This week I baked a Banana and Chocolate Cheesecake that won the BBC Online Technology Group Platform Engineering Annual Cake Off 2012. This competition may not be up there with the Bocuse d’Or, but competing against ten creative and competitive colleagues can be just as daunting, nerve-wracking and challenging.
Each cake is scored out of five in categories of taste, presentation and well-formedness. Anyone was welcome to join in the marking – the only restriction being that contestants were not allowed to rate their own cakes – and then each contestant’s score was the average score across their three category averages scores.
I came last in the 2011 competition, with presentation costing me significantly, and so I was determined to put on a good show this year. I wanted to bake a cake that looked impressive, tasted great, and hopefully held together, so I decided to take a similar recipe to last year but improve on the areas that had gone wrong.
Firstly I changed the recipe slightly – instead of just using Philadelphia Light I mainly used Mascarpone cheese in order to give it a creamier flavour. The advantage of entering a competition is that you don’t have to worry too much about baking a healthy cake – you can put in a bit more sugar and fat in order to make it taste nicer.
Also I used proper chocolate chips, rather than trying to break up a slab of chocolate, and I used chocolate sauce to give the cake a marbled colour effect inside and top. The marbled effect was really easy to make, as long as you get it right first time, and it received a lot of positive feedback – people had thought I’d spent ages on it.
I refuse to use gelatine and prefer the cheesecake to set naturally, which is really hard to do. I made two practice cheesecakes over the weekend, letting both set at room temperature before cooling them in the fridge, but both cheesecakes collapsed upon serving. I had to resort to baking in order to ensure the cake set properly.
The actual competition cake was really quick to prepare. I managed to squeeze it in between the end of the F1 Singapore Grand Prix and the start of the Manchester City v Arsenal game. It nearly went to plan – I had to prepare extra base due to a misjudgment, and also the filling went a bit lumpy and needed care to blend.
The base set perfectly, the filling was eventually the right texture and tasted great, and the sauce made a good pattern. I wished that I had put more effort into the presentation but once you commit you have to go with what you have got, and so decided to give the cake as long as possible to set before putting into the fridge.
I got up early to transport the cake to an office fridge before Spin class and the journey went fine – going in early meant less risk of an accident on a busy Tube train. At about 11am the cakes started to come out and so, after a few minutes, I unveiled the cheesecake and put it alongside the other entries. What an impressive line-up of cakes.
The competition was really tough – the Lemon Rose cake won hands-down on presentation, and the Guinness and Chocolate cake was definitely the early leader on taste. For some reason people were reluctant to initially try the cheesecake but I didn’t mind as that meant people would try it later and have a stronger recollection of it.
Eventually someone cut into it, with me praying that it held together and didn’t sink like the practice run, and it pretty much held together. The centre was still a bit soft but I’m not surprised that a cake that size without any artificial means of holding it together and prepared in a hurry wasn’t completely set.
Throughout the day a steady stream of positive comments came through, particular around the flavour with several reports of a banoffee type taste, and the cake quickly went to the top of the ratings. There was a late battle with the Lemon Rose cake but the cheesecake just came out on top by 0.03 points.
The key lessons I learned from this experience are put effort into preparation – even a small amount can make a huge different – and make sure that the cake has a good, simple and strong (and yet not overpowering) taste. Try to make the cake as well-formed as possible but people are generally understanding as long as the taste and presentation are good.
Also, practice. Don’t enter the competition with the first attempt. You can experiment during the practice runs and use the tricks that work and leave out the tricks that don’t. The actual competition entry will still be luck but you then at least have some confidence that what is under the surface is actually okay.
And finally, try different things. Add some Hundreds and Thousands on top, add a bit of ginger in the base, try real Italian cheese rather than American cream cheese. These little things can seem daunting but in moderation, and with a little practice, can make a real difference and just swing the jury your way.