Pastry Chef Celeste Campise.
The slice I tasted is above left. It looks like milk chocolate, but the cake was actually a caramelized white chocolate, with orange zest, and the cake soaked with Luxardo Amaretto, with a layer of mocha Italian buttercream. It was all rolled in Cara Crakine, crunchy cereal bits coated with caramel milk chocolate by Cacao Barry, one of the sponsors. The "bark" was shards tempered chocolate with gold dust, and pulled sugar "flames" tipped with gold leaf that flickered gently in the air.
"It was literally supposed to be a log on the fire," said Campise.
She's serving a version of it at Spiaggia for the next month or two, but with orange sponge cake, soaked in the Luxardo Amaretto, with homemade almond butter folded into chocolate with ground almonds for the crunch layer, Illy espresso Italian buttercream, coated in roasted white chocolate ganache, and orange curd.
"It's very Italian Christmas-y flavors," she said.
I asked if someone could special order her winning bûche. "I'll have to get back to you on that," she said, "It's pretty labor intensive. Plus you have to store it properly, with that pulled sugar."
How long did it take her to make the cake? "I made it and remade it eight to 10 times," she said, "Ten to 11 hours per day, for three or four days, that's all I did."
Did you know most presentation pieces are not eaten and sometimes inedible?
Hers was. "Oh yeah, it was edible," said Campise, "My mom actually took it to work."
The judges' winner was Greg Mosko of North Pond, above. His was not only the cake, but a whole scene. It was a chocolate jelly roll cake, with three different kinds of mousse: 80% dark chocolate, peppermint, and salted caramel; coated with dark chocolate ganache, then sprayed with chocolate and cocoa butter for a velvet effect. There were even a few dew drops of agar.
And then there was the scene.
"There were chocolate crumbles, meringue mushrooms, white chocolate and cocoa butter spray for a snow effect," said Mosko, "More dark chocolate crumbles for a dirt effect, and toasted coconut tinted green for a moss effect. The rocks on the display were caramelized macadamia nuts dipped in tempered chocolate, dusted in cocoa powder or 10X [superfine powdered sugar]. The little macaron snails were gingerbread macarons with gingerbread buttercream filling, bodies made out of marzipan. There were chocolate marzipan leaves and a couple of little mice made from marzipan, sprayed with dark chocolate for a furry effect."
"There was also a little web of caramelized sugar with a tiny little chocolate marzipan spider," he said, "but it was on the back and really just for the judges to see."
Mosko is serving the gingerbread macarons only just for the rest of this month with his ice cream platter. The flavors? "Roasted Bosc pear, brown butter pecan, and Earl Grey, served with fried sage, pear cider reduction, and cinnamon pudding."
His bûche? "It was a one time thing only," he said, "I'm really just a production team of one. I was making little pieces starting Sunday, and finished Thursday morning, day of the competition."
Fahy hosted and presented a cake, but did not compete. His was a vanilla roulade with salted, caramelized hazelnuts, dark chocolate mousse, finished with brown sugar butterscotch, chocolate branches—all sprayed velvety white with cocoa butter—and pulled sugar ribbons.
He'll be serving slices of an eggnog bûche on Christmas Eve and Day only, with poached cranberries, nutmeg, bittersweet chocolate, and eggnog ice cream
"It will be a much thicker slice," he said, "If I'm sitting down for dessert, I want a good hefty portion."
What was the inspiration for his striking design?
"I don't have a fireplace now but at my mother's in Wisconsin, she does," he said, "The inspiration was a stack of snow-covered logs. I wanted it to look like a little pile of firewood, but with a a clean, nice, modern look."
"She's also got a pine tree and that's where the pine cone thing comes from."
The pine cone thing being his new ice cream flavor on the menu, served with warm cider beignets, apple chips, and cider caramel.
The wildest design was created by Michelle and Vinny Garcia, punk rock chef/owners of Bleeding Heart Bakery.
The exterior was covered with snaky coils of fondant, and the cake, smoked Earl Grey with candied plum and whipped cream filling, finished with ganache.
It's available by special order but at the bakeries they have traditional yule log cakes in chocolate, hazelnut, and peppermint.
Amanda Rockman of The Bristol did a play on words with a Black Forest Cake. You know, yule log, forest, Black Forest Cake.
"I brandied my own cherries from Seedling for two-and-a-half weeks," she said, "and it was a chocolate sponge with vanilla simple syrup, milk chocolate praline feuilletine, brandied cherry gelée, white chocolate mousse, dark chocolate glaze, gold leaf, chocolate plaquettes, and gilded maraschino cherries."
Rockman is not serving it at the restaurant. " But if someone wanted to special order I'm willing to have a conversation," she said, "Who am I to say they can't have it?"
"But they'd have to order it this weekend."
You know how in cake competition shows they always make it seem like someone's going to drop their cake? Yes, it happened, to Elissa Narow of Vie and Perennial Virant.
But first, her bûche: chocolate sponge cake, dark chocolate mousse, Venuzuelan chocolate, the rare Plantation Alto El Sol ganache, milk chocolate sesame crunch layer, chocolate glaze, strands of pulled sugar, and meringue mushrooms sprinkled with sesame seeds.
This was the first time I'd had the Alto El Sol. "I recalled this one chocolate I'd tasted a couple of years ago that I loved so I asked for it," she said, "It had undertones of banana flavor. I wasn't thinking of peppermint or seasonal."
Her bûche is available by special order.
And the tragic moment?
"I made the buche at Vie," she said, "I set it on a tile I purchased. I'd been working on it a couple of days—a couple of long days. I transported everyting down to PV. I was walking through the kitchen and then just crashed down on my knees."
"The whole thing went crashing down."
"It was 10:30 the night before the competition. I knew we weren't going to be serving that, thank goodness, because there were tile fragments in it. I was upset for 10 minutes and then I thought it was pretty funny."
You are a pro Chef Narow, a hardcore pro.
And last but not least, Jove Hubbard of David Burke's Primehouse served a cake with unusual flavors: fennel, lemon, and pine nuts.
"It was an opportunity to do something different," he said, "Usually for competition, flavors have to be super traditional."
"It was pretty cool that Patrick put it out there to be modern and different."
"So I was thinking pine trees. A yule log would probably be a pine tree."
"It was a chocolate dacquoise, a crunchy layer made with pine nuts—feuilletine, streusel, fennel pollen, and praliné—fennel and lemon curd, candied fennel, salted pine nut mousse, and Peruvian chocolate mousse."
He's serving a more classic bûche flavor starting tonight, through Christmas Eve; they're closed Christmas Day.
"They're individual chocolate bûche de Noël," he said, "Coffee crémeux, Bailey's ice cream, with pecan toffee."
His competition cake? "I guess I'd be happy to make it," he said, "I hadn't really thought about it. I don't really sell cakes to go."
"I don't have the boxes."
For a look at the bûches de Noël in Paris this year, my friends at Paris by Mouth are counting down the days until Christmas with a new one every morning here.