Spring Has Sprung on Spring Baking Championship — Duff's Recap of the Season Premiere

Judge Duff Goldman recaps the premiere episode of Food Network's Spring Baking Championship.
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Contestants pause before the start of the judging of the pre-heat "flower cupcake" challenge, as seen on Food Network's Spring Baking Championship, Season 1.

Photo by: Emile Wamsteker ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Emile Wamsteker, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Hey, baking fans! It's spring and it's time to ... bake? Yeah, that's what I said too! I bake all year long and mark my calendar by the treats that are coming out of my oven. I know it's time to start buying presents when I have baked the last pecan pie for Thanksgiving. I know it's Super Bowl time when I bake my brother's birthday cake. Spring, though, I had to think about. It's not as obvious as Thanksgiving or Christmas or Hanukkah. But as I prepared for Spring Baking Championship, I started seeing some really familiar desserts, and that got my wheels turning.

Chiffon cake, buckle, lemon anything, rhubarb, trifle, pavlova — all these desserts are the pastry chef's expression of baking in the spring. They are all light, with delicate textures and fruity flavors that are perfect for shrugging off that winter coat and getting ready to be outside a lot more. These were the challenges that the bakers faced in creating these sweets, and Lorraine Pascale, Nancy Fuller and I we were super excited to be tasting flavors and textures that we ourselves were gearing up to use.

Baking in the spring is not easy, and it tests a baker's skill. You need to have a light touch, a gentle hand and a clean palate. You have to be careful with your ingredients, as fresh fruits tend to get beat up much faster than pecans, chocolate or pumpkin puree. But above all, you have to create baked goods that don't scream, but gently whisper "spring."

The First Test, Cupcakes!

I don't think these guys were as nervous as they seemed. This was a talented group of bakers. And cupcakes? Anyone can make a cupcake, right? Simone started smart with cake flour, which will keep her cupcakes light and airy (if she makes them right) and her flavors were spot on. Orange and vanilla? Creamsicle. Smart.

Contestant Damiano Carrara, center, reacts as a judge comments during the judging of the pre-heat "flower cupcake" challenge, as seen on Food Network's Spring Baking Championship, Season 1.

Photo by: Emile Wamsteker ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Emile Wamsteker, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Damiano is a favorite with all the ladies. I tried to get him to teach me that accent; it hasn't helped. Now, Damiano can really bake, legit. I think his challenge is going to be helping me and Nancy be objective when judging European desserts. Lorraine has much more experience, obviously, and I looked to her for a point of view that wasn't so American. I don't think he was thrilled with the most-American thing of all: cupcakes. I share his reservation. When you listen to Damiano explain his desserts, it's obvious he knows what he is talking about.

Sandy is my kinda girl! She bakes, she has blue hair, and she's got baking in the blood. Sandy should have no trouble with a cupcake challenge. I'm impressed that she knows how to work with lavender. She's right: If you use it with a heavy hand, it tastes like soap.

Juliana is the kind of baker I love in these baking competitions. She bakes at home, and she is not at all intimidated by all these professionals. You go, Juliana! I wasn't sure how chocolate chip and vanilla said "flowers," but we'll see how she spins it.

Andy might not strike you at first glance as a light-handed pastry chef. He's a dude. He's very dude-esque. But guess what? So am I, and I have a very high opinion of myself, so never count out the dudes!

Contestant Chris Taylor checks his display of "flower cupcakes" during the first pre-heat challenge, as seen on Food Network's Spring Baking Championship, Season 1.

Photo by: Emile Wamsteker ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Emile Wamsteker, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

It's the same with Chris. Chris is like a real, honest-to-goodness scientist, with a Ph.D. and everything! Fancy. Here's a fun fact: Bread bakers don't use recipes. They use formulas; scientists use formulas. Chris might be tough to beat. I love hummingbird cake. The fact that Chris made it made me excited to taste it. I hope he gets it right. I have faith.

Dwayne is all smiles — and so Southern. Before you say "Mayonnaise! Yuck!," know that it's an old Southern baking trick. What's in mayonnaise? Eggs and oil. What's in cake batter? Eggs and oil.

I know Kristine can bake — my brother lives in her neighborhood and he loves her treats. She bakes from a Filipino point of view, and I was looking forward to learning a bunch about a region I have never studied. She made cupcakes with ube, which is a variety of Filipino yam. Tubers make cakes very moist, just so you know, and I was super stoked to try this cupcake.

Contestant Dwayne Ingraham reacts as he is declared winner of the "flower cupcake" pre-heat challenge, as seen on Food Network's Spring Baking Championship, Season 1.

Photo by: Emile Wamsteker ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Emile Wamsteker, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Sandy was on fire with this challenge. She was in her comfort zone. Simone was totally in the Simone Zone! She was talking to her cupcakes like they were little kids. All good bakers are a little crazy — believe me. Watch Andy pipe the frosting on his cupcakes. That's a man who has done that one million times. He pipes like he breathes, you know? In the end, Dwayne made the best cupcake, considering taste and presentation. Damiano's cupcake was good, as were most of these cupcakes, but there can be only one winner.

Now, On to Upside-Down Cakes!

I have a confession to make: I've made only, like, 20 or so upside-down cakes. But that's OK, because I've eaten hundreds! What a great way to show off the fruits of the season with a moist, buttery cake. I was taking notes during this round, and my money was on Juliana. Home bakers make a lot more upside-down cakes than the professionals. You don't see too many upside-down cakes on menus or even in retail bakeries. I baked most of mine when I was an executive pastry chef at a ski resort.

Contestant Dwayne Ingraham puts the finishing touches on his upside-down cake during the first main-heat challenge, as seen on Food Network's Spring Baking Championship, Season 1.

Photo by: Emile Wamsteker ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Emile Wamsteker, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Now, if I was Dwayne, I would have picked something less obvious than a pineapple. Lorraine, Nancy and I want to be impressed. Dwayne made a really dark caramel, which is a real concern. Burnt sugar is burnt sugar, and you cannot hide it. Pineapples have a ton of natural sweetness and acidity that will help, but once sugar is burned, you need to start over. I think it is worth noticing that Dwayne used sour cream in his cake batter, much like he used mayonnaise in the pre-heat. He understands the use of traditional but obscure ingredients. He knows his baking, for real! Dwayne's cake was gooey and drippy, and his fruit was in the right place and stayed pretty. He blew us away with flavor.

Chris is hilarious: "Sandy elbows me right in the heart." I know the feeling, Chris. Let's hope she knows her way around an apricot. Chris spends a good amount of time arranging his fruit, which is great. Upside-down cakes are very visual, and it's important to make them pretty as well as tasty. Chris had a few hiccups. His cake was a bit raw in spots and just on the fence of being done or not; that's a huge miss in baking.

Contestant Andy Chlebana places his upside-down cake on a cake display stand during the main-heat challenge, as seen on Food Network's Spring Baking Championship, Season 1.

Photo by: Emile Wamsteker ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Emile Wamsteker, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Andy is going to be tough to beat. He whips up a caramel sauce like it's no big deal and gets that cake in the oven super fast. He's a culinary school instructor, and he knows how to move with confidence. Andy made an upside upside-down cake? I wasn't having it. He made a cake. C'mon, Andy, you got to get up pretty early in the morning to get one past me. He made a beautiful and delicate sauce, but I found that the cake was kind of one note — not bland at all, but it just didn't have a lot of dimension. But no kidding, it was perfectly baked and delicious.

Sandy is super smart and understands what makes a good cake. She knows her fruit is thick, so she uses more batter. It takes a long time to bake, so she has that sense of urgency. I know from competing that it is very easy to lose your head and forget everything you know about baking, but Sandy doesn't. She is super cool-headed. Sandy was in a jam, as she made too much cake! Too bad they can't share, right? I liked her recovery, though. Championship worthy! I wish you could all see Sandy's cake in real life. Those apricots looked like Cézanne painted them. Her cake was a bit chewy, and she probably should have used all cake flour or mixed it less. I didn't mind it as much as Lorraine and Nancy did because I liked how the firmness of the cake held all the gooey caramel.

Contestant Simone Faure serves the judges her upside-down cake during the judging of the main heat challenge, as seen on Food Network's Spring Baking Championship, Season 1.

Photo by: Emile Wamsteker ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Emile Wamsteker, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

I'm worried about Simone because plums have a tendency to release a lot of unpleasant flavors in the oven. Plums can become somewhat metallic and bitter in the oven, but the raspberries should help offset that by their acidity. You can bake with plums, but you have to be delicate. Simone's cake wasn't as pretty as I would want it to be, but taste counts just as much, so let's see. I was so happy that Simone killed it with her plums. They were so good and soft and sweet — no bitterness anywhere.

Damiano is fun to watch. Simmering the pears in milk with vanilla is such a gentle and classy way to respect that pear flavor. Pears are very delicate. You can make a pear juice and reduce it to get a lot of flavor, which is very forceful, or you can coax the pear flavor out by gently releasing its aroma. Milk won't water down the pear like a simple syrup will, and the vanilla is another floral scent to accentuate the pear, rather than mask it. That was super smart of Damiano, and it sounds pretty delicious too. Damiano blew me away. That cake was rustically beautiful and looked so delicious! He was pretty proud; I like that. It wouldn't be fair to say Damiano surprised anyone by baking something amazing, but it was cool to see that he was able to channel his talent into something he has never baked before. I'm not sure what Nancy was judging, but I think she liked his cake. Lorraine and I both loved the pears. I was super impressed that the pears didn't turn into a pasty mush, as they are wont to do.

Contestant Juliana Evans puts the finishing touches on her upside-down cake during the main-heat challenge, as seen on Food Network's Spring Baking Championship, Season 1.

Photo by: Emile Wamsteker ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Emile Wamsteker, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Juliana ran into a snag when she realized she didn't make enough cake batter. At home, she is probably used to baking in 9-inch pans, but in the Baking Championship kitchen, those cake pans are bigger. Uh-oh! Juliana knew exactly what she was doing. Don't let her fool you! Juliana's cake was beautiful, and the caramelization was perfect. Let me explain what I meant when I said "bagel-y." Bagels are made with a very high-protein flour, and when you see big holes, that means that the protein was allowed to develop too much. Where else do you see big holes like that? Chewy French bread. You don't want a cake to share a consistency with chewy bread and bagels. It was delicious and well-seasoned, but a bit tough.

I thought it was very interesting that Kristine chose to make a clafoutis. Clafoutis are delicious, but when done in a hurry can be very eggy. Also, in my experience, clafoutis aren't turned upside down, but that's just me. No reason why you can't flip it over, right? Also, clafoutis are traditionally made with cherries and cherry pits, so they have a slightly almondy flavor. I'm not sure if I'd buy a blackberry clafoutis. Proof is in the pudding, right? Kristine flipped over her clafoutis and it went smoosh. Dwayne flipped over his cake and it looked amazing! It was tough for Kristine. I'm usually fine with bending the rules as long as you have a good explanation why, and if I believe you, I'm always willing to fight with my fellow judges about what was good about your dish. Here, Kristine didn't convince me that a clafoutis should be admissible, so I followed Lorraine's lead. She did not think it was a cake, and neither did I.

Contestants Juliana Evans, left, Chris Taylor, middle, and Kristine de la Cruz, right, wait for the judges to declare who will go home at the conclusion of the upside-down cake main heat challenge, as seen on Food Network's Spring Baking Championship, Season 1.

Photo by: Emile Wamsteker ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Emile Wamsteker, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

This was such a hard decision to come by. Dwayne, I think, just tugged on all of our heartstrings by making the perfect, classic pineapple upside-down cake. This deliberation was over an hour; we all had our favorites, and they were all so good, but in the end it was Dwayne who made the most-perfect cake. Damiano and Simone were super close, but Dwayne just had that extra spark. Dwayne went two for two today, and that was nice. Look out, bakers. Kristine's cake was dark and too eggy, Chris underbaked his cake, and Juliana made a loaf. Chris did great and we know he can bake. He beat out thousands of bakers to get to the Spring Baking Championship, and a few more minutes in the oven would have made the difference for him. I've been there. I've lost three or four competitions in the last few minutes, and there's no shame in that. Good job, Chris! Keep baking, man.

And all you baking fans, keep those ovens hot and that ice cream cold, and enjoy being outside. I'll see you next week on Spring Baking Championship!

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