Ah, yes, the Food!
One of the highlights of the most recent SETC Convention in Chattanooga, Tennesee, was discovering the rotating cake display at the City Cafe Diner. Getting to Chattanooga the day before the auditions started was filled with various travel woes (delayed flights, missing pilots, and non-existent hotel reservations), so I felt that I was more than qualified and justified to treat myself to something sweet after I had finally gotten myself settled into my hotel room. Besides, I needed something to snack on while I was watching "American Idol" that night.
I had been to Chattanooga once before when the SETC Convention was held there in 2004, but I had not ventured into the City Cafe Diner which is the house restaurant for the Days Inn by the convention center. I had thought about splurging on some room service that first night, but after thinking about it, I realized that I was not in the mood for dinner, just dessert. So, I headed out of my hotel, and across the street. I figured the Diner was bound to have some desserts, but little did I know that they would have quite the selection of cakes spinning around in a case by the front register. Sadly, I did not take a picture of that diabetes-inducing display, but there were at least twelve different cakes available each night, in addition to a selection of pies, tarts, Greek pastries and cookies. I decided to stick to the cakes.
For that first night’s indulgence, I took a chance on their Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Cake.
It was a tall slice of alternating layers of chocolate cake and chocolate-peanut-butter frosting topped off with a miniature Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. It was good, not great. Strangely enough, I thought the cake and frosting were not sweet enough, and both the chocolate and peanut butter flavors were somewhat muted. I only ate half of the slice, if that. The cake itself had a great texture and crumb, but, overall, tasted sort of bland to me. Maybe I should have tried the Butterfinger Cake instead? -Although, the almost-glowing neon-looking orange-brown coating of crushed Butterfinger bars kept me from exploring that option any further.
Well, after my first day of auditions – just under 280 people, I was definitely allowed to treat myself to another sweet indulgence that night. So, I headed back to the City Cafe Diner, and checked out my other options. I had noticed that they had just put something new in the display case. "That’s our Baklava Cheesecake. One slice and you’ll go into a sugar coma!" was the answer I got after I had pointed to the cinder-block slab of a dessert that was sitting in the bottom of the case. Sure! Cut me a slice to go! -And maybe a sugar coma would not be that bad a thing after watching the "American Idol" results show and "Lost" that night?
Once I was back in my hotel, I discovered that the Baklava Cheesecake was more of a layered affair. The core of it was a plain cheesecake that was sandwiched between two thin layers of Carrot Cake, and the top and the bottom were composed of inch-thick layers of baklava (phyllo dough, walnuts, butter and honey-syrup). Sadly, it ended up being too much of the sum of its parts. I questioned the Carrot Cake layers at first, but then realized that they were probable there to shield the crunchy, flaky layers of phyllo dough from the moisture of the cheesecake layer. However, the baklava portion of the dessert had not been protected from the moisture of the display case, and the flakiness of the phyllo dough ended up having a bit of a chew to it. The cheesecake center was decent, but could have probably benefited from a few less minutes in the oven initially. And just like the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Cake from the night before, the whole concoction seemed somewhat on the not-so-sweet side, however, I’m guessing that whatever sugars were in the various components of the dessert may have cancelled each other out. The Baklava Cheesecake was not a total waste of $4.95 (yes, all the cakes were just $4.95 a slice!), but I think it would have worked better if it were assembled á la minute rather than giving all the layers time to meld. I finished maybe a third of it, so, alas, no sugar coma.
Day Two of the auditions came and went, and since I had managed to have quite a nice lunch at the Tallan Cellar restaurant (a good ole "meat & three") that day, I decided all I needed to eat during that "American Idol"-free night was another slice of cake. I decided to pick something basic: Caramel Cake.
No problem with this slice of cake not being sweet enough! Slathered between the layers of amazingly fresh and vanilla-infused layers of Yellow Cake were generous heapings of Caramel Buttercream. Caramel Cake is one of many Southern Classic Desserts, and this rendition was most certainly insuring that Classic status. Yes, my teeth did ache a little bit as I took my first bite, but they were supposed to! The Caramel Buttercream and Yellow Cake layers complemented each other perfectly, and, yes, the dessert was most definitely rich, but it was not at all heavy. I ate half of it. Then ate the other half about a half hour later. I had to pace myself.
The third and final day of auditions came to a close, which also meant that the convention was also ending that night. Of course, I had to celebrate that night with another piece of cake! So, it was back to the City Cafe Diner for my final visit and my final selection of the trip. There was a gentleman in front of me who was inquiring about the various cakes; he, too, was getting a slice to go. The manager was answering all his questions, but then referred him to a young woman who had come out of the kitchen bearing a few just-made creations. She was affectionately called "The Cake Guru". She explained what all the various layers were in the Chocolate Chip Cannoli Cake. She showed him the California Cheesecake with it’s it’s layers of plain Cheesecake and Angel Food Cake, and fresh fruit topping. Then there was the Key Lime Pie she had just made that afternoon. The Devil’s Food Cake, the Red Velvet Cake, the Oreo Cake, the Checkerboard Chocolate Mousse Cake with it’s alternating blocks of White and Dark Chocolate Gooey-ness. After he had walked away with a slice of the Strawberry Mousse Cake, I then turned to the Cake Guru and explained my situation, "It’s my last night in town. I’ve come here every night for the past three nights, and I really want to have a great piece of cake tonight. What should I have?" Without any hesitation, she proclaimed, "The Sampler Cake."
She pointed to a mile-high creation that looked like it was some sort of mutant ice cream sundae: the outside was coated in bands of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry (very Neapolitan) frosting that had been heavily sprinkled with multi-colored jimmies, and there was a mound of whipped topping on each slice segment crowned with a maraschino cherry. She went on to explain that it was made up of five layers… And that’s all I really needed to hear before I said, "Cut me off a slice and box it up to go!" Yes, I did have a wee bit of hesitation about my selection, especially after the disappointment of the Baklava Cheesecake a few night’s earlier, but I figured that the Cake Guru would not steer me in the wrong direction into a culinary dead end.
Once I got back to my hotel room and opened the styrofoam take-out container, I studied what the Cake Guru had more or less selected for me.
As I examined each layer, I began to wonder just how those five layers would all taste together. Chocolate Cake, Carrot Cake, Red Velvet Cake, Yellow Cake, Baklava. Then I realized that between each layer of cake was a corresponding filling: Chocolate Buttercream, Cream Cheese Frosting, Strawberry Filling (surprise!), and Chocolate Mousse.
I began by taking a bite of each layer in isolation. The Chocolate Cake and Buttercream had just the right amount of chocolate flavor. The Carrot Cake was obviously fresh, and the Cream Cheese Icing was sweet but not cloying. The Red Velvet Cake was surprisingly not dense – like some Red Velvet Cakes traditionally are. The Yellow Cake happily reminded me of the Caramel Cake I had enjoyed the night before. Alas, I felt the Baklava was a bit superfluous, but what wouldn’t be after the previous four layers? Thankfully, it was just a small layer of Baklava. However, the Strawberry Filling provided a nice freshness and an almost palate-cleansing acidity to the proceedings, and the Chocolate Mousse was very well made if just a bit done in by the slick mouth-feel of the surrounding globs of shortening-based whipped topping.
After my initial pass, I then began to combine forkfuls of the various layers of cake and frostings. It was all good. Very good. Needless to say, I ended up eating the whole slice, save for a chunk of the whipped topping and some of the multi-colored jimmies. I hesitate to think about how many calories I had consumed that evening – truly one of those cases where ignorance is bliss – but I will say that once I got back to New York City the following evening and had stepped on the scale, there was shockingly no change from my pre-SETC number. I guess it must have been the strawberries!
*In the spirit of full disclosure, I did partake of a BBQ meal at Sticky Fingers Rib House while I was in Chattanooga. I had a decent BBQ chain-restaurant pulled pork sandwich, but if I ever do make it back to Chattanooga (and SETC has already signed a contract for another return visit), I hope I get to try one of the homegrown places that I’ve read about such as Porker’s or Master Blasters. The Caramel Cake served as my post-BBQ dessert that evening since we did not order dessert at the restaurant. Right after I had finished playing the last audition, I walked over to the riverfront area of Chattanooga. I had hoped to check out the Tennessee Aquarium, but it was closing up by the time I got there, however, I did walk around the Hunter Museum of American Art checking out the various sculptures that dotted its grounds. After all of that walking – and before my encounter with the Cake Guru, I stopped into the Pickle Barrel for that day’s "real meal". Someone had tipped me off that the Pickle Barrel had fried pickles, so it was more or less a done deal that I would end up there sometime during my visit. Tucked into the ground floor of Chattanooga’s version of the Flatiron Building, the place is definitely more bar/pub than restaurant, but from what I could tell, they do the food/grub part very well. The "frickles" were excellent, and my bleu-cheeseburger was accompanied by a very generous portion of Tater Tots!