The Competition Turns Bittersweet on Spring Baking Championship — Duff's Recap of Episode 2
Spring is definitely here, and while most of us are settling into baseball season, going on picnics or starting that gauntlet that exists between spring break and summer vacation, the remaining seven bakers on Spring Baking Championship are back in the kitchen and getting ready to bake some honey sweetness. It's always interesting to see how the bakers react in week 2. One of their fellow bakers has been eliminated and now it is very real. You can be asked to walk the plank at any moment, but that $50,000 is that much closer to being yours. The level of competition just got steeper.
For this pre-heat, the bakers have to use honey and only honey. Honey is fascinating stuff: It is one of very few invert sugars that are liquid at room temperature, and it never goes bad (you can eat 5,000-year-old honey). In baking, honey is awesome but very tricky. Chemically, honey is sweeter than sugar, so if you replace one cup of sugar with one cup of honey, you'll end up with a product that may be sweeter than you had intended. It also doesn't bake like sugar; it caramelizes at a lower temperature, so baking times and temps need to be adjusted accordingly. Honey also retains moisture better than sugar, so adjusting the liquid contents is crucial to not making a mess. Another little trick is that you need to add a bit of baking soda to your recipe to reduce the acidity of honey and add a little lift to your product, due to the liquid nature of the sweetener.
I like where Simone is headed with her use of the rosemary honey. Rosemary is tricky to get right, especially in sweet things. Also, baking a frangipane is a nice way to use some more savory ingredients and produce something a bit more refined than, say, a cupcake. Dwayne is making a Pavlova, which really worries me. Pavlovas are made with a meringue, and meringue is difficult enough in that it is a physical and chemical process that is very exact in nature. Changing one of the two ingredients is disrupting that process in a way that may work, or may be disastrous. Dwayne is starting to feel the pressure; the sugar didn't work with his meringue, and that's a huge problem. He went two for two last week! He recovers with a biscuit recipe, which is questionable. Does a biscuit with honey butter even count?
Damiano has his eyes on the prize! It is inconceivable to him that he didn't win last week, and it's awesome. He's determined. He's making an acacia honey-chocolate profiterole. I'm stoked, because I love profiteroles, and in this guy's hands, I'm betting they are going to be delicious. That's a double-edged sword, because it makes me want to like his stuff, but if it doesn't live up, it's that much more disappointing.
Juliana is making muffins, which should be perfect. Muffins are stable and should be easier to handle than a meringue. Kristine is making a bread pudding — very smart, in that all the honey has to do is make it sweet. The custard should be fine once it is soaked up by the bread, and the toppings should caramelize just fine, because bread puddings have more latitude in baking temperature than something more delicate. Andy is also making a bread pudding, because he knows exactly how tricky honey can be. He's also using croissants instead of bread, which is how I like bread pudding. The flaky croissants love all that custard filling them up.
Oh, Sandy. Sandy, Sandy, Sandy. I love her thought process: "I like honey whiskey, so …" Unlike Kristine, who is making a custard that has armor in the guise of bread and toppings and stuff, Sandy is baking a naked custard, where the chemical composition is now different than what she is used to. She's good; I think she'll be fine, and if she pulls this off, it'll be that much more impressive. Here's a tip to people competing in stuff like this: Making something simple is not a bad thing. As judges, Nancy, Lorraine and I know that a creme brulee only has a few ingredients and is that much easier to get wrong. Because we know that, making a successful creme brulee is that much more impressive. When Sandy is adding the bourbon, she says, "Aw, a little more won't hurt, right?" Well, Sandy, it might, so take it easy on the sauce! Typical Chicago.
Sandy is caramelizing honey powder; that looks like it must not work. I don't know, Sandy … you might not make it out of this one. Sandy gave me an uncooked creme brulee. We know how we feel about raw dishes, right? Simone made a beautiful plate and it tasted fantastic. Andy had a bit too much chocolate in his bread pudding and the honey got overpowered. The bread pudding was great, but in a honey challenge, we have to taste the honey in your dish. These are all fantastic bakers, and small errors like this are what can cost someone $50,000. Damiano didn't like me saying what's up, but he listened. I don't want Damiano to go home — his food is too delicious, and if he leaves the championship I have to drive all the way to his bakery to get his stuff and I have to pay for it! That's no fair! Juliana knows how we deal with raw stuff; she's lucky this was just the pre-heat. Dwayne! 3 for 3!
The next challenge is lemons and limes. If this were Kids Baking Championship, Valerie would be so excited. It's very important for pastry chefs to know how to work with citrus. Lemons, limes and oranges are the bases for a large portion of the most-popular desserts and sweets in the industry. Because of this, one of the first things we learn in school and on the job is baking with citrus. Watching the contestants here was really fun, because we really got to understand the way that the contestants were thinking about their food.
Sandy is off to a strong start with an ambitious cake. She's got the skills. Andy is feeling like he needs to prove himself. I agree; I know he can bake. And Dwayne is killing it. Now he's baking from the heart, and I think he is going to make something amazing. I love the idea of a fried custard. Kristine bakes with so much joy, I love it. Juliana wants to tempt my patience with a cupcake. Grr! Andy was having challenges with the clock. All competitions are against the clock, but in baking you are dealing with really long cook times, so the clock is even worse. I got really excited about Simone using yuzu. It's one of my favorite flavors ever. (Future competitors, take note). Damiano's technique is so sophisticated. He bakes like he has been doing it for 50 years. Dwayne grabbed Lorraine just at the right time. She got to work on his tart dough while he was juicing limes. Multitasking power engaged!
Damiano made a wonderful plate. He makes me wish I could invent Taste-O-Vision so everyone at home could taste what we are trying to describe. I would never have used white chocolate to show off a citrus flavor, and Damiano really taught me something. It was balanced and delicious. Andy made a scone. It was good, but Lorraine was right: A scone is not a $50,000 dessert, and he knows it. Also, his meringue was wet. Not his best effort, and that dude is awesome. Juliana was so stressed after crashing hard in the first challenge, but, man, that cupcake was — to quote my man Guy — off the chain! Good for her; I knew she could do it. Redemption tastes sweet. Her tart looked like it should be on a magazine cover.
I hope everybody saw our reactions when we tasted Kristine's lemon brazo de Mercedes. It was lemon-deficient. It was actually kind of amazing that all of her citrus disappeared. As Lorraine put it, "The lime has gone for a walk." OK, I know I describe food kinda weird — I told Sandy her flavor was like a song. What I meant was that like a song has pattern and structure and melody, so does flavor. When chefs build flavor, we think about the food from when you first see it to when you taste it to when you go for another bite. Flavors change in your mouth as different components are weakened and other, more subtle components take dominance. Did that make any sense? Nancy didn't agree with me. What's new, Nancy? It was surprising to see Dwayne stumble. Southern baking is chock-full of lemons and limes; I thought for sure he was going to sweep the first two days. Thyme (any aromatic herb, for that matter) is tricky to bake with. Almost anything can be paired with sugar and butter and somehow made delicious, but an herb like thyme will tip the flavor scale very quickly. It goes from subtle to behemoth real fast.
Like a number of the bakers, Simone learned that citrus flavor is tricky to work with. A good point Lorraine made earlier was that as products cool, the flavor changes. Something can be very citrusy when it is hot but then change from acidic to sweet as it cools off. That can be where the flavor goes. As the starches and proteins and fats solidify as they cool, they can trap those more delicate flavors. I think Kristine and Simone both struggled with this. I was really bummed to see Kristine go. Andy stumbled but delivered on the citrus, whereas Kristine's pastries really lacked all that we were looking for. It's too bad, because with the challenges coming up I know she would have done really well. Damiano really turned on the jets and crushed the lemon and lime challenge. His desserts were subtle, inventive, complex and delicious. He worked hard for this win and it was very well-deserved. And you know what the best thing for me is? Both of these bakers live and work in Los Angeles, so I can have their pastries any time I want! I can't wait to see what Damiano makes next week. I'm stoked to see what the new challenges are going to be and how these bakers cope with them.
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!