Little Jesse, our fictitious 5-year-old tot, was having a birthday party. The occasion called for a special cake. So we called six supermarkets and specialty markets and ordered a quarter-sheet cake composed of chocolate cake with white icing. We asked that the cake be decorated, if possible, with a dinosaur theme and inscribed: "Happy Birthday Jesse."
Was our "boy" (as well as his pals on the Food section tasting team) delighted? Here are the results. (Order cakes 48 hours in advance. A standard quarter-sheet cake serves 14 to 16 guests.)
COSTCO This warehouse monster makes only half-sheet cakes, which can be decorated with any one of 15 designs. They couldn't do a dinosaur theme (we chose "bear & balloons" instead). This wasn't great cake. But at $12.99 it was a tremendous bargain. Tasters thought the fluffy chocolate cake had a slight artificial flavor, and the pure white icing was a tad heavy and sugary. We chose a vanilla-cheesecake filling (chocolate mousse is also available) that may be too sour for kids. Orders may be confirmed only at the store. Our cake came from the Costco at 1200 S. Fern St., Arlington; call 703-413-2324.
FRESH FIELDS WHOLE FOODS Although the top was nicely decorated with five plastic dinosaurs "cavorting" on thick, buttery icing, there was a problem with the cake we ordered from the Georgetown Fresh Fields store. It was heavy, dense and tawny brown inside. "It tastes like rye bread," said one taster. And apparently, that's just what it was. Someone had used the wrong flour. We ordered a second cake, this time from the Arlington store. The icing was an excellent buttercream. We liked the three hand-rolled marzipan dino silhouettes that covered the top of the cake. These were cool-looking, toothy beasts that each kid could peacefully share. Inside was a very "adult" four-layer, dense chocolate cake that was a little dry with alternate layers of good chocolate buttercream. It would easily serve 30. But again, we had gripes. The cake layers were brushed with seedy raspberry jam that most kids dislike. And Jesse's name was misspelled. $24. The second cake came from the Fresh Fields Whole Foods at 2700 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; call 703-527-6596.
GIANT FOOD Kids will be dazzled by the "flaming volcano" made of cake and icing, the plastic dinosaurs and the tiny plastic palm trees atop Giant's dino cake, which is spray-painted in swaths of edible red, green and blue. "Happy Birthday Jesse" was written with a flowing, steady hand. The icing wasn't too sweet. Inside there was a good-tasting devil's-food cake that adults will enjoy as well. $18.99. The cake, which was decorated by head baker Mohamed Awad, came from the Giant at 3480 S. Jefferson St., Falls Church; call 703-845-0446.
SAFEWAY We liked the look of the Safeway cake. The icer created a naturalistic "diorama" effect with two plastic dinos facing off in battle on an "earthy terrain" that was trimmed in yellow frosting. But the chocolate cake was flat-tasting, and the icing brought marshmallow to mind. $19.99. The cake came from the Safeway at 5821 Crossroads Center, Falls Church; call 703-533-3800.
SHOPPERS FOOD WAREHOUSE A very bright and peppy "Barney" cake, iced in shocking purple and yellow, was as close as Shoppers could come to a dinosaur theme. A 3-year-old might love it. We thought the icing was pasty, and the chocolate cake had an unpleasant, synthetic flavor. $14.98. The cake came from Shoppers Club, Potomac Yard Center, 3801 Jefferson Davis Hwy., Alexandria; call 703-333-5393.
SUTTON PLACE GOURMET The tall, weighty "quarter-sheet cake" that we ordered and paid $57.49 for at Sutton was (we learned later) a stacked half-sheet cake. (A quarter-sheet cake should have cost $37.99.) It was, despite the mix-up, a very moist and chocolaty three-layer "Dolly Sin" cake, which was filled with a rich chocolate ganache. The creamy off-white icing was nice. On top were two handcrafted marzipan dinos. A little of this cake would go a long way. In fact, tasters thought it was too rich and gooey for kids. The cake came from the Sutton store at 600 Franklin St., Alexandria; call 703-549-6611. CAPTION: The birthday cake from Giant Food featured a flaming volcano and two dinosaurs on the prowl.