Editor’s Notebook: A new slice of life: ‘County Fair Chocolate Cake Confidential’

Layer cake: There is no truth to the rumor that my county fair cake entry was mistaken for a doorstop.

Photo by Kirby Neumann-Rea
Layer cake: There is no truth to the rumor that my county fair cake entry was mistaken for a doorstop.



When it comes to fair entries, I am one-for-one.

Yes, it is true. I won the Men’s Chocolate Cake baking prize this week at Hood River County Fair.

Thank you, thank you.

Yes, it is true: I was the sole contestant. Go see what I made, just inside the Community Building entrance. And then be sure and spend time looking at the other baked goods, and the quilts, photos, preserved foods, and fresh vegetables.

Through the whole cake baking experience (including my anxiety leading up), it was hard not to hear the “Chocolate Cake,” Crowded House song, going through my brain, with its lines:

“Can I buy another cheap Picasso fake/ Andy Warhol must be laughing in his grave/ And the dogs are on the road/ They’re all tempting fate.”

It’s the most caustic song ever written with a pastry in its title, but I love the fact that the fair has this contest. What is more American than the county fair and chocolate cake?

I had never entered anything in any fair, but had heard that, most years, the Men’s Cake contest has few or zero entries. Why not try? Granted, the $10 prize money (thanks, Columbia River Insurance) was quickly eclipsed by the cost of the ingredients, but the experience was worth it.

(Full disclosure: Judges awarded me a red ribbon for second place.)

Yes, I won by default, but not for lack of trying to raise some competition. I talked it up among friends, put out the call twice in The Porch, and thought I had two guys lined up, but by Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. baked goods superintendent Kay Arbuckle and her crew had just the one … dense … chocolate cake.

“He showed up!” Kay said as I walked in the Community Building door on Tuesday, an hour before the deadline.

I had talked to her on Monday to confirm the rules and deadline. Kay was happy to learn the cake was on its way, yet was clearly skeptical I would show up. I guess I surprised myself.

Monday night I baked from about 9-11 p.m., following a realsimple.com recipe I had found for chocolate stout cake. The cake only needs a few ounces of Guinness, so I rewarded myself with the remainder once I completed the cake.

The icing, which also involved stout, was delicious, for I retreated to my childhood by devouring the remainder in the bowl: That moment is worth any cake-baking experience.

I freestyled it a bit, replacing sugar with molasses and a little maple syrup, all of which accounts for the asphalt-black appearance of the cake.

Any other comparisons to road-building material are appropriate here.

I really did not know what I was doing, and have yet to actually TASTE the full cake. I snuck a nibble of the cake only, and it brought to mind, “My presentation suffered but I think my flavors are there,” the unconfident chefs’ common mantra in the cooking competition show “Chopped.” The statement is a whistling-in-the-dark variation for the kitchen.

I will find out when I go pick up the cake Saturday night; Kay kept it covered all week but I have little doubt the asphalt – er, chocolate — cake will be in less than ideal form. But, yes, I will try a slice.

Next year, I will use a different recipe, and start talking it up a bit earlier, in hopes that more guys will enter the competition.

I might even do a few test-batches between now and then and share them with co-workers. No promises, but I definitely need to work at this art of cake-baking. In my case, practice makes mediocre.

Oh, and the prize money? I thought about what to do with it, and decided to give it to folks who really need it, for real food: Hood River FISH.

And you guys who said you’d bake a cake for the fair and did not surprise Kay with your confection concoction — you know who you are — I challenge you to match my $10 donation to the food bank.



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