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Jewish Journal

‘Ace’ holds all the cards when it comes to cakes

by Naomi Pfefferman

September 14, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Goldman's entry for the "Food Network Challenge: Spooky Cake & Candy Cook-Off," which airs Sunday, Oct. 22 at 10 p.m. Photo courtesy Food Network

Goldman's entry for the "Food Network Challenge: Spooky Cake & Candy Cook-Off," which airs Sunday, Oct. 22 at 10 p.m. Photo courtesy Food Network

You'd think Duff Goldman's ultimate Rosh Hashanah cake would be, say, a 15-layer honey cake topped with mammoth gates of heaven swinging shut.
 
Goldman, after all, is the "extreme baker" of the Food Network's reality series, "The Ace of Cakes." His concoctions include a 3-foot-tall performing Elvis, a rolling black Jeep Wrangler, a hot-rod engine that spews sparks and a seven-tier "Cat in the Hat" wedding cake.
 
His show features insane deadlines, aggressive brides, temper tantrums, bleeped-out expletives -- and a star who is as likely to wield a blowtorch or a band saw as a rolling pin or cake knife. Critics have said "Ace" is to cake what "Monster Garage" is to cars.
 
So you'd expect Goldman's holiday cake to involve Gothic gates or, perhaps, even a Bosch-like depiction of where bad Jews go if they're not inscribed in the book of life (according to some rabbis).
 
But no.
 
Goldman takes his heritage seriously -- especially his Jewish culinary heritage -- so his idea is, well, serious. "I'd do a three-dimensional cake covered with a painting -- an indistinct figure emerging from the darkness into the light," he says in a telephone conversation from his Baltimore apartment. "It would represent how we should embrace the New Year by constantly moving forward."
 
No one has ordered such a cake from Goldman, which is why he hasn't baked it (it could cost thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours, depending on how many moveable parts are necessary). So in reality, he is more likely to make the honey cake recipe handed down from his great-grandmother, Mommo -- as well as her luscious brisket and tsimmis. He still has those recipes, among thousands of others she wrote on index cards in her imperfect English.
 
"Mommo gave those recipes to my grandmother, and they were passed down to my mother and then to me," he says proudly.

The Yiddish-speaking Mommo, who died when Duff was around 4, also apparently passed down her artistic and adventurous streaks. "When my great-grandmother was 14, things got pretty hot for the Jews in her part of the Ukraine, so she fled with her two brothers," he says. "Her brothers ended up in Argentina and became like these Russian-Jewish gauchos."
 
Mommo came to the United States and settled near the frontier. She traveled as far west as her money would take her, settling in Wichita, Kan., early in the last century.
 
Young Duff (ne Jeffrey Adam Goldman), now 31, remembers her as an avid baker, milliner and weaver. "She had this big, scary loom in her tiny little Wichita apartment," he says of her textile work.
 
He keenly watched as Mommo prepared to make apple streudel by kneading a small ball of filo dough with her bare hands, until it covered the entire dining room table.
 
Back home in McLean, Va., Goldman first attempted to "cook" at age 4 by swinging a meat cleaver at some carrots. Several years later, he disdainfully tossed aside the child-safe tool his mother had given him to carve a pumpkin; instead he tried a steak knife and chopped off a finger (the digit was reattached, he reports).
 
No wonder his mother, Jackie, a stained-glass artist, refused to let him near the knives when she was cooking, although, in his words, "I was always hanging around when she was in the kitchen."
 
Young Duff expressed his artsy side by spray painting graffiti on buses, subways and underpasses (he fought back when fellow taggers beat him up). He shaped up after his bar mitzvah, when he began sculpting in metal and snagged his first professional food job -- at McDonald's. "I could make 12 Big Macs in under a minute," he says.
 
Thereafter, he worked in a series of restaurants and decided to specialize in cakes.
 
"I was drawn to pastry chefs because what they were doing was so process-driven and involved so much craft," he says. "Even as a [youngster] I saw there were things to be studied, to figure out: protein content and freezing temperatures and so forth."
 
While attending the University of Maryland, Goldman got a job making corn bread at a famous Baltimore restaurant. He went on to study pastry-making at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, then worked for Food Network celebrity chef Todd English and soon became the executive pastry chef at the Vail Cascade hotel in Colorado. There, he combined his sculpting and baking talents to make his first specialty cakes (power tools, he soon discovered, were just the ticket to create humongous infrastructures).
 
In 2000, Goldman opened his own Charm City Cakes in Baltimore, with what he describes as a "ragtag team of musicians and artists with experience in architectural modeling, graphic design, sculpture and performance art." His creations were so jaw-dropping that he soon received national attention, replicating a piece of rare black Wedgewood china for Hillary Clinton, for example. His flavors included green tea and Thai iced coffee, as well as Goldman's own version of honey cake.

The chef began appearing on Food Network competitions and caught producers' eyes when he arrived at one contest lugging power tools and wearing a goatee, earrings and steel-tipped punk rocker boots (oh yes, he's also a musician). "I didn't read the rules very well, so I pretty much broke every single one," he says. Goldman moved about his table when he should have stood in one place and spilled too much cornstarch on the floor. "But I made a really awesome cake," he recalls. His piece de resistance looked like a giant peach tree, with the "cakes" hanging off the branches via fishing wire.
 
Producers rewarded Goldman with his own show, "Ace of Cakes," which The New York Times called "'Monster Garage' for the culinary set." "Ace" is typical of these kinds of reality series in that it highlights tension between the protagonists. But none of the stress is concocted, Goldman insists. "Running a bake shop is dramatic, because we have real deadlines," he says.

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