Joanne Langley freely admits her passion.
“I’m just a potato fanatic,” said Langley, who lives in Rotterdam. “I like potatoes any way, shape or form.”
Those shapes and forms include french fries, home fries, mashed and baked. Langley also likes potatoes when they’re not potatoes — at least not technically. Sweet potatoes belong to the morning glory family; Joanne believes the tasty vegetables belong in cake batter.
Langley’s “Sweet Potato Layer Cake” with orange cream cheese frosting was voted the most popular cake at last month’s “Autumn Cake Party” at Schenectady County Community College. Ten candidates, all from recipes submitted by Daily Gazette readers, were judged.
Langley’s mix of tan-skinned sweet taters, brown sugar, cranberries, walnuts and spices scored 407 points at the Nov. 13 taste test at the college, 19 more points than the second-place finisher, Joan Fairman of Rotterdam and her “Praline-Pumpkin Torte.”
Langley finds peeling appealing, and can find a place for potatoes in many lunch and dinner dishes. But she knows sweet potatoes and frosting are an unusual combination.
“It’s not an ingredient you normally find in a cake,” she said. “There’s sweet potato pie, but you don’t see sweet potato cake, and I think that’s what drew me to it because it was sweet potatoes and I like them so much. Brown sugar and butter and sweet potatoes are great at the holiday and this recipe incorporated all that.”
The recipe, along with instructions for four other top cakes, appears on Page D3.
In addition to the potato and pumpkin cakes, the other three winners (in order of preference) are:
-- “Cape Cod Autumn Cake,” a fall collection of cranberries, apples, walnuts and raisins from Priscilla Marx of Niskayuna.
-- “White Russian Cake,” a dish that incorporates tablespoons of coffee liqueur and vodka for an adult taste reminiscent of the popular bar drink from Nancy Caparulo of Galway.
-- Celebration Sponge Cake, a light sponge cake with a hint of orange and filled with custard cream and strawberries from Joanne Coppola of Niskayuna.
Each of the five women have received a $50 gift certificate for Price Chopper supermarkets.
Recipes for the other five finalists tasted at the party appear in today’s “Food Forum” blog at www.dailygazette.com.
The ballot boxes were stuffed with potato votes. Langley’s recipe received 59 first-place votes from 199 voters. Fairman’s praline-pumpkin dish was second with 45 first-place finishes. The next three finishers received 16, 21 and 17 first-place votes, respectively.
The cake caper raised funds for the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. It represented a bonanza for batter buffs and a challenge for faculty and students in SCCC’s nationally accredited American Culinary Federation culinary arts program. The project also received a big assist from Price Chopper Supermarkets, which donated groceries.
Here’s the rest of the story behind the cake party, the fourth food festival conducted by The Gazette, the SCCC culinary staff and Price Chopper. The public taste tests began in 2005 with the “Autumn Chili Festival” and continued in 2006 and 2007 with the “Autumn Soup Festival” and “Pasta or Pizza Competition,” respectively.
In early October, The Daily Gazette asked readers to submit their favorite cake recipes. A total of 253 recipes arrived at the newspaper’s Maxon Road headquarters. A team of Gazette editors and writers chose 10 favorites, and opted for autumn flavors such as pumpkin, cranberry and apple instead of more traditional favorites like chocolate and pound cake.
The recipes were then given to Sue Hatalsky, an associate professor in SCCC’s Department of Hotel, Culinary Arts and Tourism, who converted the list of ingredients in each recipe to allow production of large batches. The shopping trip included about 67 pounds of flour, 47 dozen eggs, 90 pounds of brown sugar, 30 pounds of canned pumpkin and 33 pounds of butter.
The professors and student chefs worked over mixers and made 113 cakes, plus dozens of small “Elvis” cupcakes, for the Nov. 13 event.
There was a market for the “just desserts” gathering. Tickets, at $9 each, were sold at The Gazette, Price Chopper supermarkets in Schenectady County and at the SCCC bookstore. A total of 209 attended the big bake in the Van Curler Room, SCCC’s grand ballroom. Tasters were asked to choose their three top dishes from the 10 cakes offered. Ballots were received from 199 people.
A graded point system was used to choose the top 10 dishes. Each first-place vote was good for five points, Second and third place registered three points and one point, respectively. Money raised from ticket sales totaled $1,953; number fans will realize that comes out to 217 tickets, but cake party organizers know that not everyone who bought a ticket attended. Another $79 was raised the next day, when leftover cakes were sold by slice and whole sheet to Daily Gazette employees. Most of the extra cakes were donated to the City Mission of Schenectady.
More cash came from a silent auction that featured goods donated from several local businesses. That put another $350 into the food bank’s bank account for an “Autumn Cake Party” total of $2,382.
Toby Strianese, professor and chairman of the college’s Department of Hotel, Culinary Arts and Tourism, was glad to open his classroom labs for a good cause.
“It gives us great pleasure that we can partner with the Daily Gazette and Price Chopper in order to create and participate in this delicious cake contest,” he said.
“I appreciate the time and effort that all of our students and faculty put in to make these contests a success. Associate Professor and Certified Executive Chef Susan Hatalsky is to be commended for the tremendous effort she puts in.”
Hatalsky utilized both baking and mathematical skills to let people eat cake.
“It is an overwhelming job to convert the home recipes to the correct amount of ingredients to have enough product to make the cakes to serve the guests,” Strianese added. “We are pleased that we can participate and play a small part in providing income for the Regional Food Bank.”
Price Chopper supermarkets are also happy to pitch in.
“Price Chopper is delighted to sponsor this unique annual event as it brings to life original recipes from talented members of our community, as prepared by diligent young chefs-in-training at SCCC for the benefit of the Northeast Regional Food Bank,” said Mona Golub, vice president of public relations and consumer services for the supermarket chain.
Glad for support
Mark Quandt, the food bank’s executive director, was another happy person. He was glad for both an enthusiastic, cake-loving crowd and support for his organization. The food bank serves 23 counties from Plattsburgh to Newburgh, collecting large donations of food from the food industry and distributing the fruits, vegetables and meats to charitable agencies serving the hungry and disadvantaged.
“I think it benefits the food bank in a couple of ways,” Quandt said of the cake party, and its predecessors. “It raises funds for us, which we use every year to help get more food into the food bank and out to hungry people in our community — and that’s real important this year because the need is so great.
“It also helps to make more and more people aware of the work we do. . . . That The Gazette, SCCC and Price Chopper support our work means a lot to us, and it means a lot to the public to know that. We look forward to it every year; we think it’s a great event and we’re proud to be part of it.”
Batter had plenty of backers at the cake party. Fans of frosting and flavor explained their devotion to the perennial after-dinner favorite.
“I love cake,” said Sylvie Briber, 61, of Schenectady. “I came into the world loving cake.”
So did Al Kee, 85, of Scotia. “I like something that’s tender, something that’s moist, something that’s flavorful,” he said.
Marie Rossi, 54, of Ballston Spa explained why people love forking over combinations of sugar, flour and butter.
“Most people can’t bake,” she said. “A lot of people don’t bake their own cakes. So they go and get someone to bake them a cake.”
The finished squares, rounds and Bundts take time and work.
“Baking is a science, and cooking is an art,” Rossi said. “You have to measure everything exactly in baking, whereas cooking you can experiment more, throw in a little of this, a little of that. That’s more conducive to my personality.”
Karen Jane Caisse of Scotia and Erin Talbot of Loudonville liked the personality in the “White Russian” cake submitted by Nancy Caparulo.
“It tastes like a White Russian,” said Caisse, of the smooth bar favorite. “It tastes very realistic, and the frosting is very creamy.”
“Creamy and light,” added Talbot.
Brian Talbot joined his wife and aunt on the sampling detail, and offered a slice of philosophy.
“Cakes always represent positive times, anniversaries, weddings, birthdays,” he said. “People enjoy them because it brings them good times.”
Lauren Godfrey, 15, of Niskayuna, prefers cake over pie and cookies. “You can be more creative with cakes,” she said. “With pies, you’re limited to the filling. When you have cake, you can have the filling and the icing, and you can just be very creative with them.”
Not everyone was tasting at the party. Jessica Hill, 23, a first-year culinary arts student, was on the serving detail. She represented the “Cape Cod Autumn Cake.”
“Everything I’ve heard has been great,” she said. “A few people said there’s too much frosting, but I’ve heard good reviews.”
Hill’s duty came with perks. Handing out pieces of cake generally generates smiles.
“But it’s not as much fun as eating,” she said.