In a truly tragic turn of events, I arrived at SAM’s Great Victorian Radicals Bake-Off four days after I vowed to eat healthier and skip dessert for two weeks. As I watched my sister nosh her way through cakes, pies, and even dessert tacos, I could feel my mouth start to water. She looked at me between bites, raising her eyebrows as if to say “your loss!” I stuck to my guns, but if I go by my sister’s review, I missed out on a gastric fiesta.
The event was billed as a mix between The Great British Bake-Off, a family-friendly baking show, and SAM’s Victorian Radicals art exhibit, a showcase of the revolutionary techniques used by artists in 19th century Europe. Bakers had two months to view the exhibit, pick a piece, and create a breathtaking dessert based on their choice. On the day of, judges did a taste-test, scoring each scrumptious baked good on taste, presentation, and connection to the exhibit. At the Bake-Off, the audience also got the chance to vote for the winner of the “People’s Choice Award,” AKA “Best Looking Sweet.” This baking event seemed like a way of connecting the exhibit, which centers around older art, with young adults and teens who might know the British Bake-Off better than the Industrial Revolution.
To get the behind-the-scenes scoop on each dessert, I covertly followed the judges around while they tested the bakers’ creations. Each pitched their wares, detailing what went into their recipes, and allowing the judges to rate the piece’s Victorian Radicals connection. Baker Victoria Finlon, for example, noted that the Victorians often used arsenic in their food. As almonds contain trace amounts of cyanide, her almond pie base was an homage to that idea.
For taste, the judges’ second element, I had to rely on my sister. She frequented many of the desserts and snagged samples (according to my mom, this was actually in violation of several food-safety regulations), giving most a thumbs-up. One exception was Kelly Senseman’s tacos; my sister wasn’t a fan of the sweet guacamole or caramel sauce. While an inventive spin on the notion of traditional dessert, her tacos, maybe because of her lack of training, didn’t have the flavor palette necessary to wow the judges. Which begets the question: if anyone could sign up for this competition, was it supposed to have more of a homey, I-bake-as-a-hobby Great British Bake-Off vibe? Did the professional bakers end up overpowering the amateurs?
This is best exemplified in how Westin Pastry Chef Edward Villacorta, winner of the “People’s Choice Award,” created a chocolate cake topped with a passion fruit mousse. The cake was complete with a sculpted banana-yellow peacock, its tail hanging over the cake’s edge. This dessert was a simplified version of William DeMorgan’s ornately decorated Peacock Vase, highlighting its most important elements without cluttering the cake with unneeded decoration.
But while this dessert was top-notch, there were others that were decidedly less so, perhaps because of a lack of formal baking training. It’s not fair to have professional pastry chefs up against home cooks. The Great British Bake-Off is all about spotlighting home bakers, and this event lost out on a chance to highlight a group who might not otherwise have the chance to showcase their baked goods.
Additionally, The Great British Bake-Off has a fun, family vibe, one that doesn’t exactly mesh with stodgy old Victorians. But the mashup idea wasn’t quite reflected in the event’s audience, who were all either museum patrons or related to the bakers. The event wasn’t well-publicized to youth either. So if this wasn’t meant to be a family event, the mashup seems like an odd choice.
Just because I don’t understand why this event was held doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy looking at the creations—even if every forkful of cake my sister brought to her mouth made my stomach growl. Note to self: health is overrated. After these two weeks are up, I’m going to grab my sister, get into the kitchen, and whip up a Bake-Off-worthy dessert. And then eat every last bite.