One glimpse of Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss, and my knees grow weak, my head feels suddenly light, the room disappears — I can’t even see my own daughter standing right in front of me taking a photo.
Celebrities do not usually have this effect on me. When I met Henry Winkler I thought he was a board member of the synagogue where he was speaking. That is to say, I did not see stars.
When I interviewed MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Ben Katchor, we had a fascinating conversation about graphic novels and Judaism. I never lost my ability to think straight.
But there was Valastro — master baker at Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken and star of the TLC network reality show Cake Boss — headlining a March 14 fund-raiser for the National Council of Jewish Women’s Essex County Section at the Crestmont Country Club in West Orange — and there was I, totally starstruck.
Valastro was there to speak to the gathering, judge a “Bake with the Cake Boss” contest, and shmooze with fans of all things pastry.
I missed the great photos of the evening, and forgot to turn my tape recorder on. (So keep in mind, any quotes here are inexact approximations drawn from my memory.)
Maybe my agitation was a result not only of my total devotion to the Boss, but also because I had a stake in the event’s outcome. My almost-famous flourless chocolate cake with raspberry chocolate ganache, decorated with fresh raspberries — the one that once took a blue ribbon in Maplewood’s annual Fourth of July Bake-off and the one I make every Passover to family members’ acclaim — was on the dais.
I was one of 10 bakers who entered the bake-off; a panel of five judges, including Valastro, would determine a first- and second-place winner.
Entries included: rugelach and coffee cakes, a coconut pina colada cake, and a lime-and-berry tart. Making mouths water were a chocolate layer cake framed in alternating dark and white chocolate pieces, candy apples that looked like they fell out of a Martha Stewart catalogue, and a very intimidating carrot cake, iced in lemon chiffon and topped with flowers that looked like a bridesmaid’s bouquet.
As it turns out, the fans were lucky Valastro made it to the event at all. He’d had emergency hernia surgery the day before, and though he kept his remarks brief as a concession to his healing, he managed to discuss how he got his start in baking (his father owned the shop and kept a trouble-making Buddy close by so he could keep an eye on him), how long it takes to make each 22-minute episode (90 hours of footage — ouch); and his favorite cakes from the show (one was his sister’s birthday cake).
He then fielded questions from the children present — everything from what is his favorite cake? (vanilla with cream and raspberries) to his sister Mary so annoying on the show because that’s how she is or that’s what the producers want her to be? (A little bit of both.)
At some point, I held the platter bearing my cake and presented it to Valastro. And then he was eating my cake. My cake!
In the end, though my cake did not win, NCJW did, clearing nearly $20,000 to support its programs, including Rainbows, which Valastro’s sister Lisa Gonzalez spoke about movingly as the evening opened. The project provides free peer support groups for children five-12 who have gone through a painful life-altering experience. After divorcing her husband, Gonzalez brought her children to Rainbows at the suggestion of her priest, she said. She sobbed as she described the benefits they received there, “letting everything out in a way they couldn’t do with me.”
It was hard to be disappointed when the bake-off results were eventually announced.
Teenager Lizzie Frieder, even more fainthearted than I, could not even bring herself to describe her own chocolate layer cake. She won second place and took home a Viking mixer.
Patti Aranowitz, who baked and decorated the fluffy confection topped with ultra-feminine flowers, took home first prize — a chef’s jacket signed by the Cake Boss gang, including Buddy.
My 10-year-old daughter, the biggest Cake Boss fan in our house, cheered me on all the way. And she didn’t forget the camera — she even got some shots of me presenting my cake. A natural in the spotlight, her knees never go weak, not even when Buddy, aka the Cake Boss, is around.