Pastry chef Dana Bellefeuille is the person to impress when it comes to cake at the Washington State Fair.
She’s helped judge cakes and other edibles for eight years, overseeing the Wilton Decorated Cake and Cupcake contest.
As an instructor for the Wilton company, her refined palate and appraising eye chose the state fair winners last week.
She first volunteered to judge when the fair called the Pierce County store where she was teaching looking for someone to help. She since has moved to Idaho, but drives back each year for the competition.
Q: How did you become a cake expert?
A: I am a self-taught pastry chef. I got this bug around 2003. I studied, I had piles of books by my bed. My neighbors were very well fed. I’ve taken some specialty classes. Chefs run in my family.
Q: What did you judge this year?
A: This year I did biscotti, coffee cake, cake and cupcakes.
Q: How many people judge each category?
A: I am solely responsible, and it is a delight to be able to taste their work, and to encourage them to come back and do it again next year, and give them feedback as a professional on what I truly thought of their cake and techniques that might help them improve in the future.
Q: Taste? It’s not just about the decoration?
A: I have to eat all of them. And that really makes or breaks the competition, having taste involved.
You can have an exquisitely perfect cake on the outside, but if it’s a little dry on the inside, someone else could steal your first place ribbon.
It’s big money involved, too. First place gets $100, second place gets $50, third place gets a $25 bonus, as well as their ribbons.
Q: What do you look for when you’re judging?
A: I look at the overall, what they’re presenting to me. I look in detail at their recipe. I look for people who put time and effort and thought into what they present.
Q: Any memorable cakes this year?
A: There was a couple of people apparently who put something in one of the categories every single year: “red neck.” It was so funny.
It was a letter that was typed up with horrible English. Tons of misspelled words. And they presented basically with a couple of Ho Hos. I wrote back some comments that because it wasn’t an official entry it was disqualified. And I made sure to spell that horribly wrong.
But I did make them a ribbon out of duct tape to show my support.
Q: Any horror stories?
A: There have been times when something I taste is absolutely horrible. That happens very rarely.
My heart breaks when someone enters in something, but they leave out information that is required. Like the entry is something that could be a first place cake, but they leave out the recipe.
Q: Do you ever worry about running out of time?
A: There really hasn’t been that much to judge. Eight cupcake entries, five cake entries. You just want to make sure there’s room in your stomach.
Q: Do you go in with a plan for what you do or don’t eat beforehand?
A: I don’t eat breakfast. I don’t have coffee. I go in absolutely empty. I have coffee and water with me while I’m tasting so that I can clear my palate. I can tell in the first bite how things are supposed to be, based on the recipe that they gave me.
Q: When it gets down to the final contenders, does it get hard to choose?
A: Yes, it does. This time there was a gorgeous, very simple biscotti. The look of it was perfect. The taste of it was perfect. But it was too crummy. That one took fourth.
Q: What have been some of your favorite cakes over the years?
A: This year there was a beautiful fish. It was airbrushed. Turns out it’s a young, about 16-, 17-year-old, getting his information off of YouTube, who had never taken a class. I just think that is the coolest thing ever.
A few years ago there was a cake that was in the shape of doughnuts.
Q: Which one took first this year?
A: It was a Seahawks cake. This guy took the time to make Skittles from hand as well as to have real Skittles on the cake.
He did lots of mixed mediums. His penmanship on the cake for writing the numbers on the field was very well done. He did fondant work along the side and cut out the Space Needle.
His cake was very moist and had Oreo filling. He made a figurine of Marshawn Lynch. He did fantastic.