Top Chef Just Desserts Episode 3: Half-Baked Sale

Chef Michael Laiskonis admits he was nervous about baking a cake for the great Sylvia Weinstock.

The situation on TCJD gets stickier and stickier every week, due to the increasing pressure and clashing personalities of the pastry pros. Thankfully, renowned pastry chef Michael Laiskonis is back to help us navigate what went right and wrong with everything from this week’s wedding cakes to one cheftestant’s dry cupcakes.

My first question tonight is not entirely related to TCJD, BUT I just saw Kings of Pastry and — WOW! Seeing this competition certainly puts TCJD into perspective (insofar as it has NOTHING on the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France). Did you see the film?

I did, of course, get a chance to see the inspiring Kings of Pastry documentary and I’d like to think its theme of intensity, discipline, and quest for perfection is something that will resonate beyond an audience of just pastry chefs. Being awarded the MOF (literally translated, “Best Craftsman of France”) represents the sum total of a candidate’s life work and training, so it is serious business. The judging is ridiculously technical, but it’s a jury of peers — a panel of previous winners — so there is a deep sense of community and support there as well. Sadly, it’s the very spirit of camaraderie that unravels by the end of this week’s episode of TCJD. Whatever the venue, the best competitions manage to reveal the true test — how each individual overcomes his or her own self-imposed obstacles.

Sylvia Weinstock is in the house. And people are making a wedding cake in the QFC. I hate fondant (taste and consistency), so I’m glad it’s a QFC, which means that people won’t work with it. What are your thoughts on fondant? A necessary evil because of its artistic and preservative properties?

I love Sylvia; she’s such a sweetheart! Funny, I actually made a cake for Sylvia’s birthday lunch at the restaurant earlier this year. Oh man, I can identify with the competitors’ anxiety baking for her, despite my having all the time in the world to make it perfect! As for fondant, it has its place in the realm of décor, and while certainly edible, I’d agree that what lies beneath is what really counts. In other words, don’t be afraid to peel that stuff away and get straight to the heart of the cake.

Sylvia Weinstock smiles, remembering how great Michael's birthday cake tasted.

Speaking of wedding cake, I’ve actually only had one single slice of memorable wedding cake. Why do many wedding cakes disappoint?

Wedding cakes are definitely a specialized discipline, and for good reason. Not only do they have to taste good and look stunning, but they must also be structurally sound, portable, and able to stand for hours at room temperature. It’s not surprising that every once in a while the flavor and texture suffer under such circumstances. That’s why the best wedding cakes are often made by those who only do wedding cakes.

Time is everyone’s enemy here, but is anything else dooming them? The frosting perhaps?

It’s all about the time. Once a design decision was made, they had to commit, narrowing any margin for error. And Heather H. made a great point — most great cakes are the result of slow, methodical assembly, often over the course of days. Working with butter cream isn’t exactly difficult, but it doesn’t like to be rushed, and you always seem to need just a little bit more! I think there was a clear line separating those who have the most experience and confidence with cakes, and those who don’t.

Bake sales ain’t what they used to be. In fact, most are banned (at least in NYC). And now there seems to be a preponderance of people with various food allergies or sensitivities on top that (gluten, dairy, nuts, and so on), which makes baking for a crowd really tough. Do you encounter many diners with allergies or sensitivities at Le Bernardin?

Food allergies and dietary restrictions are a daily reality for all restaurant chefs, including those of us at the four-star realm. Of course, given that level of service we try to achieve, not only do we take such requests in stride, I actually find it an interesting challenge making things work. For sure, there’s a reason we rely on gluten and dairy and nuts for texture and flavor, but those unable to tolerate them still deserve something special without sacrificing deliciousness. Rather than simply saying, “No,” we prefer to take an “Anything is possible!” approach, even when sugar itself is off limits!

Danielle's green cake doesn't make any of her competitors envious.

I’ll have to take all my Celiac-suffering friends to Le Bernardin as dessert is almost always off-limits when we dine out together. So, the financier that Seth makes – this is so not a bake sale item and I cannot believe anyone purchased it.

I have a soft spot for the almond and brown butter financier, and it wouldn’t be out of place at a bake sale — that is, a version that doesn’t resemble a plated, restaurant-style dessert. I get Seth wanting to push the limits of the challenge, and the definition of the humble bake sale, but head judge Johnny nails it when he says Seth needs to ease up on trying to educate with every dessert. And, we do need to cook with the diner in mind, especially when you’re talking about sweets for kids.

Speaking of kids, I was actually shocked by the items people chose for the bake sale. I thought people might take on some childhood faves, like a homemade Ring Ding or whatnot. Or a doughnut! Why didn’t more folks do upscale versions of classic bake sale items?

I agree there was potential to think outside the traditional cookie jar with this challenge; perhaps a few just went in an entirely wrong direction. I, too, would have loved to see more varied and refined riffs on classic items. The key to success would have been to amplify the focus on nostalgic flavors, rather than sneak in the less familiar. Erika’s chocolate chip cookie proved she could impress the judges with perfect execution, and without excess fireworks.

Heather C’s peanut butter cookies were so plain. Couldn’t she have dolled them up somehow?

At the judge’s table, Danielle says she can almost taste Heather’s resentment; I swear, I could smell a sense of resignation as well. It would have been great to see a classic pairing, like chocolate, or peanut butter-and-jelly. Even doing a simple sandwich cookie may have elevated her chances.

Danielle’s yellow cake for her cupcakes is deemed dry. Why is it hard to find handmade yellow cake that tastes as (Gasp!) moist as box mixes?

On the surface, it shouldn’t seem so tricky, but there are so many possible variables that make for a dry cake. For starters, don’t forget her cupcakes were made the day before. But, generally speaking, different fats (oil versus butter or shortening) will yield different results; so, too, will the addition of something like almond flour or invert sugar, which both help retain moisture. In Danielle’s case, the toasted coconut may have played a role as well. The reason boxed mixes are so reliable is the sheer science and engineering that go into them. I’m not saying the box is the way to go, but it is impressive!

Heather H's failed attempt at a Herkie cheers up her teammates.

Eric wins for his Rice Krispies treats with Nutella, which reminded me of your point about texture being important. Heather C. is sent packing for her poor PB cookie. How do you feel about the outcomes?

Eric’s offering appeared quite simple, but also enjoyable — a safe, but smart strategy. Texture, as much as flavor, makes you want to keep taking that next bite. The judges had a tough call to make on who to send home: Zac’s strawberry shortcake was perhaps misguided, Yigit overdid the already assertive ginger with the least popular item, and somehow Seth managed to present a plated dessert. In the end, Heather C. could have fought for what she wanted to make, but her cookie seemed to reflect a passive sense of defeat. I think Top Chef’s team challenges are interesting to watch — at their best, we see inspiring teamwork and collaboration. Unfortunately, we also get an occasional glimpse of power struggle and a breakdown of civility. I don’t think I have to tell you which of the two lends itself best to a working kitchen.

Bonus Q: Were you more likely to be an athlete or in the glee club in school?

I was the nerdy, artistic type, I guess, but somehow managed to coexist among all the various cliques.

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