Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cake judging a pretty sweet deal

And we helped raise cash for new research centre

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Imaginary readers are always coming up to me at the supermarket and asking: "Doug, is it extremely difficult being a crusading newspaper columnist with steely blue eyes?"

Yes, I always whisper in reply, it's incredibly hard. Because the truth is, the high-pressure world of modern journalism is never a piece of cake, even when, technically speaking, the job involves eating cake.

I base this on the fact that earlier this week, for the third consecutive year, 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 horrifying Halloween-inspired cake.

While other journalists were busy pursuing the Senate spending scandal, I was bravely trying to eat my weight in carbohydrates covered in a thick layer of gooey icing. Please don't thank me; I'm just doing my job.

The main reason I agreed to join the cake-judging panel this year was to help make our city a better, healthier place in which to live. The battle of the city's baking elite was the highlight of an evening designed to raise funds for a state-of-the art research centre at Seven Oaks Hospital.

Toby Maloney, the hospital's public relations manager, said the new centre, expected to open within the next year, will focus on the identification, prevention and treatment of kidney and other chronic diseases in Manitoba.

"This is the kick-off to a year-long campaign to build the research centre," Maloney said. "It's really important. One in 10 people in Canada have chronic kidney disease and Manitoba has the highest prevalence of people on dialysis in Canada."

Here's a fact we wish wasn't a fact: Manitoba has the highest rate of kidney failure in the country.

Which somehow brings us back to judging cake, which, as I said earlier, we judges did in a sincere and humanitarian effort to make the rest of you healthier.

The first thing we did was ogle the four cakes: a creepy mummy's head; a five-tiered tower inspired by the Brothers Grimm; a zombie that had been stabbed in the heart and whose hands had been lopped off; and a witch perched on top of a pumpkin, which was sitting on two eyeballs, which were on top of a bubbling cauldron, which was on a spell book festooned with severed fingers and spiders.

After staring at the cakes with the laser-like intensity my dogs employ when I'm trying to make a sandwich, the judging panel, surrounded by hundreds of hungry-looking gala guests, sat down to eat slabs of cake the size of golden retrievers.

"I eat cake. I like cake. I watch cake shows on TV with my husband and kids," is what Global Winnipeg's Morning News anchor Eva Kovacs dished up when I demanded to know her cake-judging qualifications.

We agreed judging baked goods was easily among the highlights of our journalism careers. "This is incredibly rewarding," Eva said between mouthfuls. "It tastes good and it looks good. It's the butter-cream of the crop."

In the end, after impressing onlookers with our professional remarks -- "Mmm, yummy!" -- we awarded first place to the mother-daughter baking team of Genevieve and Nikki Melegrito from Sugar Blooms and Cakes for their witch-topped entry, which was later auctioned off for a stunning $2,700.

Fellow judge Darryl Crumb -- a former competitor on Top Chef Canada and the owner of Tot Wheels, a food truck dishing up tater tots with gourmet toppings such as frog legs, foie gras and escargot -- was blown away by their masterpiece. "It tasted like a Starbucks caramel macchiato in cake form," Darryl declared. "There was a lot of attention to detail. Plus you got a severed human finger in your food. You can't beat that!"

Nikki Melegrito, 23, who has only been baking full time since March, said the eerie cake, which took three people to carry into the ballroom, was inspired by a horror movie.

"We make a lot of cute, girly cakes," she said, beaming. "I wanted to do something totally different. I was inspired by the movie Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. I loved how ugly the witch was and I wanted to show that in a cake.

"I'm so surprised to win. I saw the zombie and I thought they'd win. This is the first time I've ever won anything."

As for the judging panel, after stuffing our gullets with several pounds of cake, we then had to sit down and join the other guests for a hefty four-course dinner, including dessert.

And you thought journalism was easy.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 25, 2013 A2

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