Two of Taste Test’s regular trufflers are 60 this summer, so a sampling of birthday cakes from supermarkets, pâtisseries and bakers seemed appropriate. Both sexagenarians are also FT columnists, as it happens: the Pie Snaffler (PS) and the Gluttonous Pig (GP). They were joined by a third FT writer who comes with a ready-made moniker: Mrs Moneypenny (MM), manager of multiple cost centres.
There were 12 cakes to try and the table was groaning with baroque extravagance – grand edifices in butter cream, bold statements in royal icing and megalomaniacal fantasies in chocolate. What were we looking for? Something festive and exciting in appearance, certainly. But we put most value into the actual eating experience: sweet fatty sculptures may appeal to children but we were also after tip-top sponge, enticing flavours and authentic ingredients.
First, the supermarket products: all good value and perfectly acceptable. Sainsbury’s had gilded its Time for Tea Madeira Cake with butter cream and raspberry jam. There was probably too much icing and the toffee-flavoured turrets were not for adults: “jammy dodger” (PS); “for kids” (MM). Tesco’s Triple Chocolate Party Cake was again aimed at children: “oversweet and a little dry” (GP). Marks and Spencer’s Balloon Birthday Cake had a rather dense crumb and reminded us of its current clothes range: “reliable but a bit bog standard” (PS). Finally, the best performing and most imaginative of the four we tried was from Waitrose. Its chocolate Woodlands Friends Spike Hedgehog Cake had a comparatively creditable 15 per cent cocoa solids: “OK flavour” (GP); “cute” (MM). Hedgehogs are now something of an endangered species, of course, and the Pie Snaffler was poignantly reminded of his favourite children’s story, Smith the Lonely Hedgehog.
First prize for the most spectacular icing definitely goes to the Chelsea Cake Company. They presented three “books” with beautiful facsimile artwork of their actual covers – The Great Gatsby, Lolita and The Little Prince (from £55 custom made). The only reason they didn’t feature in the winners was that we found the cake very marginally dry: “You can’t judge a cake merely by its icing”(GP). Harrods sent an American-Style Rainbow Cake the size of a Mulberry harbour with a brilliantly coloured interior – as though the standard Battenberg had been redesigned by Mondrian. Not to be outdone, the Hummingbird Bakery entered the Butterfly No 2 Cake, the pinkest cake ever imagined, even by Liberace. But they fell just outside the top five.
Konditor & Cook supplied a Curly Wurly chocolate cake with wonderfully moist sponge. Paul trumped this with its Le Fraisier, a gossamer-light sponge, generously layered with fillings and strawberries: “fluffy, fresh cream, fresh strawberries – roll on tea time” (MM). Paul came third equal with Gail’s Artisan Bakery. Its soft Carrot Cake with a well-judged hint of cinnamon had clever adult icing employing an element of yoghurt to temper the fattiness of butter cream: “classic with an ingenious twist” (GP). Beyond this baking élan lay two cakes which, on the first tasting, came equal top. There was a taste-off looming.
Patisserie Valerie offered Profiteroles Valerie Style, a cross between a Thai Buddhist temple and an Edwardian skirt, with ruffs of milk and white chocolate, containing a treasure trove of fresh cream and whipped chocolate profiteroles inside. Lumme! “A chocoholic’s orgasm” (PS); “king of puddings” (GP); “wedding or birthday? If latter, where do candles go?” (MM). This sensation tied with Crumbs & Doilies’ Raspberry Ripple Cake, fresh fruit round its top like a rococo palace and the finest sponge, pungent with the flavour of fresh eggs: “looks good, tastes good and by golly…” (PS); “spectacular sponge and rampant raspberries” (MM); “cake nirvana” (GP).
Was it that incomparable sponge? Or was it Mrs Moneypenny’s insistence that a real birthday cake must be able to host candles? On the second sampling C&D just edged it, with Patisserie Valerie a worthy runner up.
1. Crumbs & Doilies Raspberry Ripple Cake – 6in, 8in and 10in are £32, £49 and £70 respectively; www.crumbsanddoilies.co.uk
2. Patisserie Valerie Profiteroles Valerie Style. From £90; www.patisserie-valerie.co.uk
=3. Gail’s Carrot Cake. £40 for 2kg; www.gailsbread.co.uk
=3. Paul Le Fraisier. From £19.95; www.paul-uk.com