Double the Fun, Double the Challenge: Cake and Ice Cream on Spring Baking Championship — Duff's Recap of Episode 4
Alright, baking fans, things are getting serious. Last week proved how tough this competition is: Juliana, an immensely talented baker, had to go home. Tough break, but that's Spring Baking Championship. This week the remaining five bakers started their challenge by making desserts on a stick. Anyone who has been to any state fair knows that making food on a stick is about as American as it gets. Hopefully Damiano has been to a state fair; if not, we will be regaled by tales of a stick-free Italy while he makes something incredibly delicious. Andy seemed a bit worried about desserts on sticks when he said, "They don't teach this in culinary school." But I was convinced he was being modest. Dwayne went three for three in the first three challenges and hasn't been back on the podium since, and I know that he's hungry for it. He's a sweet guy, but he has the eye of the tiger.
Andy got right to work making cake pops, which seem like the most-obvious dessert to make, but what I think Andy doesn't realize is that they are very time consuming. I always shy away from making them because I know that to make them as awesome as I want to make them, they take way too long and become prohibitively expensive for my customers. Cake pops are really fun to make at home with friends or kids. But in a timed competition? Not so much.
Andy did three things right off the bat that impressed me. First, he explained why he was scraping down the sides of the bowl. This isn't a big deal, but it is my biggest pet peeve in baking. During mixing, it's super important to scrape the sides of the bowl or all of your ingredients don't become homogenous. Next, he baked his cake in a shallow sheet pan. This allows his cakes to bake fast and even, and since the cake is getting all mashed up, it doesn't matter what shape it is. Third, he used what was at hand, in this case some yellow coating chocolate, a paring knife and some acetate. Coating chocolate is chocolate that has had the complex cocoa butter removed and replaced with a simpler fat that is solid at room temperature. This makes the chocolate easy to work with and it doesn't need to be tempered.
Simone also decided to make cake pops, and I have seen her make them before, so I knew she wouldn't have trouble getting them done in time. Also, I noticed that before she stuck the formed cake pops onto the stick, she dipped the sticks in chocolate. This would keep them from falling off or spinning around. Another thing Simone made clear was that she was doing what Lorraine had told her to do, and that was bake from the heart. If anyone ever wants to compete on a show like this, it is really important to listen to the judges. We don't want anyone to lose, so when we are criticizing, it is only to help you win. It's never personal!
Sandy was going for a product that is a bit easier in execution by making citrus sugar cookies with white chocolate. I liked her direction because you can make a delicious sugar cookie that will make everyone happy, and sugar cookies are a solid base for decorating. Because the cookies are so firm, you can stick a lot of stuff onto them and they will take the weight. One thing I was concerned about was whether the cookies would "grab" the sticks. Sandy pressed the sticks into the cookies and used a bit more dough to completely enclose the stick, but sugar cookies aren't very sticky. If the internal temperature of the cookie gets too high, the cookies will bake firm around the stick, but might not adhere to the stick. We've all had things on sticks that spin around as we try to eat them. I think Sandy made what she had time to make, and I think we were all a bit underwhelmed because she had such a great canvas to work on, and it wasn't bad by any means, but it didn't jump off that stick.
I like the way Dwayne thinks. He knew that we, the judges, were going to see a lot of cake pops. Judges always like to see variety, and we know that if you show a bunch of bakers sticks, they will first think cake pops. If I was competing, I probably would have made suckers or giant gummies because I love candy. I also would have lost, because you don't bake suckers or giant gummies. Dwayne put cream puffs on sticks, which for me is much more exciting than cake pops. What worried me was that cream puffs are filled with cream and that can make the insides of the pâte à choux very soft. If the cream puff was too heavy, the inside wouldn't be strong enough to hold it onto the stick and the stick would bust through the top.
Sandy had the only one-off in this competition, because with Damiano making cream puffs, too, it gave us judges two cake pops, two cream puffs and one cookie. That being said, I'm pretty sure Damiano knew what he was doing. I was pretty sure until I saw him standing on the table trying to make spun sugar. Nobody ever needs to stand on a table in the kitchen. If you look over, Dwayne was also spinning sugar and he was standing on the floor. I think there might be a bit too much mustard on that hot dog.
Time was really nobody's friend, and I think Andy and Sandy felt it the most. Dwayne's cream puffs were tasty, and the choux was baked perfect. It wasn't super fun to eat because you had to watch for sugar poking you in the eye, and the caramel was way too thick to allow the dough to stand up to the pressure of a bite. Not bad, but I think if he had a few minutes to plan this dessert out he would have been much more successful. Damiano's cream puffs were delicious — and easier to eat than Dwayne's — but his dessert was pretty haphazard. I think Damiano could have done more with less. Nancy and Lorraine seemed to enjoy it much more than I did, and I think that is why we are a good team. We all see different things and react to different desserts according to our own point of view as bakers.
If I were Simone, I would have painted those strawberries with red chocolate and sprinkled just a few black nonpareils to achieve that strawberry look. That was way too much for one bite. No doubt Andy really wasn't happy with his cake pop. The thing that stuck out to me was, yeah, it was busted up, but it was delicious. Sometimes that's all it takes. In this desserts-on-a-stick challenge, it really did come down to taste, as nobody really shone in design, and Damiano won the advantage with awesome pâte à choux and delicious hazelnut cream.
I loved the Main Heat: cake and ice cream! Who doesn't love cake and ice cream? I tell you what, though, if any of these bakers would have made an ice cream cake, I would have lost my mind. My first thought was to make one, and if someone can bust one out in two hours, I'll go home a happy baker.
When it came to his cake, Dwayne was worried about serving it naked. A naked cake is layered and filled but left un-iced. Naked cakes were all the rage last year for about a month, until people realized that the cakes dried out really fast. (I told all my clients this, but we did have to make a few for some pushy party planners.) But Dwayne could serve us a delicious naked cake because it was just baked and served within a few hours. I think a naked cake would be a perfect spring treat. Dwayne really struggled getting his whipped cream onto the cake. He called it Chantilly cream, and don't be confused. As far as I know, Chantilly cream is whipped cream that has vanilla in it. We're pastry chefs; we need a name for everything!
Damiano, Simone and Sandy all had soaked cakes. When you bake a cake, you can soak it with a bit of flavored syrup. This is a great way to get flavors that don't cook well into your cake, like alcohol. It's also a trick that pastry chefs use to make a cake moister. If a cake is too dry, nobody cares what it tastes like. You have to be careful, though. Using too much liquid will make your cake wet, and that is a travesty.
Emile Wamsteker, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved
Once again, Andy showed his chops. He banged out a mango curd devil's food cake and built it in a pastry ring. That's some serious professional work and Andy made it look easy. He took a huge gamble when he grabbed cream, cocoa, glucose, gelatin and water to make a quick glaze for the outside of his mousse cake. The glaze must go on hot and set up in the fridge, but in his case the mousse underneath is frozen. If the mousse isn't cold enough, the glaze will melt it and it will ooze. Also, if Andy would have gotten any air bubbles, he would either have had to leave them or get a blowtorch and pop them. That frozen mousse wants to be as far away from a blowtorch as possible, but air bubbles are the kind of detail a perfectionist like Lorraine will notice in a heartbeat. Andy is all classic French technique, and it was a joy to watch, but it was also nerve-racking. He really took his time and wrote on the cake. I think that is a nice touch, because when the challenge is "birthday cake" and not just "cake," you need to distinguish what makes your cake a birthday cake.
I truly never enjoy mango and chocolate together. I find that the mango has heavy perfume-y flavor that doesn't play well with chocolate. Another challenging flavor with chocolate, I find, is citrus. But it seemed to me that the citrus acted as a spotlight and brightened up the mango, helping it to compete with the chocolate, and in doing so Andy took two flavors and made them work with a grumpy, stubborn old goat like that chocolate cake. Also, if you missed Andy's description, it was chocolate cake with chocolate mousse and a chocolate glaze. That is a super-fun way to get a whole lot of chocolate into your mouth at once and not think you just ate a candy bar. All his chocolates had different values, textures and flavors, and they really worked well.
I love Simone's enthusiasm, but a decorated handbag cake from scratch in two hours and an ice cream? That’s just crazy talk. With just eight minutes left she rolled out fondant and decorated her cake. She knows I am very critical and I felt bad because I know she can do this work, but with eight minutes to go, I know I would be freaking out too. It's impossible to decorate cakes fast.
I grilled Simone much worse than they showed on TV. Nobody wants to watch an hour of me criticizing a cake. But at the end of the day, given Simone's time constraints and ambition, I was very impressed. I know for a fact that if Simone and I had to both make a purse cake from scratch in two hours, mine would not have looked as good as hers. But then again, given the choice, I wouldn't have attempted something that intricate in the time allowed. It's good to be ambitious — it's $50,000 on the line. But it's also important to know the limits of the space and time continuum. Her fondant work was rushed and not very clean. The cake was lumpy, and I suspect that was because she didn't have enough time to chill her cake to the point where she could ice it with a firm hand. Also, fondant is edible. I personally don't eat it because it's almost pure sugar, but many people do enjoy it (especially those under 10) and it's always proper to leave the fondant on and let the guest decide whether or not to eat it. By taking it off before she served it, she was telling us it was inedible.
Damiano's cake looked great and was very European. Cakes like his are usually seen in the States in small, independent pastry shops run by Europeans and in really nice hotels where the pastry chefs are usually trained in Europe. His cake was a wild swirl of flavor and design, and (as Damiano probably knows) that's very attractive to trained pastry chefs like us who are used to eating very, very good cakes. You may have heard Damiano refer to his filling as a "diplomat cream." Diplomat cream is a classic French cream that all pastry chefs learn throughout their career. Sometimes you'll hear words like "pastry cream," "creme chiboust," "creme anglaise," "mousseline" or "creme renverse." Those are all names of classical French creams; if you Google "classic French creams" you'll see that is not just a description of fancy, yummy stuff, but it is actually an entire discipline within the art of pastry. Diplomat cream is pastry cream that has been lightened with whipped cream and fortified with gelatin. It offers a product that is light in texture but will hold up for a while and not deflate due to the added strength of the gelatin. Mazel tov!
I think Sandy wasted way too much time making an Italian meringue. Italian meringue requires that you cook sugar to soft ball stage, then add it to your whipped egg whites. Italian meringue is almost indistinguishable from a much easier Swiss meringue that takes much less time. I'll make an Italian buttercream only for a wedding cake that's going to be displayed outside in the summertime. It's the most stable of all buttercreams, but totally not necessary in a studio kitchen. She did have a great (and quick) way to get her cake to look finished: She lightly torched the meringue to give it a caramel aroma to enhance the caramel on the inside of her cake. That bright white coupled with nutty brown just looked delicious.
Sandy is a naturally gifted baker and her personality really comes through in her food. She is so much better than the cake she made. It was a dense butter cake and it had a really good mouthfeel, but her meringue just didn't complement her cake. Meringue by itself can be tough with a heavy cake. Too much meringue and it gets almost gluey. She overwhipped her meringue and it got a bit chunky, which is no bueno, and another thing that made me mad was that the she didn't hide the bottom edge of her cake or the cardboard it was sitting on. Cakes go from top to bottom. A quick piped edge would have made that cake much more complete.
I was't impressed looking at Dwayne's cake. That was something from, like, Day One of culinary school. Whipped cream and fresh berries did not really scream birthday at me. Add to that, Dwayne's cake was pretty sloppy. The cream was pushing through the berries and just looked messy. The cake wasn't bad at all, but it wasn't inspired, either. As Lorraine pointed out, a chiffon cake is a pretty difficult cake to get right. Chiffon, like angel food cake, is cake that relies on whipped eggs to help it rise. The fat in a chiffon cake is oil, not butter, so it has a very light body. Chiffon cakes are impressive when done well, especially in a timed competition. And Dwayne's was technically sound, but his Meyer lemons got lost, which is tough to do in such a simple cake.
Damiano got a huge advantage in getting his own ice cream machine. Everyone else had to share one, and that meant coordinating schedules and keeping that machine turned on the whole time, not to mention cleaning the machine in between flavors so as not to mix them up.
I've got to come clean: Gelato is one of my favorite things in the world. The best I ever had was in a town called Aosta in the Italian Alps, right where Italy, France and Switzerland all meet. That being said, if I'm going to assume anything about any of these contestants, it's that Damiano can make some seriously awesome gelato.
And Damiano did not disappoint with that gelato — I thought I was eating Italian rocky road. There are two important words to know when making a really ambitious ice cream: "particulant" and "revel." A revel is any gooey, liquid-y thing that you fold into a finished ice cream and then freeze, like a raspberry swirl or a caramel swirl. Anytime you see the word "swirl," that is, in industry speak, a "revel." A particulant is also folded into a finished ice cream and then frozen, but it is different from a revel in that it is something or some things that are solid, not liquid, and usually crunchy. Ice cream is awesome. Ice cream with swirls in it is awesomer. Ice cream with texture and crunchy bits is awesomest. Kid shone today.
Sandy's pistachio-and-caramel combination went really well together in that pistachios have an inherent sweetness to them and caramel is slightly nutty. But Simone's pistachio ice cream was off the chain. Pistachios are not the easiest things to work with, and Simone used a pistachio paste to make that ice cream. Pistachio paste is really fatty, and that can be the death of an ice cream. Too much fat and the ice cream will break and taste like sweet shortening. Lorraine didn't dig the lack of sweetness in Simone's cake, but Nancy and I both loved it. I think this was probably Lorraine being used to European sweetness levels and looking for an American point of view, and Nancy and I both enjoyed a refreshing change from most American desserts that are generally sweeter than the rest of the world.
And if anyone has ever had a mango lassi at an Indian restaurant, that's what Andy's ice cream tasted like. If you haven't had a mango lassi, go to your neighborhood Indian joint, get the spiciest vindaloo you can, eat it really fast until your mouth is on fire, then drink a mango lassi — instant delicious relief!
What a finish! Everybody was down to the wire, and now everyone knows that cakes are the most-difficult thing in pastry to do well, and that makes me awesome. Just kidding! But you can see how hard a successful cake can be to make. This was a tough challenge to judge. Andy and Damiano really shone bright. They both showed a variety of masterful techniques and pulled them off without a hitch. Both also made top-notch, perfectly spun ice creams. The dings that we judge on now are so slight because all these bakers are so good, and their worst effort is usually better than most bakers' best. Sandy's cake had issues with density and execution. Simone really reached for the stars and overextended herself and made a delicious cake that was rough on the outside. Dwayne made a simple cake that tasted great, had a nice ice cream to go with it, but was really not at all exciting to look at. Andy and Damiano really were neck and neck, but it was either Nancy's crush on Damiano that put him on top this week (kidding!) or my excitement over his gelato. Both of these guys are magnificent to watch, and they are both very versed in their craft, but that gelato was absolutely prefect. Great job, Andy and Damiano, but Damiano really blew my hair back. Delicious cake, delicious ice cream. A+!
Sandy, Simone and Dwayne all struggled. Each one of them had a few challenges and a few successes, and it really took us a long time to sift out which problems with each dish could send someone home. When $50,000 is on the line, we as the judges really want to get this decision right. This is the point at which the competition gets really tight. It was tough, but Sandy had to go. I love my blue-haired bakers. This was tough, but let me say this: I have judged hundreds of competitions, and if you ever find yourself competing, watch Sandy and learn from her. Sandy never lost sight of who she is. Sandy always made her food the way she wanted it to be. She was always laughing, always having fun, and when she went home she was disappointed, sure, but she was also so excited to have been there. We can all take a page out of Sandy's book (present company included) and learn how to bake with joy, passion and, most of all, poise. Great job, Sandy, and the next time I'm in Chicago we'll go to a Cubs game and laugh at how bad they are! Great job, Damiano, way to go beast mode in the Spring Baking Championship kitchen. See y'all next week. It's down to four killer bakers; it's going to get spring crazy from here on out!