I gazed out into the audience of the high school gym and saw a cluster of black and pink shirts, towards the front. They seemed to be singing and dancing in the aisle; I couldn't quite tell. The original Pink Ponies of Doom had decided that the only way to support me in the 100th Annual Franklin Hills Bake Off was to make t-shirts featuring my of my favorite My Littel Ponies from childhood. The front of the shirt featured the sweet, friendly faces of the ponies but the back made them into modern day punk baking badasses. Some spiked pony hair, a few tattoos, and I believe Cotton Candy was even sporting a leather jacket and a nose ring. I'm not sure if it was their intention to scare the older women away from the contest or to just be funny. I'll take whatever I can get at this point. My bakery staff and a few other friends were also sporting the shirts and cheering loudly.
I stood behind my table waiting for the third round of judging to begin. It was down to me, Nora Williams, and Fern Allen. The other six contestants had been eliminated in the cookie and cookie bar rounds. Poor Marva hadn't even made it to round two. Nora was a two time bake off winner and Fern held the record for ten wins. I had already proved I was no slouch; I scored perfectly (150 points) in the first two rounds. The Pink Ponies of Doom cookies were a hit; the judges loved the texture and the combo of sweetness and tanginess of the strawberry cream cheese. I was ahead of Fern by ten points; she lost points for sloppy edges in the bar round. Her raspberry lemonade bars were amazing but sloppiness was a rookie mistake.
The third round was the pie round. Pies were judged on three categories: crust (50 points for texture and flakiness); filling (50 points for taste, overall flavor, and consistency), and creativity (50 point for theme, inventiveness, creative ingredient). Judges could dock points for presentation from any of the categories.
My entry was a S'Mores pie with homemade graham cracker crust (I made the graham crackers too), homemade vanilla bean marshmallows, and a Nutella chocolate filling. Indulgent did not even begin to describe this pie. The richness of the marshmallow and Nutella was balanced by the graham crackers (not too sweet). It was the perfect pie. Nora made her award-winning peach pie with a crumble topping and Fern kept to her theme with a key lime pie (she was going for beverages of summer). Both looked delicious and super simple; no fancy lattice work or odd ingredients.
The top two bakers would advance to the final round: original cakes. We would have two hours to assemble our cakes in the school kitchen with the help of one assistant. All bakers had to come prepared to advance through all rounds; I had spent the better part of last night creating sugared oranges and fondant creamsicles for my Orange Creamsicle cake. What as more summery than that?
The judges were finally finished with their pie tasting and were deliberating in hushed tones. The gym was noisy; the high school pep band played and people shouted for their favorite baker. It was hot on the little stage; the lights were fixed on each of us like we were on a televised baking competition. My fan club kept cheering for me and dancing in the aisles to the music of the band. Neither Nora nor Fern talked to me or to each other; they had their game faces on.
The band went silent. The judges had come to a decision. The head of the Bake Off committee, Kathleen, stepped on stage with the results."What a great competition so far! Are y'all having fun?" Kathleen's enthusiasm was infectious. The crowd cheered.
"This is one of the closest bake offs in recent history. Our two final bakers are only separated by two points. Our first finalist, advancing to the final round with 443 total points, Fern Allen!" Fern's family shouted and cheered for her.
Kathleen gave them a few seconds to quiet down. "And our second finalist, moving forward with 445 points and keeping her lead, Maeve Lucas!"
I was shocked. Not only was I advancing I had almost gotten a third perfect score. I'd find out later what I lost points for. Kathleen continued, "Fern holds the record for bake off wins with ten under her belt. This is Maeve's first bake off although most of us enjoy her desserts and pastries every day at The Rolling Pin."
"Our bakers and their assistants will have two hours to assemble their final creation: an original cake. The cake round will be judged on taste and texture for both the cake and the frosting, creativity, and adherence to the baker's selected theme. Bakers, your time begins now!" The crowd roared as Fern and I ran back to the kitchen where our assistants waited.
Jake, my assistant, was at our station and had started removing items from our boxes. Ovens were heating and we set to work preparing the cake batters. My plan was to create layers of vanilla cake with a light homemade orange curd as the filling. The orange vanilla frosting would have that something extra from the orange zest. I had three shades of orange selected for the frosting; my intention was to swirl the colors around the cake similar to the push-pop version of the creamsicle that I loved so much as a child. I'd finish it with sugared orange slices and the hand-rolled fondant creamsicles. Nothing super flashy; just fun and refreshing. Like a creamsicle.
Neither of us could see what was happening over at Fern's station. She didn't look happy with her assistant (her granddaughter) but her cake was coming along nicely. I could smell root beer so I assumed she was making a root beer float cake. It smelled delicious.
Time passed quickly and before I knew it we were down to the last thirty minutes. Jake and and I were applying the finishing touches to the decorative elements of the cake and checking for any errant frosting or anything else that could throw off the presentation. All but one layer cake had baked evenly; a little cut off the top had evened it out nicely. Kathleen popped in to give us our ten minute warning. Our cakes needed to be on stage before the ten minutes were up. I inspected the cake one last time, touched up the flourish on top, and decided it was done. I couldn't do anything else at this point. I glanced across the room at Fern; she had already started on her way out the door. Her granddaughter was far ahead of her holding the door and staying out of the way. Jake and I followed suit. My hands were shaking as I walked on stage. I made it to my table without dropping the cake or falling on my face.
The crowd counted down the last ten seconds with the type of enthusiasm normally associated with basketball games. The Pink Ponies of Doom were the loudest as far as I could tell. The buzzer sounded; it was over. We presented our cakes to the judges, explaining the ingredients, our special touches, and how the cake fit into our theme. Kathleen did the honors of serving the judges, measuring each slice to ensure they received equal amounts. Fern and I headed to our cheering sections while the judges deliberated.
"You've got this," Lizzie greeted me with a hug and a bottle of water. "Fern has been making some variation of that cake for years. The judges have to be tired of it."
I smiled but was unsure. "Well, she's won ten times. She must be doing something right." Daisy had already planned the after party, win or lose. Before we knew it, the judges had made their final decision.
"Bakers to the stage please. It's time to announce this year's winner!" Kathleen's announcement got the crowd on its feet. Fern and I made our way back to the stage. We shook hands before heading to our tables.
"Alright Franklin Hills, I have the name of our top baker in this envelope. The winner will receive a trophy, a recipe feature in next week's Franklin Hills Gazette's weekend section, and a $500 gift certificate for the Baker's Square. Thanks to the Baker's Square supply store for sponsoring this year's bake off."
The applause died down and Kathleen opened the envelope. "This year's Franklin Hills Bake Off champion wowed the judges in each round with inventive ingredients, attention to detail, and a whimsical theme that was carried through each creation. With a near perfect overall score, this year's winner is...Maeve Lucas!"
I had unseated ten time winner Fern Allen. I won. Tree house dreams and plastic ponies helped win baking contests. I collected my prizes and posed for photos with my friends and the mayor and Fern. With a soft smile and wink, she vowed revenge next year.
My cheering section adjourned to The Rolling Pin to celebrate. I placed the trophy out front behind the counter for all to see. Lizzie, Daisy, and I posed for an updated photo enjoying a Pink Ponies of Doom cookies. All that was missing was the tree house.