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Monday, 14 February 2011

A Serious Cake Habit

Or: Concerning Cakes And Dictionaries

Excerpts from e-mail correspondence regarding my organising of a ‘cake night’ in 2010 – one evening where everyone gets together, brings a cake (either of their own baking or bought from a shop, in the interests of being able to compare homemade with processed), and then decides upon a winner:

Date: 13 May 2010 12:45
From: Martin
To: Paul

I’ll finish with a question: Would a cheesecake be allowed?

Date: 13 May 2010 13:39
From: Paul
To: Martin

I’ve just looked up cheesecake on Wikipedia, which describes it as a dessert. I find that no real help in answering your question, because my initial thought was to say yes, but my colleague who sits opposite says that it’s a pudding, not a cake. So I’ll ignore that issue for the minute and tell you that I like the bit of the article that says:

“The band King Missile has a song called 'Cheesecake Truck'. The song lasts for just over one minute, but the word 'cheesecake' is mentioned fourteen times. The song is humorous mainly due to the incredible number of cheesecakes (an entire truckload) that the protagonist claims to eat during the first day of his job driving a cheesecake truck.”

I want to hear that song! I also think a cheesecake probably belongs at a pudding night rather than a cake night, possibly mainly because when I imagined cake night in my mind, I saw a table laden with items all heavily sponge based and cheesecake doesn’t necessarily fit that vision. If you want to argue to me otherwise then I’ll gladly listen!

Date: 13 May 2010 15:15
From: Martin
To: Paul

I'm not going argue about the cheesecake. I might bring one anyway just to open up the floor to some debate. I've never - baked? - one before and I'm intrigued as to how it be done! It does suggest that some clarification may be needed as to what criteria a cake needs to fit, although I guess a pavlova would be considered a dessert and a waffle a pudding...

I'm particularly disappointed that the OED in this case seems of little help:

Cake (noun)
1. An item of soft sweet food made from baking a mixture of flour, fat, eggs, and sugar.
2. A flat, round item of savoury food that is baked or fried.
3. The amount of money available for sharing: a fair slice of the education cake.

I say particularly disappointed as it seems that tired metaphorical clichés have somehow become accepted word definitions with awful examples for usage.

Date: 21 May 2010 14:00
From: Martin
To: Paul

Having formed an idea of the OED state of mind concerning cake, I thought I'd check out the definition of cheesecake to see if the word "cake" is used. Unfortunately, it isn't. Definition (2), however, was something I couldn't help but need to pass on instantly.

Cheesecake (noun)
1. A rich sweet tart made with cream and soft cheese on a biscuit base.
2. Informal images portraying women according to a stereotyped ideal of sexual attractiveness.

Mmm … cheesecake … 

Date: 25 May 2010 08:21
From: Paul
To: Martin

It all leads me to think that saying, “I’m going to make cheesecake” could be an excellent euphemism for something. I’m just not sure what...

You might not thank me for this, but if a cheesecake is a ”rich, sweet tart”, then what is the OED’s definition of a tart? (And no, I’m not asking this to try and get more slang terms for certain types of women!). Because what I would call a tart, and what I would call a cheesecake, are two different things entirely.

Date: 25 May 2010 12:30
From: Martin
To: Paul

Tart, believe it or not, requires entries tart(1), tart(2) and tart(3) to fully define. Unlike cake, which is happy with its wildly different definitions confined to one entry. The mind boggles.

Tart (1) (noun)
An open pastry case containing a sweet or savoury filling.

… and thus, as you say, not what you'd call a cheesecake. Funny how cheesecake seems so woolly to define, when essentially it's a biscuit topped with soft cheese.

Date: 25 May 2010 13:04
From: Paul
To: Martin

Open pastry case? There’s blatantly no pastry involved in a cheesecake. Surely it would be better to revise ‘cheesecake’ to simply say, “a rich, sweet dessert …”?

<End of e-mail excerpts>

Nine of us assembled for the cake night, though as organiser I refrained from voting (albeit didn’t refrain from sampling the baked items on offer, natch). As noted on the original ‘Repository of Fruitless Work’, the in-no-way-exhaustive and not-scientifically-proven results of cake night were as follows (out of a possible 80):

In reverse order:

11. Malt Loaf (shop-bought) - 52
10. Swiss Roll (shop-bought) - 53.5
09. Courgette and Pistachio cake - 57.5
08. Jamaica Ginger Cake (shop-bought) - 59
07. Garbanzo cake - 60
06. Chocolate Mayonnaise cake - 61.5
05. Guinness cake - 62
04. Golden Syrup cake (shop-bought) - 63
03. Carrot cake - 64.5
02. Chocolate and Marshmallow cheesecake - 65.5
01. Banana and Cherry Loaf – 66

As is obvious from the results, Martin did indeed bring a cheesecake, and a pudding therefore secured a somewhat controversial runner-up position. Had he scored himself 10/10, like most others did with their own contributions, and not 8/10, then it would have won.

Whilst being, ostensibly, a success, cake night did demonstrate that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Indeed, the cheesecake’s position in the tasting order – last – was arguably the prime reason for its success, because after ten different pieces of cake everybody greeted the prospect of something non-sponge based with great relish. And there had been some heavy cakes in there, however small a piece you tried to sample. Garbanzo cake, made with chickpeas; courgette and pistachio cake, with its texture and taste not unlike stuffing. By the end of the evening, it was not so much a ‘cake night’ as a ‘cake trial’.

One that was good fun though!

Important lessons continued to be learned a week or so later. Anything involving banana appeared to improve given a while to mature, while chocolate mayonnaise cake (perhaps unsurprisingly) did not unduly suffer for being left a few days. Unfortunately, the courgette cake rapidly developed fur less than a week after baking.

Now, some nine months later and well into 2011, it seems appropriate to recount the tale of that evening in honour of a recent (but now well-established) tradition of attending our local pub quiz every week, and us taking it in turns to bring along baked goods to share with the other members of the team. There is no competitive element involved; just a lot of fun, plenty of tolerance from the landlord at the pub, and, in some cases, new skills being learnt. The roll of honour so far comprises:

- Chocolate rice crispie surprise
- Best-ever chocolate brownies
- Mince pies
- Snickerdoodles
- White chocolate and cranberry fudge
- More brownies
- Chocolate orange fudge cake
- Alternative rocky road
- Chocolate crunch gateaux
- Victoria sponge
- Crème Egg chocolate tarts

Perhaps most oddly, ever since this baking habit was realised, we have failed to win a single quiz. There was one week over the Christmas period where nobody made anything, and we duly emerged victorious. It probably says much about our priorities in life that we have ignored this unusual correlation and duly continued baking things (most of which, it won’t have escaped your attention, contain a serious quantity of chocolate. No wonder I can’t sleep on a Sunday night…). Clearly, cakes and baking are hard habits to break.


  1. What puts the "surprise" in "chocolate rice crispie surprise"?

  2. The surprise, if I remember correctly, was the use of honeycomb (i.e. crushed up Crunchies). Possibly as well, a lack of peanuts when the recipe originally called for them (but who wants peanuts in cake?).

    The list has been updated with an item that I forgot; your next question is therefore going to be "What is 'alternative' about 'alternative rocky road'?"

  3. Well indeed. Though I couldn't tell you what was in standard rocky road - chocolate and chunky bits?

    Putting nuts in a crispie cake would make it a "chocolate rice crispie unpleasant surprise".