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Cake : Cake Is for Kids

November 10, 1994|KAREN STABINER

Cake is a kid dessert. Grown-ups may eat a genoise soaked in liqueur-spiked syrup, or a multilayered torte, the cake sandwiched between more sophisticated layers of nuts or fruit. But real cake--classic birthday cake, two symmetrical layers sealed by an internal half inch of edible adhesive goo and slathered, side and top, with frosting--is an early-years kind of treat.

To really enjoy it, you have to be willing to fight for that corner slice, the one with an extra plane of frosting. You have to be able to climb over your pals to point to the frosting rose you absolutely have to have. You have to be ready to stroll past the cake and cop a glob of frosting even if other people are watching. It's difficult to pull that off once you get past 10.

We feed our children cake even as we ban other, more mundane sweets--soda pop, candy, endless cookies. Cake is ritual. I doubt many kids would believe they'd gotten a year older if they didn't have the cake to prove it. Maybe we eat that one adult cake--the wedding cake--because it summons up memories of childhood, when marking the passage of time was a pure, sweet pleasure and mortality was something that happened only to bad guys in fairy tales.

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But by the time we're adults, our taste buds have changed. It's difficult to judge a good birthday cake. The best critics are those who are immersed in cake heit , children who can hardly go a month without a slice. So I structured a blind-tasting for a panel of experts: My 5-year-old daughter Sarah and her chums since her toddler days--Ellie, Julia, Natasha and Kelsey. Natasha's 2 1/2-year-old sister, Charlotte, provided the newcomer's enthusiasm; Kelsey's 9-year-old sister, Katy, the sophisticated palate. Combined, the kids brought to the table 31 1/2 years of intensive experience on the birthday circuit, and quite definite preferences.

Sarah refuses chocolate the way some kids reject spinach. Julia has never met a piece of chocolate she didn't like, which might be what cements their considerable friendship. Ellie likes all kinds of cake. Kelsey prefers chocolate but will eat vanilla, and Katy likes lemon. Natasha's favorite is double strawberry; her sister Charlotte's is vanilla inside and out.

Clearly, there was enough of a range of prejudice to guarantee a fair trial. In the name of culinary science, though, the parents present gallantly offered to taste as well.

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There were no bakery cakes, the theory being that any pastry with Belle, Princess Jasmine, Ariel or even Simba on it has an unfair advantage. The girls, who got one wedge of plain, unfrosted cake after another, tried, as much as any cake lover can, to distinguish between generalized bliss and individual cake-related happiness. The candidates were:

* The basic genoise from Julia Child's "How To Cook."

* The 1-2-3-4 cake from Alice Waters' "Fanny at Chez Panisse."

* The all-occasion downy-yellow butter cake from Rose Levy Beranbaum's "The Cake Bible."

* The perfect all-American chocolate butter cake from "The Cake Bible."

* The low-fat chocolate buttermilk cake from Susan Purdy's "Have Your Cake and Eat It Too."

* Applesauce cake from Marion Cunningham's "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook."

* Duncan Hines' Moist Deluxe Lemon Supreme Flavor cake mix.

Julia Child never stood a chance with this panel, though I noticed that the girls' parents hovered near the first plate throughout the afternoon. Child's cake is a flat, dense almond cake with a chewy texture, not at all like the traditional birthday cake--and as such, not a winner. The comments ranged from "yuk" to "tastes like a muffin," which is nice if you're serving breakfast but perhaps not the response you want at a party. Three of the girls liked it but didn't love it. Mostly they wanted to know what was coming next.

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In retrospect, I wonder whether they might have held back because they thought that finding a winner might spell the end of this delicious game.

The next candidate was more familiar: the chocolate cake from "The Cake Bible." Aside from Sarah, who boycotted this and the next offering, the crowd approved. Julia loved the cake because it was "soft." Kelsey liked it because it reminded her of a family trip to Hershey, Pa. Ellie liked it because, she said, "it tastes like chocolate and chocolate and chocolate."

Charlotte held out for vanilla until peer pressure got to her and she tried a single bite, but she still didn't like it. No matter; her sister Natasha had nothing to say because she was wolfing her first piece so she could ask for another.

Of course, a true critic can distinguish between seemingly identical dishes, and these experts had a different reaction to Susan Purdy's low-fat chocolate cake. Purdy's cake is denser and moister, but several of the girls preferred the more austere Beranbaum offering. Julia didn't even finish her sample. "I don't like the inside," she said, "only the outside, because the inside tasted like frosting."

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