Ladies: Do you fake it? I’m talking about baking. We’ve all been tempted. When you’re having a dinner party and you get a compliment on those wonderful rolls or cookies, do you quickly confess and then apologize? Or do you hide the package they came in, smile and say, “Thanks!” while praying they’ll never ask for the recipe?
Well, if you do fake, there’s no season like the present to practice that little Cheshire cat grin. This time of year we’re all so busy that it would be really grand to leave the baking to someone else.
I was contemplating the whole “fake it” strategy one day while idly Internet shopping, and a wicked web began to weave. What if we ordered loads of treats online, tasted them, looked them over to see which appeared the most “homemade,” and selected the best as suggestions for you to pass off to family and friends as the real deal?
I ordered enough sweets to give the Sugar Plum Fairy diabetes, and our expert panel gathered at my house to taste until our teeth hurt.
With spouses in tow — they were on hand to influence the judges on whether menfolk thought the dishes seemed homemade — we waded through sweets in four categories. Here are our results, steering you to the best homemade goodies you never baked. We hope it’s a holiday gift that brings you more time for celebration and just a bit of smug satisfaction in being naughty and nice.
Note: 25 is highest possible score, with points awarded for appearance, aroma, taste, texture and homeyness.
Downey’s Irish Whiskey Cake, www.coffeecakes.com ($23.95). Overall score: 16.
This cake had such a nice appearance it lost points for homeyness. “Small but pretty” and “too perfectly symmetrical,” wrote the judges. No strong whiskey flavor jumps out at you, but it is moist and pleasant. “It would be nice with tea. I have visions of my maiden aunt serving it in her overstuffed living room.” One judge suggests, “Surround it with fake holly, and it will look like Martha made it.”
Apricot Pecan Cake, www.collinstreet.com ($29.95). Overall score: 18.3.
A fruitcakelike dessert teeming with apricots and pecans. Judges agreed that the foil ring should be removed before serving to make it look homemade. One judge loved all the nuts on top but another thought they were too perfectly arranged.
Monica’s Cookies, www.jhufford.com ($17.97). Overall score: 8.6.
Tiny cookies covered with powdered sugar were very dry and did not pass the homeyness test because they were perfectly symmetri- cal. “Elk droppings,” wrote one judge. “Way too sweet. It made my molars shiver,” wrote another.
Neiman Marcus Chocolate Chip Cookies, www.neimanmarcus.com ($20). Overall score: 6.
Too bad these cookies didn’t get points for packaging. The container was beautiful in shades of holiday burgundy, with a recipe for the famous cookies of urban legend on the outside. Inside it was a big disappointment — all but one cookie was crushed to crumbs. And the crumbs themselves were dry and cardboard-y. Nothing but “bits,” said one judge, adding that they were really sweet and might make a good sundae topping. “If you like crumbs this is your goodie, but not very holiday-esque,” said another.
Dancing Deer Cookies, www.dancingdeer.com ($39.95). Overall score: 17.
Dancing Deer impressed judges with the variety of flavors: lavender shortbread, chocolate tangerine and others. The runaway flavor favorite was the molasses cookie, but overall the texture was tough to love: “dog biscuits,” “hard tack,” said one judge. But they could be very homey if “tied up with some plaid Christmas ribbon,” said another.
Peppermint Cheesecake, Harry and David retail outlet ($11.96). Overall score: 7.6.
After being defrosted, this gooey cake lost points for appearance. One judge enjoyed the brisk peppermint flavor, but others called it “Pepto Bismol” and “Pepsodent.”
Red Velvet Cake, www.hickoryfarms.com ($32.95). Overall score: 19.6.
Shipped in dry ice, this big beauty arrived pretty much intact — amazing, as it is coated with a thick layer of cream-cheese icing and topped with bright red cake crumbs. Judges were wowed by its appearance of suburban domesticity: “belongs in a church bake sale,” “looks like a Southern belle with a frilly hat made it. Lovely.” “Knockout, moist and delicious.” If there was a best in show — a consistently high scorer in all categories — this was it. And it definitely could fool family and friends. “Put it on a red glass-footed cake plate with a pink and red bow. Cake heaven!”
Chocolate Cherry Pound Cake, Harry and David retail outlet ($5.95). Overall score: 12.
With a slipshod appearance with cherry oozing from the center, it did look homemade, but two judges pronounced it “not good enough for company.” One said it was “salty,” another said it looked like it came out of an “Easy-Bake oven.” Could it fool family and friends? Yes. Would it be memorable? No.
Fairytale Brownies, www.brownies.com ($36). Overall score: 18.3.
Average scores for appearance, but it earned points for taste: “chocolaty,” and “moist, dense, with a good sugary crunch in the toffee brownies.” Solid scores for homeyness. Put them on a plate next to a glass of milk, and family and friends will dig in.
Petits Fours, www.hickoryfarms.com ($17.99). Overall score: 5.
These tiny squares look factory-made; they’re too perfect to fool anyone as homemade. Judges didn’t care for them. “Chocolate greaseball,” “Phony,” “Sweet!!” and “Too horrible to comment.”