The Insider's Take on Kids Baking Championship — Duff's Recap of the Finale

Get judge Duff Goldman's recap of the finale of Kids Baking Championship and find out what he thought about the kids' celebration cakes.
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Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Righhts Reserevred

Eddy Chen, 2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Righhts Reserevred

Man, what a journey, huh? These kids have shown their mettle and really impressed the world with how much they know and understand about baking. I loved the final challenge on Kids Baking Championship, because, yeah, I know a lot about cooking and baking, but cake decorating is kind of my thing. I was so stoked to see what these kids could do, because I know from working with so many kids over the years, kids love to decorate cakes! Well, most kids — Natalie didn't seem too thrilled about the prospect.

The thing about cakes is that they are a commitment. You have to work on this one thing for a long time, and when you do, there are more things that can go wrong and trip you up. There more ways to fail with a decorated cake than, say, a batch of chocolate chip cookies. The stakes here are real high, this for the win, but even more important, the winner of this challenge got their cake on my website, and I don't sell just any old cake; I'm looking for a cake that is going to wow my customers.

The kids jumped right into it and started grabbing cake plates; I didn't understand why. If this was me, the first thing I would have done is start baking cakes and get that out of the way. No cakes baked, nothing to decorate. Worry about the plates later. Natalie realized she didn't get the stand she wanted and got some cakes in the oven. That's the way to go. She busted those cakes out pretty quick, which was good, because these kids needed all the time they could get to decorate.

Annika was awesome, because she started drawing before she started decorating. She had great inspiration, she knew what she wanted to bake, and she knew how to prepare. I always sketch before I decorate. The only thing I was worried about was that she wanted to make a square cake. They are more difficult to cover, and the geometry is weird with square cakes, as we found out later when she tried to stack them.

Jackson was pumped. I think cakes are definitely in his wheelhouse. He felt confident, he was moving well, and his injury from last week wasn't a problem for him. He's a beast. Jackson made a mistake that almost all bakers make at some point: He didn't scrape down the sides of the bowl during mixing and ended up with some lumps. When you read a recipe, it always says, "Scrape the sides of the bowl." Nobody believes it. I don't know why, they just don't!

Hollis played it pretty safe. She was baking what she knew, and was planning on decorating a cake that was simple and elegant instead of big and showstopping. Annika planned a much more ambitious cake, with two tiers and lots of color and design. It was a risk for both of them, because if Annika had knocked it out of the park, Hollis might not have done enough, but Annika was at risk of maybe being too ambitious for the time she had.

I loved this episode's twist. The kids were dismayed when they saw that they had another twist, but then when they saw all the cool stuff I gave them to use, they really got into it. This is why I love kids. Most adults would see the twist as an obstacle, whereas the kids just accept it and then start to think creatively right away. Natalie made cake jars, a personal favorite of mine, and Hollis found cute packaging and made lemon sugar cookies. Cute, easy and potentially delicious. Jackson blew me away attempting macarons. He knew what he was doing, he knew how difficult they are, and he knew that the humidity in the air affects how long they take to dry out. Impressive? Very.

Annika as well really dug deep and made lemon bars. Funny how we're seeing all this lemon stuff, huh? Valerie made no secret of her love of lemons, and voila! Lemon everything! I'm offended, man! I love bacon; where are my bacon cookies?!? Annika almost blew up the kitchen putting a metal bowl in the microwave. It's funny, but during a competition sometimes your brain falls out.

Baking is science, and sometimes things that have worked before just don't work again. Hollis made a buttercream that separated when she added the milk. Sometimes butter gets along with milk, and sometimes it doesn't. This time it didn't, so she had to start over. Huge time waster. I was trying to show Natalie how to level a cake without tearing it apart. It almost worked, so then I showed her how to spackle a cake hole. You keep your crumbs, and if you have any big holes, you shore it up with more cake.

When Jackson was making his lemon curd, he added butter to it. He had no idea why, but it's great. Adding butter to a curd keeps the curd smooth and not clumpy, because the fat gets in there and keeps all the acid and egg molecules from clumping. Also, the butter rounds out the flavor and makes it richer. Also, what's not better with butter? Jackson was brave with his macarons. He didn't like the way they were coming out, so he chucked 'em.

I started getting very worried at the one-hour mark. That is a blink of an eye to decorate a cake, and I was hoping that at least one of them would finish on time. Yikes. Good pivot from Jackson: He didn't like his macarons and didn't have time to make new ones, so he made shortbread. Great thinking. Natalie had an interesting frosting technique: She kind of mashed it on with her hands. I don't think Natalie believed me when I said I wasn't as dumb as I look. Hmm …

Good thinking on Annika's part: She did a marbled fondant, which was quick, easy and effective. Hollis was thinking when she cut the cake into four. Very delicate. I liked how Jackson matched his colors to his boxes. It showed thoughtfulness. Jackson had a good idea making a quick decoration where he needed it. All these kids could have used another hour, but I couldn't give it to them. Rules are rules. But the fact that everybody got a cake and party favors done blew my mind! These kids moved so fast at the end, which sometimes means sloppy and sometimes means winning. I think Annika, Hollis and Natalie were feeling good; Jackson was kind of bummed.

I could not believe Natalie's cake was as pretty as it was. When she iced it and rolled fondant on it, it was pretty rough-looking, but she used flowers to hide some of those lumps and folds to great effect. She did great! She did overbake the cake; it happens, no biggie. But the jars were delicious. I kind of wished Natalie didn't just reuse what she had made already and had baked something new and different, but it was a good timesaver on her part, and she needed it. That being said, she used her time well and got her cake looking very cool and personal to herself. Good stuff, Natalie!

Obviously, Jackson didn't get his cake to where he wanted it to be. He made macarons, which didn't work out, then made shortbread, and that ate up a lot of his time. It was too bad his cake was so dense. He knows how to bake a cake, I've tasted a beautiful cake he made, and this one was not his best work. His cookie was cute and made both Valerie and me really happy, and that was a big plus. Jackson is such a sensitive baker. He values quality ingredients and proper technique. That's the key to baking well and successfully.

Annika made chocolate, thank goodness. We loved Annika's description of her inspiration. She is so poised. I was impressed with the fact that she baked a chocolate cake that wasn't dry, which is very tough to do, but her cake was a bit unfinished. Even 15 more minutes and she would have completed those borders and maybe found a way to hide some of the imperfections of the fondant. Her lemon bars were delicious, no joke, but the ratio of curd to crust was off. Like a burger, it requires not just a good bun and good meat, but the right amount of each to make a good burger. Same with a cookie. Curd was delicious, crust was perfect; it was just too much of one and not enough of the other.

Hollis made a clean, beautiful cake. I wanted to eat it just by looking at it. Hollis' cake was so good. It was moist, subtle and delicious. Hollis' cookies were so cute and presented beautifully, and the flavor was spot-on, but they were too soft for a sugar cookie. A soft sugar cookie is OK, but if it bends under its own weight, it's too soft, IMHO.

This was the toughest thing I've ever judged. All these kids were so good, and the playing field was so level. Some cakes tasted great, some looked great, and some did both. Hollis had the whole package. All these bakers have a lifetime of learning and discovery ahead of them, and that is the cool thing about baking, because so do I. You never stop learning how to bake. Jackson is going to be a world-class pastry chef one day if he decides to follow it. He is great with flavor and always wants to do things right and perfect. I'm going to hire Natalie in a few years; she has the right temperament and sass to work in my shop, plus she is crazy talented and never gives up. Annika and Hollis will be trying to figure out who is running for president. Those two kids are superstars, and when either of them opens up shop, I might start looking for a new career. But Hollis stuck to her guns and baked with her own vision, style and skill level. And that is what makes Hollis the first Kids Baking Champion! Congratulations, Hollis! I hope you guys enjoyed watching these stellar kids as much as I did, and I know I'm a better baker for being around them. Thanks for watching, and if you have any questions, you know where to find me!

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