Over the weekend: My date with a cupcake. And another. And another...

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Jeff Ball for the Colorado Chocolate Festival
I've been at Dana Cain's Colorado Chocolate Festival every year for the last few, both as a contest judge and as an appreciative chocoholic fool. There, I've tasted everything from chocolate sauces to artisan truffles, but none of it prepared me for this year's challenge: judging chocolate cakes, along with a much more highly qualified trio of fellow prisoners-of-war, during the fest's Friday-night kickoff.

This year, the cash prizes were more than token -- $1,000 a pop in three cake categories - and that meant the stakes were higher for me and my cohorts as judges. And like any four people on earth, we didn't all completely agree on anything, but that's where diversity -- chocolate historian and artisan Mark Scisenti represented the professional view, Boulder and Denver County Fair taster Carl Armon represented a technical palate, Teresa Farney of the Colorado Springs Gazette represented the foodie elite, and I represented the great unwashed -- won out: We had every corner covered.

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It all started here...

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Jeff Ball
But it wasn't easy. You try sampling dozens of different chocolate cakes and cupcakes in the space of two hours. Try cramming all that frosting and buttercream and fondant and sometimes dry cake down your gullet and see if you can still stand it. As my daughter, who was my assistant, later wrote on Facebook: "Chocolate judging -- crazy wonderful but deadly. D:" The expert and professional pastry chef, Scisenti, who also teaches classes and tastes cakes all the time, said the best thing to do is spit it out, just as you would when tasting wine, but I unwisely couldn't bring myself to be so unladylike. We started with the cupcakes and soon hit the harder stuff: first, birthday cakes, followed by wedding cakes: huge, ostentatious monsta ugly slices of cake, fortresses of butter and sugar and flour, liquored and laced with chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate.

My heart, I swear, spasmed. Ooh. Aaah. Ugh. Neither water nor Saltine crackers brought true relief.

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Jeff Ball
Cake or sculpture? You decide.
We then took a stroll out on the festival floor to see the wedding cakes, in particular, in their unsliced glory, as there were appearance and presentation categories to judge. In some cases, it was almost impossible to corroborate the bite we'd already taken with the actual thing, but we somehow managed to tally everything up and proclaim three winners. They earned it; I wish them the best. I especially loved the winning "Mocha Latte" cupcake: a dark chocolate cakelet topped with a cloud of marshmallow and mocha cream and an insouciant coffee bean. And was that center filled with chocolate lava? Or was it just, as suggested by a colleague, merely undercooked? Only one of the judges gave it a poor score, begging off due to a coffee allergy. I have no such thing. And though I left that tasting table dazed and confused, with a slight bellyache, I'm already wondering what I'll be tasting at the Chocolate Festival next year. Wheel me up to a vat of it!

Missed out on all the chocolate this time? Or just can't get enough? Head for the hills on June 25 for the Winter Park Chocolate Festival, or check out the holiday version in November at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs.

For further delicious, delicious reading, check out Jenn Wohletz's reflections on the Colorado Chocolate Festival in our Cafe Society blog!

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