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Reporter takes a turn as cupcake contest judge

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Posted: Friday, February 15, 2013 12:00 am

I have never been the type of girl to say no to a cupcake — or any dessert, for that matter. But how many cupcakes can one girl eat? Especially if she's single and it's Valentine's Day?

I tested that number on Thursday when I was asked to judge a cupcake contest at the Lodi Unified School District main office. Spoiler: One girl can eat lots of cupcakes.

A group at the office called Together Everyone Achieves More runs a scholarship fund for high school students. The annual foodie contest, whether it's salsa, soup, chili or cupcakes, draws in the whole office for a fundraiser luncheon each February. Each contest entry (sometimes five entries) is made by someone who works in the office.

I was joined by Pat Patrick, president and CEO of the Lodi Chamber of Commerce, and Ralph Womack, president of the Lodi Unified board of trustees. As the only judge without a presidential title, I decided it was my job to bring a sense of glee to the event.

There were mountains of cupcakes waiting for us. We were asked for our own opinions, which I rarely get to use in my work. And the bakers weren't present for the blind tasting, meaning I didn't have to be polite and pretend I love carrot cake. (I'm sorry, carrot cake baker. You did a really good job. But I don't put vegetables in my desserts.)

Nada Hinojosa of the personnel department and Joan Scherr of business services were our guides. They handed us our judging clipboards and told us to have at it.

The judging was very subjective, as is any decision based on personal tastes. There were several great entries that trapped my gaze and had me staring in childlike wonder. Others were literally falling apart on the plate.

For the best-decorated category, we looked for an original idea and how well it was executed.

Bakers really showed their creativity. One entry was decorated to look like ducks splashing around and diving into a pond. Another had rainbows arcing over the frosting, held down by fluffy clouds. A third baker used layers of cake to create a rounded apple, complete with a candy leaf.

One very pretty tower of cupcakes caught my eye. Fluffy pink ribbons of frosting supported a small book with a valentine heart on it, surrounded by nonpareils and sprinkles. It was a library on sparkly clouds.

Only one entry truly held the wow factor. Instead of a mound of cream cheese frosting, these little cakes were topped with an entree from an Italian restaurant. The baker piped frosting to look like spaghetti noodles, then added a spot of jam for sauce and a truffle coated in nuts for the meatball. Really.

Tasting each creation turned out to be the tough part. Hinojosa cut one cupcake from each entry into four pieces. On the first tasting, a banana cupcake with sliced almonds on creamy frosting, I took two bites and devoured my piece. Three cupcakes down the road, I was already slowing down. I just took a taste of the frosting and one nibble of cake when I tried an ocean-themed creation with blue waves.

By the second table, it was a struggle. I took a small bite of the ducks cupcake, which held pineapple in the middle. Then there was a string of lemon-flavored cakes, which I now can't get out of my head. I think a lemon scent might be following me.

Not everything tasted good. I don't want to point out recipes and embarrass anyone, but I will offer some advice: If your cupcake is crumbling in your hand when you pick it up, or is so moist it drips onto a napkin, your recipe is not ready for prime time. Take it back to the test kitchen, you industrious home cooks.

Near the end, I thought I had made my decision. My absolute favorite was No. 4: a light orange cake with a popsicle stick stuck in the top, and it looked just like an orange-flavored creamsicle. The flavor reminded me of the orange juice milkshakes my dad made for me as a kid. Maybe it's my nostalgia showing, but that flavor stuck with me through the rest of the tasting.

One judge does not decide a cupcake contest, however.

Another standout was an unassuming cupcake I almost passed over. On the outside, it looked like a simple but rich chocolate treat. Inside the cake, however, was a bit of peppermint frosting. It was a refreshing change in a sea of chocolate and vanilla.

We finally set down the final cupcake and took a seat, the sugar high already going to our heads.

The decision

For best-decorated, we unanimously chose the spaghetti cupcake, baked by Rhonda Baumgartner, who turned in five entries. She put dinner on dessert, and pulled it off beautifully.

For the best taste, we selected the chocolate cupcake with peppermint inside. It was the one entry to get high scores from all three judges, though individually it was never a No. 1 favorite. This was one of two entries baked by Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer.

The final award of judges' choice went to the rainbow cupcakes. The theme was consistent from top to bottom. The vanilla cake was striped in rainbows, and a small gummy rainbow topped each one.

The honors went to Bobbi Danderson for that one.

Walking in, I thought this would be among the best assignments I've ever had. But after tasting 24 cupcakes and eating the equivalent of about eight whole ones, I've got a bit of a stomach ache. I think it's a salad day for lunch, don't you?

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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