They teach you a lot of important stuff in journalism school.
For example, you learn how to conduct yourself when reporting on explosive courtroom proceedings, how to maintain your professional integrity when interacting with political and business powerbrokers, not to mention the proper time and place to use the much-maligned semicolon.
But -- and brace yourself for a huge journalistic surprise -- they don't teach you anything about how to judge cake-decorating competitions. As hard as this is to believe, when it comes to cake, you are totally on your own.
Which is why I was forced to fall back on my natural instincts last week when the nice folks from the Seven Oaks General Hospital Foundation invited me to attend their swanky One Sweet Affair fundraising gala to help judge a showdown among the city's top pastry chefs to see who could create the most amazing cake.
I know what you are thinking here. You are thinking: "Doug, what qualifies you, an overweight, middle-aged newspaper columnist, to judge a high-level battle between the city's baking elite?"
Well, perhaps you will find it comforting to know I have had a longstanding love affair with cake. Ditto pies, cookies and most of your major dessert-related items, with the possible exception of flan.
I was supremely confident in my ability to handle this difficult assignment, but I was not quite as sure about the rest of the judging panel. So I confronted fellow judge Marcy Markusa from CBC's Information Radio and demanded she reveal her cake credentials.
Marcy confessed she has had a stormy and passionate romance with cake for many years. "In January, I broke up with cake on the air," she confided as we clutched our forks. "We have a tumultuous relationship. In my heart of hearts, cake is the love of my life, next to my husband, although cake is more tasty. If anything, I'm overqualified to judge cake."
The first thing we judges did was stand around and ogle the four cakes -- a giant caramel apple, a five-tiered tower covered in chocolate leaves, a birthday dress surrounded by presents, and a doll holding a box of cookies while perched on a rotating music-box-style base -- and make frowny faces to convey we were taking our jobs seriously.
To impress bystanders, we exchanged professional cake-judging remarks such as: "Look, here's a cake." Or: "OK, here's another cake." Then we had to sit down and force ourselves to consume slices of cake the size of Yorkshire terriers while dishing up even more incisive judging remarks, such as: "Yum!" And: "Could someone bring us a glass of milk because we have a lot of (bad word) cake to eat here?"
In the end, after arguing for several minutes behind a closed curtain, we courageously awarded the blue ribbon to the 50-pound caramel apple cake created by the amazing Pam Kirtpatrick from Cake-ology.
Pam told me her Halloween-inspired cake, which was later auctioned for about $700, took about 16 hours to decorate with scary skulls and creepy spiders. "It's been four years I've been entering this and it's the first year I've won," Pam chirped. "I'm super-excited and a little bit surprised."
When I pressed Pam to reveal the most popular cake in Winnipeg, she hesitated, then spilled the beans: "Red velvet cake with cream cheese icing. We've sold 26,000 red velvet cupcakes this year."
I hate to brag, but that's the kind of vital pastry fact that you, the consumer, have a right to know.
Fortunately for you, I am not afraid of asking the tough questions. It's not easy being a big-shot journalist, even when it's a piece of cake.