A few weeks ago I received a call from my friend Andy Chapman, of the Eat Y’all organization. They were hosting a pastry chef competition and wanted to know if I would like to be a part of the event.
My knee-jerk reaction was to say no. I am often asked to judge food competitions and it is typically a no-win proposal for me. I have judged a lot of chili cook-offs over the years, and it has been my experience that typically only one of the 15 or more entrants actually tastes like chili. As far as the judging goes, it’s usually fairly easy to pick a winner. The problem is that you have to chew your way through a lot of bad interpretations of chili, to be fair. And in chili cook-offs, there’s always one joker who adds way, way, way too much hot pepper, just to watch the judges sweat.
Early in my career I was asked to judge a lot of food competitions. Wyatt Waters and I once judged a food competition with over 30 entrants at the old Jackson Mall medical complex. It wound up being the equivalent of eating six or seven full meals in one night. I have eaten professionally for over 30 years. I once ate a 32-course meal at The French Laundry. That Medical Mall event surpassed everything I had ever experienced. I was miserable.
Years ago I was asked to judge a cooking competition in Meridian, Miss. The food being cooked at this event was home-style cooking. I was the only judge (never a good idea), and it took place years before televised cooking competitions that are so popular today. At that event, I was on a stage by myself tasting food from the various entrants. The problem is that the ladies who cooked the dishes were three feet away from me watching me take every bite, and craning to see if they could spy on my notes.
Note to event organizers: Never put the judge in front of the competitors.
The ladies were staring me down with every bite. When it came to the “casserole” section of the competition, there were four entrants vying for first, second, and third place. As usual, the first place submission was head and shoulders above the others. There wasn’t a lot of difference between numbers two and three, but the fourth dish was pretty bad, and there was no fourth place ribbon on the awards table. I ate in front of the ladies and tried not to make a sour-looking expression when I took a bite of number four.
After the awards ceremony, in one of the most uncomfortable moments of my short-lived food-judging career, the lady who had prepared the fourth dish in the casserole category approached me looking confused and disappointed. “What was wrong with my casserole?” she asked.
I tried to be polite, and in an attempt to let her down easily, I said, “Well it was just that the other three were exceptionally good.”
“What could I do better next time?” she asked.
“Maybe find a different recipe,” I said
“But I used one out of YOUR cookbook!”
Ouch! I stammered for a minute and then said, “Well there’s your problem.”
Back to the pastry chef competition— I learned that Chapman wasn’t calling asking me to judge the event (all of the general public attendees were casting ballots). He asked me to emcee the event, and also offered to help raise money for Extra Table to feed healthy food to some of Mississippi’s over 670,000 food-insecure citizens. I was happy to emcee because I am very comfortable doing that, but also because the tasting wouldn’t be structured at a judging table, and I would be able to sample the wares.
I don’t think Chapman realized what would happen if he turned me loose in a room filled with talented pastry chefs.
I sampled many of the desserts and sweets and was impressed with them all. Though I was most impressed with an item that is almost never going to win a pastry chef competition— petit fours. Small, individual bite-sized cakes typically aren’t sexy enough to wow the judges in an event like that. Though had I been judging, it would have been a different story.
I stopped by the Campbell’s Bakery table and checked out Chef Mitchell Moore’s petit fours. I wasn’t sure if they were going to go over well against the elaborately presented items brought by chefs from Atlanta, Birmingham, Mobile and other towns throughout the south. Hmm, “It’s just cake,” I whispered to my co-emcee. Then I took a bite.
A moment of silence, please, while I remember the almond-iced petit four from Campbell’s Bakery. Breaking all such protocol at these events, I ate a second one. It was as good as the first. This is not your everyday, average, run-of-the-mill petit four, I thought. This is light and moist.
The word “moist” is on my list of least popular words. Though as a characteristic in cake, it is at the top of my list. I hate dry cake. I’d rather just skip eating cake if it’s going to be dry. The problem is, one almost never finds a flavorful, moist cake. Well, look no further than Campbell’s Bakery in the Fondren neighborhood of Jackson, Miss.
I considered eating a third petit four, and wondered what they might think if I did. After a minute, I abandoned worrying about what anyone would think, waited until the crew manning the table looked the other way, and grabbed two more (numbers three and four).
By the end of the event, the crowd had eaten all they were going to eat. The evening was winding down, and there were still a few petit fours on the Campbell’s Bakery table. I set up camp in that section of the room and hunkered down at the Campbell’s table. I left that evening after eating at least eight of the moistest, almond-iced petit fours I have ever tasted.
When you hear someone use the term, “They were to die for,” Campbell’s Bakery petit fours is what they are talking about. After a full, three-course meal in heaven, there is no doubt that the angels are kicked back on a cloud eating Chef Mitchell Moore’s petit fours for dessert. Fortunately angels don’t have to worry about how it looks going back for seconds, thirds, or even eighths.
Robert’s Italian Cream Cake
1 cup butter, softened
2 cups sugar
5 large eggs, separated
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
2/3 cup pecans, finely chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 can flaked coconut (3 ½ ounces)
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
3 tablespoons Grand Marnier
1 recipe cream cheese frosting
Grease and flour three 9-inch round cake pans. Line pans with wax paper; grease paper and set aside.
Beat butter at medium speed of an electric mixer until creamy; gradually add sugar, beating well. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating after each addition. Combine flour and baking soda. Add buttermilk and flour alternately, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Stir in pecans, vanilla and coconut.
Beat egg whites at high speed in a large bowl until foamy. Add cream of tartar; beat until stiff peaks form. Gently fold beaten egg whites into batter. Pour batter into prepared pans.
Bake at 350 degrees for 25 or 30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool in pans 10 minutes, remove from pans; peel off wax paper and let cool completely on wire racks. Brush each cake layer with 1 tablespoon Grand Marnier. Let stand 10 minutes. Spread cream cheese frosting between layers and on sides and top of cake.
Cream Cheese Frosting
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1 (3-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
¾ cup butter, softened
1 ½ cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 ½ cups pecans, chopped
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Beat first three ingredients at medium speed of electric mixer until smooth.
Gradually add powdered sugar, beating until light and fluffy; stir in pecans and vanilla.