Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Yes, Mr. Letterman, We Do Need Another Cake Show

Usually, I'm on board with David Letterman's rants, but when he took on the proliferation of cake shows, we parted company. Check out the monologue here; it turns up about 2:30 into the video.

Thanks to the magic of DVD, a cable-free household like mine can enjoy the wonders of "Cake Boss," which follows the adventures of Buddy Valastro and his band of merry men and women at Hoboken's Carlo's Bakery. Last night, I gorged on five episodes from Season 1, munching on microwave popcorn for lack of an appropriate sweet.

Buddy is a wizard with rolled fondant and gum paste. He's a Rembrandt with a piping tube, deftly applying swirls and curlicues to a canvas of buttercream. Bridezillas bow down before him. And he owes it all, sniff, to his dead father, Buddy Sr.

But once the sugar buzz wore off, a question kept nagging at me, mostly because my husband wouldn't stop harping on the subject. "Noboby ever says how it tastes," Dave noted. (My Dave, not Mr. Letterman.) Much as I hated to admit it, he had a point.

From what I could tell, Buddy makes most of his creations out of pound cake because it's easy to carve into crazy shapes, like a bi-plane, a fire engine or a roulette wheel, not because it's inherently more flavorful than, say, red velvet. What's more, in all of the episodes I watched, I saw a sum total of one cake batter being mixed. (I confess I have an obsession with industrial Hobart mixers. I could watch giant vats of butter and flour churn for hours. Seriously, if somebody posts that on YouTube, I'll never leave my computer.) In fact, Buddy literally separates his baking and decorating operations--baking on the first floor, decorating on the second. And guess where we, the viewers, spend most of our time.

Sure, Buddy's quick to mention that all the frou frou--flowers, bows, gambling chips--is perfectly edible. But seriously, who's going to chow down on a figurine, shaped like a fireman, of solid gum paste. My teeth hurt just thinking about it. Once the grand presentation is over and the carvers get to work, it's the cake itself that matters.

I get that cake in the nude isn't particularly sexy, though if it's so bland, how come cake batter is only the most awesome ice cream flavor ever. It can't compete, looks-wise, with the finished, frosted product. At least not on television, which is all about the visual. But it could, and should, be part of the equation.

Personally, I'm a huge fan of the cookie, but even I have to admit that there's nothing quite like an amazingly good piece of cake. I've had chocolate slices that were so rich I thought I would vomit if I ate another bite--and yet I took that next bite because I couldn't stop. I'm also a sucker for special occasion sheet cakes--somebody invite me to a graduation, please--and not just the cake itself but the crumb layer that stubbornly adheres to the cardboard underneath. When noboby's watching, I scrape up those leavings, which any cake expert will attest is the best part.

For my own wedding, because this is the way I plan all my menus, I started with the cake and worked from there. Ours was a four-tiered affair, a different flavor for each level. One was banana, one was lemon with raspberry filling, and a third was chocolate mousse. (The topper was chocolate cake with raspberry cheesecake filling. Oh yes, we hogged that one to ourselves for our anniversary. Awe. Some.) I had sampled each of these--and more--at a tasting with our baker. You never see Buddy offer this to his customers. It's all about the design. (And I don't mean to pick on Buddy. I'm totally powering through the rest of Season 1 tonight.)

So what we need, Mr. Letterman, is a cake show that's really about cake. There's more to life than pound cake and gum paste--goodness, there's an entire Cake Bible to choose from. My pitch: a combination of the two aspects of cake making--baking and decorating--the way "Law & Order," cha-chung, combines the cops with the courts. Food Network, you listening?


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