At midday the gladiators enter the arena: a sterile, fluorescent-lighted room with two long rows of bare metal tables beneath roaring ventilation chambers. Silver hoses stretching from massive sinks throw serpentine shadows on the dull tile floor. Industrial convection ovens await their spoils with bated, fiery breath. Along the walls, tall cages hold an arsenal of weapons -- knives, sequoia-size rolling pins, razor-edged bundt pans, steel-tipped icing bags.

The competitors arrive with their own quivers, as well -- Trader Joe's bags slung over their shoulders, eggbeaters under their arms. Each claims his or her territory, and with stiff nods over stainless steel counters, the battle begins. Flour flies, sugar spills, knuckles knead.

But this isn't "Iron Chef." We've invited half a dozen area cooks to the teaching kitchen at Stratford University in Tysons Corner for a congenial (we hope) competition to create an elegant but simple holiday dessert.

To shake things up, only three of the chefs are professionals, and one of those is known more for sushi rolls than sweet rolls. The fourth cook is an amateur, and the fifth and sixth need parental permission to be around all these knives.

We've also included a 12-year-old on the panel of judges. Because no one is more honest, or more difficult to impress, than a kid. And no one's opinion counts more at holiday time.

KAZ OKOCHI, 44, KEEPS TO HIMSELF, concentrating hard. When first asked to participate, he joked, "I'm not sure I'll be good enough."

But in the days leading up to the competition, he seemed legitimately concerned. The eponymous owner and head chef of Kaz Sushi Bistro in the District, whose resume includes skills such as ice sculpting and preparing poisonous blowfish, had a lot of questions. Did the dessert have to be baked? Did it have to include certain ingredients? Should it reflect any particular holiday? Stomach-straining American holiday treats are not exactly the staple of Japanese cuisine -- his desserts are more delicate fare, such as sorbet and green tea ice cream.

Now he is puzzling over an odd collection of ingredients, some slightly exotic (fresh mango and Asian sweet rice flour); others more ordinary (apples and Safeway cranberry juice concentrate).

"The original idea came from a very simple old Japanese dessert, but I added a lot more color, flavor and texture," he says. "I wanted to make something light, since American holiday meals are heavier."

Red and green are the standout colors for his recipe, both for Christmas and because he likes the contrast. And he is including mochi balls (made from rice flour). "Mochi are eaten for New Year's in Japan, so I wanted to add some of our tradition into the dish."

Asked the dessert's name, he pauses, and with a slight smile responds, "I'll think about it."

MEANWHILE, ABI CRUCE, 32, OF GERMANTOWN is a whirl of energy: beating eggs, greasing pans and dicing walnuts with a medieval-looking, crescent-shaped blade.

She is making her Holiday Spice Cake With Cream Cheese Frosting and Candied Pecans.

She pulled together elements of her favorite holiday desserts for the recipe; the candied pecans are her mom's creation. "It's relatively easy to make, appeals to a wide variety of people, and is homey and kind of old-fashioned, which is popular around the holidays." Then, with just a pinch of pride, she adds, "It's pretty tasty, too."

Though she's an amateur chef, when it comes to cakes, Abi's somewhat of an expert. The 2004 Montgomery County Fair cake grand champion (for a vanilla cake), she's been baking since she was in fifth grade. Now she is a financial analyst for Georgetown University Law Center, but finds time to bake wedding and special occasion cakes for friends. Recently she nailed a complicated native cake recipe for a friend's Nigerian father.

But today, her dessert will experience the ultimate tragedy.

EDWIN ESQUIVEL AND LORY ALVAREZ, both 17, seem hesitant to make a move without the approval of their teacher, Barbara Hughes.

Even their dessert poses some uncertainty. What are they making?

"Apple Sauce Cake," responds Edwin.

"Apple Spice Cake," Lory corrects.

"Well, it has applesauce in it. That makes it moist," says Edwin authoritatively. (And actually, they're both right -- it's Applesauce Spice Cake.) Spice cakes are popular today, apparently. The students chose theirs for its seasonal flavor.

"Apples are very 'fallish' and bountiful during the holidays," says family consumer science teacher Hughes, who assembled the recipe from several she had collected over the years.

Edwin and Lory, who are seniors at Beltville's High Point High School, may be just a few years beyond Easy-Bake Ovens, but they are not new to cooking. They are in the second year of the ProStart program, a secondary school culinary curriculum overseen by the National Restaurant Association that teaches cooking skills, nutrition, and restaurant and kitchen management. As a result, both are seriously considering culinary careers.

Today they are sharing the kitchen, if just for a few hours, with some of the masters. But as seniors in ProStart, they'll be getting much more hands-on experience with professionals in hotels and restaurants this year. And there's an added bonus:

"We'll get to get out of school in the afternoons," grins Edwin.

PINK-FACED, PORTLY And Constantly Joking, Roland Mesnier, 61, hardly seems the starched and staunch sort of person you'd expect feeding the West Wing.

"The Secret Service on the roof were always the first to tell me something was burning," cracks Roland, who retired in 2004 after 25 years as the White House pastry chef.

He moves with ease around the kitchen, in dress pants and shirt. Even as he makes fun of reality cooking shows, bad service and his fellow French, he is folding crepes like an origami master and paring lime rind into tiny jade curls.

On his table lies a tome of recipes, flipped open to a picture of the dessert he is making, Christmas Tree Crepes. In it, delicate crepes fat with lemon cream are layered in the shape of a Christmas tree and garnished with cranberries.

Turns out he wrote the book, Dessert University.

"The only book to be endorsed by five first ladies," he says proudly.

Occasionally Roland will taunt the other contestants.

"Are you sure you're ready to put that in the oven? You don't want me to bless it first?"

"I smell something burning."

But it's all in good fun. He is genuinely interested in what the others are doing and how. He discusses with Kaz modern cuisine and America's place in it. He tells stories of serving souffles at state dinners when first ladies were late.

He is especially curious about the students' work and offers help where he can -- but in a fatherly sort of way. He teaches them how to cut and fold parchment cones to dispense decorative icing in thick lines, thin lines, loops and letters, while they look on, quiet and awed.

They practice on wax paper as Roland coaches them. "Keep it moving at the same speed, just like a pencil."

There are goops, glops and misspellings, but by the time Edwin writes "Happy Holidays" on the spice cake in dark chocolate script, Roland himself couldn't have done any better.

UNFORTUNATELY, Roland's earlier taunts turn out to be somewhat prophetic. Trouble is brewing.

The students' cake has come out of the oven with a long, steamy chasm down the middle.

Kaz's cranberry gelatin is too soft -- he has to start over.

But Abi has the worst luck of all. As she slides one of her cakes from the oven, the silver pan slips from her mitt and lands with a smack on the floor. Facedown, of course. Hurriedly Abi scoops up the remains and starts rethinking her strategy.

Then, a dark horse emerges: Lanky David Collier, 36, pastry chef at Kinkead's Colvin Run Tavern in Tysons Corner, has arrived, bearing enough chocolate-laced Maple-Pecan Biscotti to supply every Starbucks in the region. Although he was invited to participate in the contest, he's been preoccupied with moving to a new house. Flustered and in a hurry to get back to work, he drops off his entry and dashes off with barely a word.

And the judges will be here any minute.

Luckily some quick thinking saves the day. The students flip over their sheet cake and begin icing the smooth bottom side. Abi carefully bevels the squashed top off her downed cake and is back in business. Kaz has caught up and is adding a sprig of mint to his dish, just as the three judges make their appearance.

Dan Traster is Stratford's dean of culinary arts and hospitality management. Phyllis Richman is a renowned food writer and critic -- "She's tough," Roland says -- plus, she's a grandmother used to tempting picky palates at holiday time. Zulaa Baasansukh of Arlington is a 12-year-old with diverse sensibilities: Though she eats Mongolian dishes at home, Zulaa, known as Kristen to her friends at Swanson Middle School, has decidedly American tastes in desserts -- strawberry shortcake is one of her favorites. Despite her shy smile and swishing ponytail, she may be the toughest judge of all.

THE GROUP VISITS EACH OF THE STATIONS, ready with plastic forks and bottled water, as the chefs stand back and watch.

The first stop is Kaz's fruit-salad-like entry, which he has decided to name Asian Holiday Jewel. Phyllis calls it a "nice surprise" with "interesting texture."

Zulaa, slightly nervous at the power of getting to judge adults for a change, deems it "good and sweet."

Next, David's biscotti. All eyes are on Zulaa as she nibbles one and states that it "would go well with milk."

Roland's crepes receive smiles for their presentation and praise for their filling. Phyllis calls them light and "perfumy." Dan says they are "intense" but "balanced."

Zulaa, however, seems not so sure about

the balanced part; her face squinches doubtfully at the tart taste.

Abi's cake inspires unanimous approval. Dan describes it as "all-American" with a "subtle warmth" attributable to Abi's inclusion of cayenne and black pepper. Zulaa

exclaims, "This tastes like Cinnabons!" Phyllis notes, "I would expect this to fall out of a family recipe book," and Abi glows as brightly as a stove burner.

Finally, Zulaa proclaims Edwin's and Lory's cake a "good dessert" as they explain their new garnishing skills to Phyllis, an alumna of their high school.

Then the judges withdraw, for what seems like a long time, to choose their favorites. When they finally emerge, it is clear they had a tough time coming to agreement.

"These are all exceptional, and we definitely dissented," says Dan, diplomatically.

"These desserts are good examples for different age groups and times of day," adds Phyllis, not so toughly.

"And Zulaa certainly stuck up for her votes," notes Dan, as Zulaa smiles and nods furiously.

"But they all tasted good," the middle-schooler says in a reassuring tone.

In the end, Roland, the famous pastry chef, only places third. Abi's cake is runner-up, and Kaz's Asian Holiday Jewel is proclaimed the winner.

Kaz's stoicism falls away at last, and he beams. He's gone from sushi chef with melted jello to winner of an American holiday dessert contest -- without even making a traditional American holiday dessert. When asked, he says that creating a prize-winning recipe is about "inspiration and imagination."

Then his humility snaps back into place.

"A lot of time, I fail!"

Laura Boswell last wrote for the Magazine about the real Christmas baby.

TheRecipes

APPLESAUCE SPICE CAKE

Serves 12 to 16

From Barbara Hughes, teacher,

High Point High School

2 1/2 cups flour

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1/2 cup buttermilk

1 cup applesauce (sweetened or unsweetened)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 eggs

1 cup raisins (optional)

1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Confectioners' sugar, for dusting (optional)

Cream Cheese Frosting (optional, recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease two 9-inch cake pans or a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with nonstick spray oil.

In a medium mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl using an electric mixer on medium speed, combine the butter and sugar, and mix until well combined or light and fluffy, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the buttermilk, applesauce and vanilla extract until well combined, about 30 seconds, stopping frequently to scrape the bowl. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing to combine after each addition. Slowly add the flour mixture, and beat for 3 minutes at high speed. If desired, stir in the raisins or walnuts by hand.

Pour batter into the prepared pans. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes (9-inch pans) or 45 to 50 minutes (9-by-13-inch pan). Using a toothpick or cake tester, test the center of cake for doneness. The cake should be moist, but not sticky or gummy.

Cool thoroughly before dusting the top of the cake with confectioners' sugar, if desired, or frosting with Cream Cheese Frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting

Makes 2 cups

6 ounces cream cheese, slightly softened (may use reduced-fat version)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

16 ounces confectioners' sugar

1 to 2 teaspoons regular or low-fat milk (may substitute condensed milk)

In a medium bowl using an electric mixer on medium speed, mix together the cream cheese and vanilla extract. Slowly add the confectioners' sugar and beat until thoroughly combined. Add the milk until the frosting reaches the desired consistency, adding more if necessary. The frosting can be made a few hours ahead, covered and refrigerated, but it should be reblended on low speed to make sure it is creamy and smooth.

- - -

MAPLE-PECAN BISCOTTI

Makes 4 logs (approximately 120 pieces)

From David Collier, pastry chef

Kinkead's Colvin Run Tavern

6 cups flour

2 cups semolina or finely ground cornmeal

8 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 tablespoons salt

8 ounces unsalted butter, at

room temperature

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 cup light brown sugar

4 eggs, at room temperature

6 tablespoons maple syrup

2 tablespoons whiskey

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups chopped pecans

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, semolina or cornmeal, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl using an electric mixer on medium speed, mix the butter and sugars until somewhat fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add the syrup, whiskey and vanilla extract, and combine well.

Then add the flour mixture, in two or three additions, combining well each time. Add the nuts, and mix until just combined.

On a surface covered with waxed or parchment paper, shape the dough to form 4 logs of equal size about 12 inches long. Wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 week (or freeze for up to 2 weeks).

When ready to bake, lightly grease 4 large baking sheets with nonstick spray oil, or line with parchment paper. Unwrap the dough logs and place them all on one prepared baking sheet. Bake until the logs are golden brown and firm, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a metal rack to cool completely.

Using a large serrated knife, cut on the bias and place the slices from one log in a single layer on one baking sheet; do the same with the other 3 logs. Bake about 15 minutes, making sure to turn the baking sheets so that the biscotti are evenly browned. Let cool, then dip or drizzle with melted chocolate, if desired.

- - -

CHRISTMAS TREE CREPES

Serves 6

Adapted from Roland Mesnier's

Dessert University

16 Beer Batter Crepes (recipe follows)

2 cups Lemon Cream (recipe follows)

2 tablespoons grated lemon or lime zest

1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries, for garnish

1 Marzipan Star (optional)

Beer Batter Crepes

Makes about 30 crepes

2 large egg yolks, at room temperature

1/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup flour

1 1/4 cups whole or 2 percent milk, at room temperature

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for greasing pan

1/4 cup lager-style beer, at room temperature (see Note)

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch salt

3 large egg whites, at room temperature

In a medium bowl, combine the egg yolks with 1 tablespoon of the sugar, the flour and 1/2 cup of the milk. Stir until it forms a smooth paste. Add the remaining 3/4 cup milk and the melted butter, beer, vanilla extract and salt. Stir until smooth. Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl.

Using an electric mixer on high speed, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Sprinkle in 1 tablespoon sugar, and continue beating until the whites form stiff peaks.

Fold the egg whites into the batter, and let rest at room temperature for 1 hour.

Sprinkle a rimmed baking sheet with the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Fill a shallow bowl or cake pan with cool water.

Heat a nonstick crepe pan or 6-inch skillet over medium-high heat until a few drops of water sizzle and evaporate on its surface. Brush the bottom of the pan lightly with some of the extra melted butter.

Using a small ladle, pour 2 tablespoons of the batter into the pan. Quickly tilt the pan to the right and then in a circular motion to coat it completely with the batter. Cook until the edges begin to color, about 30 seconds. Carefully lift the edge of the crepe with a sharp paring knife and grasp the edge between your thumb and index finger. Carefully flip, and cook for another 30 seconds. Invert the pan over the sugared baking sheet so the crepe falls out flat. Dip the bottom of the pan into the cool water. Repeat with the remaining batter (it's not necessary to butter the pan after every crepe).

Overlap the crepes slightly on the baking sheet so they are easy to separate, and let them cool to room temperature. To keep them moist, place a clean, damp kitchen towel over the crepes until ready to use, up to 8 hours; or refrigerate up to 2 days.

Note: Because of the beer, batter cannot be stored for use another day.

Lemon Cream

Makes about 2 cups

4 or 5 large lemons

1 1/2 cups sugar

4 large eggs

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into cubes

Remove the zest from the lemons with a grater, and set aside. Cut each lemon in half, and squeeze the juice into a small bowl. You should have approximately 3/4 cup.

In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the zest, juice, sugar, eggs and butter and bring to a boil. Cook for 30 seconds, whisking constantly and making sure that the mixture is not sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Transfer the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a nonreactive bowl, and cool to room temperature. Transfer to an airtight container, and refrigerate for up to 1 week, or freeze for up to 2 months.

Marzipan Star

Cut a star shape from rolled-out marzipan. Allow it to air-dry for two days; it will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for a week. (Or cut a star from one of the leftover crepes, and dust with confectioners' sugar.)

To assemble: Working one crepe at a time, spread about 1 tablespoon of the lemon cream over each crepe. Fold the crepe in half and then in half again, to form a triangle shape. Repeat, using 15 of the crepes. Spread about 1 tablespoon of the lemon cream over the remaining crepe. Fold in thirds horizontally, as if folding a letter. Fold again in half lengthwise to form a square.

Spread the remaining lemon cream across the surface of a large oval serving dish, if desired.

Arrange the triangles in the shape of a Christmas tree. Place the serving dish on the counter with the narrower side closest to you. About one-fourth of the way up from the bottom of the dish, arrange 4 of the folded crepes in a row, overlapping slightly. Then arrange 3 crepes in a row directly above the first row, so that they overlap about 1/2 -inch of the top of the first row. Arrange 3 crepes above the second row, 2 crepes above the third row, 2 crepes above the fourth row, and one final crepe above the fifth row. You should have a pyramid of crepes. Place the 16th crepe, folded in the square, at the bottom of the tree to form the trunk. Sprinkle the lemon or lime zest across the bottom edge of each row of crepes. Arrange the cranberries around the edge of the platter. Place a marzipan or crepe star at the top of the tree. Serve immediately.

- - -

HOLIDAY SPICE CAKE WITH CREAM CHEESE FROSTING AND CANDIED PECANS

Serves 12

From Abigail Cruce

1 1/2 cups self-rising flour

1 1/4 cups flour

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

Dash finely ground black pepper

Dash cayenne pepper (optional)

1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, softened (may substitute unsalted butter; if so,

add 1/4 teaspoon salt)

2 cups sugar

4 eggs, at room temperature

1 cup whole milk, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cream Cheese Frosting (recipe follows)

Candied Pecans (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and flour two 9-inch round pans, and line the bottoms with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, combine the flours, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, black pepper, cayenne pepper, if desired, and salt, if necessary. Set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the milk and vanilla extract. Set aside.

In a large bowl, mix the butter and sugar with an electric mixer on medium speed until fluffy and smooth, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing to combine thoroughly after each addition. Add the flour mixture and the milk-vanilla mixture, alternating in three additions, making sure that each addition is thoroughly combined and scraping down the sides of the bowl occasionally.

Divide the cake batter between the 2 pans, and bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Meanwhile, make the Cream Cheese Frosting and Candied Pecans.

Cool cakes for about 10 minutes in their pans on wire racks; remove cakes and continue to let them cool to room temperature on the wire racks.

Using a large serrated knife, trim any uneven tops from the cakes. Frost one layer with the cream cheese frosting, and top with approximately 1 cup of the candied pecans that have been finely chopped. Top with the remaining cake layer. Frost the whole cake with Cream Cheese Frosting, and garnish with additional Candied Pecan pieces.

Cream Cheese Frosting

1 cup (two sticks) salted butter, softened

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 cups confectioners' sugar, or as needed

In a large bowl using an electric mixer on medium speed, mix the butter and cream cheese until well combined. Slowly add the milk and vanilla, then the confectioners' sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, until the frosting reaches a good, spreadable consistency, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Reduce speed to low, and continue to mix the frosting for 3 more minutes, or until the frosting is creamy and smooth.

Candied Pecans

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups pecan halves or pieces

Have ready a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone liner.

In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the sugar, water, vanilla extract, cinnamon and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, 10 to 15 minutes until the mixture reaches 230 to 240 degrees (soft-ball stage) on a candy thermometer, or until a bit of the mixture dropped into a pan of cold water forms a pliable ball.

Remove from heat. Add pecan pieces and stir mixture constantly with a wooden spoon until the pecans are completely coated and begin to look sandy. Transfer to the baking sheet, and spread out so that the pecan pieces are in a single layer. Let cool completely, about 10 minutes.

Store in an airtight container at room temperature for about two weeks, or freeze.

- - -

ASIAN HOLIDAY JEWEL

Serves 8

Adapted from Kaz Okochi,

Owner, Kaz Sushi Bistro

Mochi Balls (recipe follows)

Cranberry Kanten (recipe follows)

Mango Kanten (recipe follows)

Syrup (recipe follows)

1 apple, cored and cut into 1-inch chunks

1/2 cup walnut pieces

1/4 cup currants, soaked in 2 to 3 tablespoons rum for 30 minutes

About 1/2 bunch mint

Mochi Balls

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sweet rice flour

1/2 cup coconut milk

1 tablespoon sugar

Have ready a medium saucepan filled with boiling water and a bowl filled with ice water.

In a small bowl, mix ingredients until just combined. Form half-inch balls. Drop into the boiling water, about 8 at a time, for 1 to 2 minutes or until they float to the surface. Transfer batches to the ice water to cool. Do not refrigerate.

Cranberry Kanten

2 cups cranberry juice

2 tablespoons sugar

3 teaspoons powdered agar-agar

(see Note)

Combine the ingredients in a small saucepan, stirring constantly, until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture just comes to a boil. Transfer to a flat, covered container, and refrigerate until firm; then cut into 1/2 -inch cubes. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Mango Kanten

2 mangoes, peeled, seeded and cut into chunks (may substitute with about 2 cups mango concentrate; eliminate the blending, lemon juice and straining)

1 cup water

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 teaspoons powdered agar-agar

(see Note)

In a blender, puree mango with 1 cup water, and strain through a fine-mesh strainer. Transfer to a small saucepan, and add the agar-agar, stirring to combine, until the mixture comes to a boil for a minute. Transfer to a flat, covered container, and refrigerate until firm; cut into 1/2 -inch cubes. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Syrup

1 cup light brown sugar

1 1/2 cups water

1 tablespoon rum

In a small saucepan, combine ingredients, and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Refrigerate until ready to use.

To assemble: In a large bowl, carefully combine the mochi balls, the cranberry and the mango kanten, apple, walnuts and currants. Divide the mixture among individual dessert bowls, spoon the syrup over each, and garnish with mint.

Note: Agar-agar is an algae extract used as a thickener. Small packages of powdered agar-agar can be found in many Asian or health food markets.