I’ve been baking up a storm over the holiday break – looks like my cake decorating business has taken off lately – so it’s only fitting that I finally post my usual cooking show roundup.
The Holiday Baking Championship
The Food Network show just wrapped up its third season, and we got more holiday treats and ridiculous challenges, along with the usual colorful cast of bakers – both professional and amateurs – and the three judges, and their host Bobby Deen.
Overall, it was an interesting handful of episodes: the challenges ranged from cookies and cakes to all kinds of holiday classics, with the bakers adding their own unique twists to their offerings, as well as plenty of festive decorations. The show encompasses both Thanksgiving and Christmas bakes, so it definitely scores points for variety.
I feel like the producers of the show go out of their way to select the most diverse possible group of bakers to compete in the championship, but, thankfully, unlike other food competitions, they are not your usual mix of competitive jerks throwing shade at each other during their one-on-one interviews or sabotaging the other bakers in the kitchen.
Among the ones who stood out for me were Shawne, the Anguillan pastry chef from Miami, with his tropical flavors and intricate decorations; Amber, the New Orleans transplant from Vail, and her rich and decadent desserts; Matt, the NJ native, NY based pastry chef whose modern style was a bit hit-or-miss (but when he did get it right, the results were spectacular, and, apparently, delicious); Cheryl, the Hawaiian/Californian mom and owner of two bakeries, whose attention to detail and impressive creations wowed the judges every time; Vincenzo, the big, loud, Itanlian-American from NY, who always whipped up absolutely scrumptious treats; and Jason, the home baker from Kentucky, whose quirky personality, thick southern drawl and beautiful, soulful desserts made him not just one of the most lovable competitors on this show, but also crowned him the winner.
The bakes were always interesting and not too repetitive; the bakers managed to come up with fresh flavor combinations and inventive ways to incorporate the surprise ingredients Bobby kept throwing in the mix. If there was one factor that caused them to sometimes fail, that was the time restriction. As much as I appreciate that TV time is relentless and most food competitions are based on the premise that it’s a race against time, baking takes a long time; you need things to cool down before you can decorate them, you need baked goods to set before you can slice into them, and decorating is tedious, intricate work that turns out sloppy if rushed. Still, the bakers seemed to thrive under pressure (some more so than others – Matt in particular seemed to be having an extra tough time coping with the time contstraints).
If I have one significant gripe with this show, it’s the judges themselves; I have nothing against Nancy Fuller or cake decorator extraordinaire Duff Goldman. They often agree to disagree, they each have their own particular taste and that’s perfectly fine, even when it crosses over to a much less than objective point of view when it comes to judging. But Lorraine Pascale is where I draw the line. The whole “never trust a skinny chef” adage aside, I don’t care that she’s a former model or how she made the jump over to the culinary world; what annoys me to no end is the fact that she seems to make a point of consistently disagreeing with the rest of the judges, always coming down hard on the contestants even when their creations are otherwise a complete success. She’s sour and obnoxious and every time she opens her mouth I want to smack her teeth back into place. (Ok, that was harsh, but she really gets on my nerves).
The Great Christmas Bake Off
The Great Britsh Bake Off decided to change things up a little this year by turning their Christmas specials into a mini reunion competition, bringing back past contestants for a holiday bake off. On the plus side, it was entertaining, and definitely cool to see how far along the bakers have come. On the other, a couple of actual recipe demonstrations by Mary and Paul would have been welcome, but I’ll take variety over yet another repeat of chelsea bun and trifle variations any day!
The two specials contained a nice range of bread, cake, cookie and pastry challenges for the two teams of bakers, and if I had one criticism, it would be the fact that, for a lot of the bakes, the home cooks were required to make large numbers of bite sized portions rather than one spectacular dessert.
It’s definitely impressive to see an array of identical petit fours, but the reality is that most of the people watching the show for inspiration don’t really have the time, patience or opportunity to prepare such intricately decorated mini-snacks and would much rather see a nice, family-sized cake or loaf instead.
Still, it was great to see all the past favorites come together to bake up a storm, and even better to watch some of them finally achieve redemption after getting eliminated before their time.
Top Chef doesn’t really qualify as a holiday special, but the good ol’ professional cooking competition is among the few shows that didn’t go on hiatus over the holiday break and actually incorporated the Christmas theme into the challenges. With only a handful of episodes into its 14th season, it’s quite soon to judge, but so far I’m enjoying the newbies vs veterans theme they went with this year; we get to see past contestants fight it out with the new recruits, and although it doesn’t exactly make for a fair competition, it does make it an entertaining one.
The first couple of episodes gave us plenty of great moments, and for a while there it looks like this might actually be the best batch of chefs we’ve had in recent years competing for the title of Top Chef and the grand prize, at least if we’re to believe the judges’ proclamations about the quality of the food. Naturally, we got some of the drama as well: past contestant Katsuji seems to can’t help himself when it comes to making inappropriate remarks that rub the rest of the chefs the wrong way, and his rivalry with John has been well documented, so of course the show decided to play it up for ratings. And while I understand the reasoning, I still don’t get why we have to sit through an entire season of arguably the most obnoxious contestant of this show just because he stirs the pot (a decision made even more obvious when, instead of kicking him out for his foul-tasting beans, poor Silvia got the boot for offering a healthy version of the potato salad at a barbecue).
That’s not what my gripe is with this season; it’s the fact that, for a group of professionals who seem familiar with all sort of amazing techniques and obscure ingredients, these guys actually struggled with the basics by episode five. The season takes place in Charleston, South Carolina. A handful of chefs actually work in the area or come from the South. And yet, on a biscuit challege EVERYONE saw coming, half of them admitted to never having made one before. How is that even possible? I’ve made biscuits, and I’m from Greece, for crying out loud! (also, the whole “I don’t bake” argument is such a bullshit excuse; you went to culinary school and/or work in a fine dining environment; even if you’re not required to bake, are you actually telling me you’ve never whipped up a quick cake or batch of cookies at home? And you call yourself a chef? Gaaah. This, as well as their overall reluctance to tackle dessert (and overblown amazement at any chef who actually CAN make a kickass sweet dish), is one of the most frustrating aspects of the show across the seasons.
Overall, not a bad showing for the holiday episodes of the cooking competitions I follow. However, the best cooking show you’ll ever watch is and always will be Alton Brown’s classic ‘Twas the Night Before Good Eats.