It felt so good to have another great week on Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship. It had been four weeks since I’d had a win in a preheat or main heat challenge. Competing against the talents of Stephany Buswell, a Certified Master Baker, the wiz kid Joshua Livsey, and pastry instructor Ian Barthy had been really hard!
The personalities and talent on this year’s show are daunting. The remaining three challengers were all talented chefs who have careers baking professionally every day. In a past life, Ian was an incredible savory chef who switched careers to teaching high school students a love for culinary arts. To date he had been a strong contender in the competition; he is incredibly skilled at understanding the fundamentals of good baking. His past as a savory chef also gave him a unique advantage because he knows how to bring in savory flavors. I will never forget how he turned boxed cake mix into a sweet and savory apple bacon crepe!
When I think of Stephany, I see wildfire! She is a force to be reckoned with. Her constant upbeat attitude and fun nature attracts everyone in a room. She is the person you want at your table. She is the oldest person in the competition this year, but her age only helps her as she as been baking at a professional level for more than 20 years. She is one of those bakers that understands relationships between flavors and how to effortlessly incorporate strange combinations together. One of her best dishes so far—which she coined a breadamisu—effortlessly combined sweet potato, tiramisu, and bread pudding! Can you imagine? The judges went crazy over it!
Watch out for Joshua because this wiz kid is going places. He has mad skills as a baker and is able to turn any dessert into a visual masterpiece. Joshua is an artist at heart and his modern way of plating is on trend and always perfect. He is poised, funny and he inspires me to be a better baker. One of my favorite desserts from his has been when he made a champagne pudding dessert into a snow globe-inspired dessert served in a martini glass.
And then there is me, Jen. If I were to characterize who I am in comparison to this group, I would say my strongest skills are that I am a baker who understands how to infuse unusual flavors together into rustic feel-good desserts. One of the favorite flavors I have incorporated so far in this competition is a tarragon meringue. My strongest skillset is that I have a creative background and it is easy for me to visualize how to turn something into art.
When it came time for Episode #6 I believe my time working at The Mint in La Crosse, Wisconsin, really helped me do well. The Mint is a farm-to-table restaurant and chefs there use seasonal produce local farmers are able to produce year-round. I helped them make desserts when they first opened in 2015. Making desserts for The Mint really forced me think outside the box. For example, there are local farmers who have green houses who are able to make herbs year-round. At The Mint we would get tarragon in January and I would need to understand how to turn it into a dessert or jam in middle of winter when there were not a lot of fruit options. I made a lot of jam at The Mint as a way to preserve fresh fruit to last through the winter. I became very good at making marmalade, a jam that turns the rinds of citrus fruit into jelly.
The preheat challenge in episode 6 required us to make a sufganiyot, or a Jewish-style jelly doughnut in 90 minutes. For any non-bakers reading, 90 minutes is not a lot of time to make a yeasted product. I had an idea running around in my head through the entire competition to make a snowman inspired dessert and I knew right away I wanted to make my doughnuts look like little snowmen. I believe it helped me when I made smaller doughnut-hole size doughnuts because it helped them rise faster than a larger doughnut. Every minute mattered in this challenge.
When working with yeasted products you can help speed up the rising process by putting the dough in a warm moist environment, but you can only do so much. There is a bakery saying that says “Nothing waits for bread.” It means that yeasted products move at their own pace and when they are ready they are READY, and you need to stop everything to start the baking process before it becomes over-risen. While I was waiting for my dough to raise I made a grapefruit, apricot, and peppercorn jam, inspired by my days spent at The Mint. I also made creme fraiche. By the time the challengers had our doughnuts fried, we only had minutes to fill and plate our finished product. When you look at all of our plates it is obvious that it was a very rushed process!
My snowman idea paid off and I had just enough time to skewer my little filled doughnut holes. On TV there is a comment made by Joshua where he questioned if my plate was going to look Hanukkah enough (despite the way is was portrayed on TV, it was one friend looking out for another), but the challenge was to make a jelly doughnut and not a Jewish plated dessert. My plated dessert looked less like Christmas and more like a cold winter’s day. The other challengers struggled with having over-risen doughnuts or doughnuts that were left in the fryer too long. Mine were just right and it was good enough to win me the advantage in the main heat!
It ended up being a HUGE advantage for me because the main heat challenge was to reinvent the fruitcake. As an extra bonus, I was the only constant that could use common fruitcake ingredients like almond paste, candied kumquats and orange peel. I have a tried and true recipe for a fruitcake that is made with all golden fruits and it was the prefect fit for this challenge.
My main inspiration for my fruitcake was to pay homage to my family and to honor Wisconsin dairy farms. My cake was decorated with a red barn and looked like a scene from a greeting card. When it came time to show my blond fruitcake to the judges I couldn’t help but to cry when I explained the meaning behind this cake. My parents built my childhood home on an acre of my Grandparents’ farm land. As I grew up, I had a fantastic childhood of running through corn fields and feeding calves. At Christmas (even as an adult) I have never had a traditional Christmas morning like you see in the movies where everyone wakes up in their PJs and and opens presents from Santa. On a dairy farm, the adults are busy milking cows in the morning; we always opened our presents from Santa in the evening after all of the chores had been done. My story strongly connected judge Nancy Fuller, who has a show on Food Network called Farmhouse Rules. Off camera, Nancy and I both had a good cry together.
It has now been several days since the show has aired and I have been overwhelmed by the love and support I have gotten from the farming community. My feeling and emotion in this episode were genuine. I really do miss my grandparents, and I miss the feeling of community I received growing up in a small town in Wisconsin. I am the product of generations of dairy farmers.
One of my proudest moments in my life came at the end of the episode when I was advanced in the competition and given a spot in the season finale. (Goal #3... check!) As always, it was a bittersweet moment for me because my advancement meant Ian had to go home. We had all worked so hard to get into the finale and it hurts to see someone miss it by just a thread. Ian is such a class act. He is an inspiration to his students and his family.
I remember so distinctly the feeling I had when I got back to the hotel room that night. I knew that if I could make it into the finale I could stand neck-and-neck with Stephany and Joshua. Throughout the season I had stood in their shadows because they have always been one step ahead of me when it comes to plating desserts. My career and my business, however, is centered around making dessert showpieces for weddings. The finale challenge until now had always been a showpiece challenge.
The night before the finale I stayed up and studied holiday images until midnight. I tried to take any Christmas movie, saying, pop culture reference and visualize how I would turn each idea into a holiday dessert. I had no clue what the producers were going to throw at us but I wanted to be prepared. The feeling of knowing I had a 33.33 percent chance of winning $50,000 in the next 24 hours was intoxicating. There was pure adrenaline pumping through my blood!
In the kitchen we have another saying, “I’m coming in hot,” which means to watch out because you’re holding a hot pan! Based on my performance in Episode #6, I had a renewed sense of confidence and I was coming in HOT!