As a chef, my biggest inspiration is my mom, so what better way to show her my appreciation than to cook for her on Mother’s Day? I’m on the road right now, Mom, but when I get back, I got a treat for you!
This week on Spring Baking Championship we asked all the bakers to bake for their moms. The first thing they had to make was something yummy using coffee and cream. I loved this challenge. I’m not a daily coffee drinker, but I love the flavor of coffee and I frequently try to use coffee desserts when writing menus. Here’s a fun fact: Coffee is to chocolate like salt is to beef. A little bit of coffee in a chocolate dessert will really make those chocolate flavors stand out without tasting like coffee. Try it next time you are baking a chocolate cake; you’ll be amazed. Now onto the competition.
Dwayne made coffee-banana muffins and a coffee pastry cream. Good rule of thumb, if it goes with chocolate, it will go with coffee. Bananas certainly go with chocolate. Juliana noticed Dwayne was quiet and focused; I think Dwayne wanted that crown again, but it wouldn’t happen if Andy has anything to say about it. He’s a man on a mission. And let’s be honest, Damiano grumbling about Dwayne winning three times in a row was pretty funny, right? Dwayne’s plate turned out beautiful, and all the flavors were good, but they lacked some kind of cohesion — I guess that’s the best way to describe his dish.
Coffee pots du creme with a hazelnut dacquoise, that’s a dessert that when done right, it is delicious. Listening to Andy describe why he bakes in a water bath to slow down heat transfer and avoid scrambling his eggs made me think he would indeed do it right. A dacquoise is a nut-based meringue, which is a great fast cookie to make when under a time crunch. But just like a delicate custard, like his pots du creme, they need to be made just right. Underdone and they will be gooey (not a good gooey) and overdone they will turn into powder when you bite into them. In the end, Andy killed it. He had four very distinct layers to a complex dish and each one worked on its own and as a whole. You can’t ask for much more than that.
When I was a kid, I was always confused as to why coffee cake didn’t taste like coffee. I wised up. By making a coffee cake, which has a relatively long bake time, Sandy risked giving us — the judges — an undercooked product. That’s a quick way to end up on the back burner, Sandy! It also looked like she used a bit too much baking powder in her coffee cakes, because they exploded in the oven. And, no, Sandy, yelling at the oven won’t make it bake faster. Believe me, I’ve tried. Sandy squeaked it out at the last minute. That coffee cake was super moist and exactly what Mom would want.
Whenever people ask me to make them cake pops, they are shocked at how much they cost, and I have to explain that to make them right, they take a long time. Nobody orders six. They want, like, 150, so imagine I have to decorate 150 little tiny individual cakes. Simone was going to make six in, what, 45 minutes? Good luck with that, Simone — you’ll need it! Her little fondant cakes were impressive, but there were a few little decorating snafus. The little handles weren’t made fast enough and they cracked a bit, and there were little folds in the edges of the cup. The creams on top were tasty alone, but the whole pastry was too small to handle the sweetness of the fondant.
Juliana’s got four kids, and I know she knows how to make brownies. Lorraine, Nancy and I all wanted her espresso brownies, and I was thinking we might have a new Pre-Heat winner on our hands. But, Juliana, if I criticize you, you cry. If I compliment you, you cry. Every time you cry I feel bad! Juliana is such a good baker, and Lorraine was right: Juliana needs to have more confidence. The worst thing is not when someone is too confident for their skill set, it’s when they have the skill set and don’t believe that they do. Juliana has the talent, no doubt. I’ve never even heard of Juliana’s trick using melted marshmallows to stabilize whipped cream. I love this show. I learn so much.
While Juliana was rushing around like the Tasmanian Devil, Damiano was super suave and drinking a coffee while he contemplated life’s mysteries. That is one confident chef. And did you see his technique for making chocolate cannoli shells? I think even Andy was impressed — I know I was. Also, note how he was heating his ladyfinger batter. Ladyfingers are mechanically risen, which means they rise using the expansion of air. By heating his batter, he was allowing the eggs to capture more air than if they were cold, and as Damiano put it, grow. “I don’t want to go too far, but this might be the best tiramisu you have ever tasted in your life” is a bold statement to say to a pastry chef. But I didn’t doubt him. Now, was it the best? No. The best tiramisu I ever had was on a snowboarding trip in Torino. Funnily enough, the best risotto I’ve ever had was right before I ate the tiramisu. I think one of the places where the coffee was getting buried was in the chocolate shell. If that shell was thinner, I think the other flavors would have stood out more. Lorraine had to dig around for it.
Now, you’ll notice that as I judged these coffee desserts, I used the word “present” a lot. The trick with coffee is making it present, but not overpowering. Too much is not present — it’s in your face. Too little and it disappears. That was the challenge from a technical point of view. Sorry if I sounded like a broken record.
As the winner of the advantage, Andy was stoked. For the brunch Main Heat challenge he made a gratin, which ruled, because we eat sweets all day. Steak and potatoes sounded just fine to me. I’ve always seen cream puffs with a crunchy cookie shell, but I had never seen the process done before, so I’m learning with you guys.
I feel like Andy was really comfortable and excited about this challenge. All the food he made was in his wheelhouse. The steak was cooked almost perfectly (I like more sear on the outside) and the gratin was on the money. His baked tomato was put together a little hastily. The topping needed a binder. Without a binder, it became a cheesy bready pile of crumbs. Also, sorry, Nancy, the tomato was still too crunchy for me. I like soft, tender tomatoes that leak hot tomato juice when you bite into them. I think maybe those tomatoes were a bit unripe. His pate a choux was so nice, and so was the cream. It wasn’t too acidic and not too sweet. I did feel that the puff pastry was a bit redundant.
I like that Simone was baking gluten-free. As bakers, we have to learn how to keep up with trends, and gluten-free baking is only getting bigger. It’s not easy, and going side by side with traditional baked goods is a huge gamble, but I believe. Simone also made a savory éclair with smoked salmon. Let’s take a moment. I have found that people’s heads explode whenever I cook savory. “What?! But you’re the cake guy!” Yeah, I know. The cake guy who has been working in restaurants since he was 14. Just because we’re bakers doesn’t mean we don’t know how to cook, people. OK. Carry on.
Simone was very smart about her dessert. It was dazzling in its simplicity and she didn’t mention gluten-free at the judging table. I think that if she had, Nancy, Lorraine and I might have looked at her dessert with a different eye. Way to go, Simone. Mothers everywhere would absolutely love this brunch. I think it was really important what Lorraine said about baking from your heart, not just your head. Simone is an incredible technician, but she really found her groove with this dish. The groove is just as important as the technique when you want to make food into art.
I consider myself somewhat of an expert on cornbread, as I spent the first two years of my fine dining career baking the stuff. I love cornbread. But here’s the kicker: Juliana made hers with bacon and bell peppers. I love bacon. I loathe bell peppers. Her carrot loaf looks like it will be good. My concern was doing two quick breads in the same challenge might be redundant. I was worried Juliana wouldn’t have a strong showing because both of her items were so similar in texture. Her cornbread and her carrot loaf were good, but not great, and there was little else to help distract from them. But she did make a bacon cream cheese, and that’s a win in my book.
Sandy went buck wild with this brunch. Evidently brunch in Chicago involves pina coladas, so Sandy made a tropical bread pudding. I was confident it would be great, but I think as judges we kinda feel the same way about bread pudding as the judges on Chopped. Sandy’s scones with cheese and sausage and cheese and more sausage definitely sounded like something I want to eat. Unfortunately, she was pretty heavy-handed with the salt. I think that we were all getting so excited about getting to bake savory that some of us (Sandy!) got a little too excited. Sandy’s gravy was really delicious and smooth. But the saltiness of the sausage, plus the saltiness of the actual gravy, was a tad too much. Sandy’s scones were also a smidge too salty, but the texture was good. Nancy took issue with Sandy’s bread pudding, as Nancy thought it was too creamy, but Lorraine and I both liked it. This brings up a good point: There are billions of bread puddings out there, and people learn to like different ones. I like moist, custardy bread puddings. Nancy likes them a little drier. I’ve had delicious bread puddings that I thought were too dry, and that’s OK. With something like a bread pudding, it is really subjective.
Dwayne had my attention at bacon, but then he said crab and I knew I was hooked. As a proud Baltimorean, there’s a special place in my heart for anything with crab in it. Those hand pies looked like they were going to be awesome. And he really made us happy with them. That bacon crab craziness was just blowing us away. And lard tastes good. Dwayne tried making another pavlova, and I respected his decision. He wanted to wow us with it last week and it didn’t quite work out, so he tried again. This time the pavlovas came out looking picture perfect. Now, if they’re crunchy on the outside and chewy in the middle, we’re in business. Pavlovas are tricky little guys and require lots of practice. It’s not that they are complicated to make. It’s only a few ingredients. But whipping them, piping them, and baking them perfectly takes a lot of practice. I hope I didn’t freak Dwayne out too much by saying I was mad at his pavlova. It seriously was better than any I had ever baked. Man, Dwayne just crushed it out there. Like Lorraine said about Simone baking from the heart, Dwayne baked with pride and tradition. You can taste heart and soul in Dwayne’s food, and you can taste the joy. It’s just there, and you can tell a lot about a person just by tasting his or her food.
I didn’t buy this whole no brunch in Italy thing. Damiano’s frittata sounded awesome. And his scones? We’ve seen lots of scones, but I like scones as a yardstick for measuring a baker’s strengths. When they are done well, they are fantastic. When they are done wrong, they are decidedly less interesting. I liked his scone-wich too. One thing I’ve always noticed about European chefs is how big they can make flavors. I think most Americans can take or leave zucchini, but when it’s cooked right (hot and fast) it takes on a whole new flavor personality that a wet, soggy zucchini can only dream about. I was really excited to taste Damiano’s torta della nonna. Pine nuts are too seldom used in baking. They have such a distinct slightly sweet flavor and an incredible texture that is crunchy and buttery at the same time. We all noticed how light and flaky his pie crust was. It is truly an art to get pie crust right. It takes skill and patience and a very light touch. Damiano’s torta della nonna was such a surprise for me. Damiano made some really fantastic stuff.
Simone really shined this week. Her flavors were springy and subtle. Her plate was beautifully arranged and everything was just effortless to enjoy. Dwayne also showed his love for Mom by showing us that once again he is a fantastic baker. I really didn’t like seeing Juliana go. She did so well in the Pre-Heat and showed Nancy, Lorraine and me just how great she can be. I’m going to miss her food. And I’m going to miss making her cry — kidding! Happy Mother’s Day, Juliana. You showed those girls just how awesome a mom you are.
Happy Mother’s Day to all you Spring Baking Championship fans! I wouldn’t be a chef today if my mom hadn’t been the cook and mom she is. Thanks, Mom! See y’all next week!