The Insider's Take on Kids Baking Championship — Duff's Recap of the Premiere
Captain's log. Star date 2-4-15. This is the voyage of eight amazing bakers who are baking things at 11, 12 and 13 that I could barely do when I graduated culinary school! These kids are incredible, and I want to share with you what you saw on Kids Baking Championship from my own perspective as not only a mentor and judge, but as a professional pastry chef.
Here’s the thing about these kinds of competitions: You prepare. You practice. You get your game face on. But when that clock starts, and you have only two hours to bake up some magic, it’s very easy to freeze up and forget everything you know. Believe me. Do any of you remember my vacant blank stare on Food Network Challenge? These kids, though, get right into it. They run, but they were unfazed and ready — well, almost unfazed.
Annika really swings for the fences! She knows how to bake and also how to create something unique on the fly, which in baking is really tough. She was brave baking that cheesecake. Now, I am a man who has very strong opinions about cheesecake — I’ve had (and made) some of the best in the world. Think of a cheesecake as a giant creme brulee, which is difficult to make perfectly, but cheesecake requires much more diligence. A fraction overbaked and it gets mealy. It wasn’t bad at all, but could have been better. And yes, traditionally, you don’t put anything in or on shortbread, it is the most-simple cookie in terms of ingredients, but devilishly tricky to bake perfect. Annika’s were perfect, and I’m not traditional, so go ahead and cover those cookies with chocolate. This raises a great point. Chefs are artists, no doubt, but we are also craftsmen. We have to have the nuts and bolts of our craft nailed down before we can get artistic and creative. Annika showed us that here. Her craft has been perfected by practice and repetition, and because of that she was able to deviate from the “accepted” form of shortbread and produce something fantastic.
Anthony is a killer baker and a hockey player! How can I not be rooting for a guy baker who plays hockey? Anthony makes a great point: When you watch us chefs do what we do on Food Network, we make things look easy because everything we do we have done thousands of times. My first lattice pie looked so much worse than Anthony’s first pie, I promise. Anthony was tough to judge. All three of his items had great flavor and were technically sound. His baking skills were not the issue at all. There were small things that he did or didn’t do that distracted from all the positives. His tart shell was probably the best one of the day, but the filling was basically pure whipped chocolate. A little bit of cream or butter or meringue would have made the mousse an absolute winner. The peanut butter cookies were a mess, yeah, but who cares? They are exactly what I want at a bake sale, but there was way too much jam, so the balance was off. The lattice on the pie crust was too thick and doughy, and when you are under a time crunch, that can and will happen. But blueberries need to be seasoned when baked in a pie. They taste flat without some sort of acidic component to round out the flavor. Also, always add a pinch of salt to blueberry pie filling. My great-grandma taught me that. (And no, Anthony, the judges won't ignore a messy pie. C’mon, man!)
Caroline’s first batch of lace cookies were a disaster, and Valerie really wanted one, so Caroline baked them again and they came out incredible. That’s the coolest. Caroline had some serious issues with that tart. First it came out of the oven and crumbled. So she flipped it upside down, which was a great pivot for her, but then it was covered with raw fruit and nuts and spices. It really needed the balance of something creamy to really be a tart that worked. Valerie hit the nail on the head: Even just some whipped cream and it would have succeeded. Caroline's cupcakes made me crack up, not because they were bad, but because I wanted to eat the whole thing out of my hand like a caveman because it was so messy but so delicious! (I tried to hire Caroline, but those pesky labor laws got in the way. Maybe she’ll hire me?)
Cody is a mini me. He uses tapioca as a thickener, which is a very impressive thing, seeing as how many professional chefs don’t really understand how tapioca works and how disastrous it can be when used incorrectly. It can clump and lump and send you back to square one. A+, Cody! He also knows what “macerate” means. Do you? Watch Cody as he bakes; he knows when to be gentle and when to get the lead out and move! That’s an important skill as a baker. Now, I wouldn’t throw stuff in the oven like that, but that’s Cody’s call, and it makes for funny TV. Cody straight up crushed this challenge. He seriously understands the subtlety of pie crust, which can be terrible or sublime, and no matter what Cody does in the future, he has that pie crust situation handled. His lemon pound cakes didn’t bake all the way in his still oven, so he put them in the convection and nailed them. Veteran baker move, right there. (PB&J reminds Cody of his childhood. Um ...)
Hollis’ nickname on set was “the silent assassin.” I think you see why, no? Her baking was by far the most sophisticated of the day, and she challenged herself on top of the challenges we gave her by using difficult ingredients like polenta and going above just adding peanut butter by also using crushed peanuts, which added a saltiness and a crunch. The other really impressive thing is that she knew why her cupcakes were dense. She was going to oven-dry her strawberries but forgot, and they threw off the liquid ratio in her cupcakes. It’s incredibly cool that she knew that the second it happened during the competition. (Is Hollis running for president? I hope so; I’m voting for her.)
Jackson has been baking for “a long time.” How is that possible? He's 11! I’m very proud that I started my own business, Charm City Cakes, when I was 24 and it’s still going strong. Most of these kids have started their own businesses and they can’t even get into an R-rated movie without their parents! Jackson nailed those cupcakes — they were even, domed and uniform. The kid is a real pro, no doubt. OK, I gave Jackson a hard time about one missing blueberry. You know why? There wasn’t anything else to criticize! His plating was clean, his baking and cooling was done just right, and all his flavors came together. I would be happy to buy any of those pastries at a bake sale or even from a professional bakery. Watch out for this kid!
Natalie says: “Wow, there’s my name! Natalie! Like, Bam!” I still have the same reaction to seeing my name printed out just like that too! It is so cool when these kids walk in and you can see the excitement on their faces! And also, just like those kids were excited to see me, I was so stoked to be hosting with Valerie! (She was my childhood TV crush — awkward?) Out of all these kids, I think Natalie would fit in the best with the Ace of Cakes crew: She’s super happy, goes all out and never gives up! And of course, she is an aerial acrobat. Natalie is hilarious, you guys. We were only able to get, like, five percent of her genius on camera, but she was literally nonstop amazing — and she can bake with no fear! Her ice cream was overspun, which made the butterfat separate and that was a miss, but her cupcakes were delicious.
Payton really moves like a professional baker, and he's super brave. His blondies didn’t work, so he chucked ‘em and started over with an hour to go. That was a tough decision to make, and he made it and didn’t look back. I was impressed! Even though he had so many dead ends and he got bummed out at one point, he never gave up. He had a few challenging details on his cake, which tasted burned, and the shortbread was dry. I think the problem was that the shortbread was baked so thin and probably baked a lot faster than he was used to. But I’m really hoping he comes to Baltimore and gives me a snickerdoodle lesson! No lie, it was one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
A super lesson I relearned while watching these kids is that they don’t get discouraged easily in the moment. Natalie overspins her ice cream and Caroline’s tart shells totally crumble, but they both never flinch. They just go with it! Natalie’s attitude is great: "What do you expect? I’m 11 years old!” And that is a valid point, and it only emphasizes that she just learned the first mistake in making ice cream and Caroline just realized that there are more-effective ways to get a tart shell out of a pan.
Before you come after me with pitchforks because I had to send two of these amazing kids home, remember two things. First, these were the eight best kid bakers in the country! They beat out literally thousands of other kids to get to the Kids Baking Championship, and they were all champions before they walked into the room. And second, as hard as that was to watch for you, multiply that by a thousand and that’s a beginning of how hard that was for us. Anthony and Caroline are both super-talented bakers. They had a rough day in the kitchen, and as you all know from watching me compete, I have had a few rough days myself. So big props to Caroline and Anthony for having the guts to get into the ring on national TV, knowing that someone was going to have to go home. All these kids, though, from the trio of winners to the kids who said goodbye, were true inspirations and made me super proud to be able to call these bakers my peers.
It's only more difficult from here, so keep watching and post any questions you might have. See you next week, and remember to always bake awesome!