The three wedges of golden sponge were laid out, innocent-looking but deadly. Martin drew himself together, and marched out onto the stage. His rival Steve finished joking with the MC and gave Martin a mock thumbs-up, but he ignored it. This was his moment – he had to guess right.
Nor was it just guessing, he reminded himself as a hush fell. He had depth. Years of experience as a taster, nights out with the lads and their chunks of Stollen, girlfriends with their profiteroles, his mother’s friends dipping sponge fingers into their coffee, Gran with her lardy-cake…
Concentrate. Martin bent to inhale the scent from the first plate. A moment of panic, then it hit him – egg, vanilla notes, nuttiness, a hint of something…Yes! Lemon zest. “Madeleine!” he said confidently.
The judges nodded, obviously unimpressed. Martin moved quickly to the second plate.
The aroma was already teasing his nostrils, but for form’s sake Martin inhaled. Again, he could recognise egg, vanilla, lemon – and was that a hint of alcohol? Better to be safe. He picked up the wedge, and took a bite.
As the moist sponge warmed in his mouth the pungency of the alcohol was unmistakeable. “Madeira!”
The judges were eyeing him with more respect, Martin thought. He moved to the final plate.
This would be tricky. Smelling it revealed nothing – just a buttery, eggy sort of smell like the others. He tipped the plate, but the sponge slid unremarkably across the porcelain. Well, now for it. He took a bite.
The cake hit all the senses at once – the buttery smell, the changing texture in his mouth as the heavy sponge reduced to mush, the squelching sound, the slightly sweet slightly sour taste – and the remaining piece standing yellow and proud on the plate. Had he missed anything? But he had to go with his gut. “Pound cake,” he said.
A buzzer rang, red lights flashed, a flunkey appeared from nowhere and ushered Martin off the stage. Down in the aisle, he stood dazed as the MC congratulated his rival. Steve cast a disdainful eye at the half-slice remaining. The sign above the stage flashed “Chiffon”.
What?! The final cake had been heavy and butter-rich, not Japanese-light-and-fluffy. It wasn’t possible! What was going on?
As he watched Stephen and the MC joking together over the cake – his cake – Martin suddenly saw it. In his despair, he lost control completely. “It’s a fix!” he yelled.
“You Battenberg!” he screamed at his rival. “You Lemon Drizzle!” (This at the MC.) “You sponge-headed, orange pekoe-flavoured, soft, crumby…”
Two burly men in overalls grabbed Martin and marched him towards the door.
“Can’t you see?” Martin shrieked. “It’s as rigged as a Rum Baba!”
“Tell that to the Great Bakery in the Sky,” the smaller of the two men replied.
“You doughnuts!” he bawled at them as they pushed him out onto the pavement.
“Cake off,” said the bigger man. And shut the door.
published 21 September 2016