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Sylvia, St. Monica’s, and the Great Cookie Debate

Dannielle Kyrillos explains that it wasn't Heather's choice of making a peanut butter cookie but the execution that sent her home.

Hello, sweet-toothed tigers! I hope you’ve enjoyed a spectacular week, as well as tonight’s bake-erific episode. Thanks, as always, for all of the comments on last week’s events … it’s good to know what everyone’s thinking, and I appreciate all of the opinions. 

Speaking of which, I bet you have some varying ones on this episode’s focus on baking. While in their real lives, many of the cheftestants work more on ethereal, plated (read: fancy) desserts, others, like Eric, are bakers by trade. Solid baking skills are essential to any pastry chef’s foundations, and when many consumers think about what’s going to satisfy their sweet cravings, it’s often cakes so moist you just want to put your face in them, cookies so chewy you hide some in your purse, and, of course, brownies that come to mind first. So I think it was really fun and informative to watch and taste how the chefs approached classic baked items and elevated them to competition level without alienating the intended audience. 

But the most fun (and hilarious, and dare I say thrilling) part of this week (and, well, pretty much this year) for me was the honor of the great Sylvia Weinstock joining us as guest judge. While she never hides it, a lady’s age is better left unwritten, so let’s just say, throughout two days of grueling shooting, late into the night, Sylvia had more energy and spunk than any 20-year-old I’ve ever met. She is a legend, and also a legendary teacher. If you ever want to just smile hugely and feel like all is right with the world, scroll through the photos of her creations on her site and blog (I’ll admit to spending more than a few minutes doing so.) Sylvia is so patient, kindhearted and funny, and so generous with what she’s learned throughout so many decades as a master cake artist. She also had some smart ideas about Johnny’s love life. ;)

One of the most important things she imparted to the chefs was that yes, dessert must be beautiful and enticing and celebratory, but that’s useless if it doesn’t also taste beautiful. The wedding cake Quickfire was an intense way for the chefs to consider how hard it can be to strike that balance. Bakers create cakes to be served on some of the most important days of people’s lives, and they have to look the part. But we’ve all bitten into a good-looking wedding cake and been less than impressed by the icing or filling or cake itself.  The hugely emotional component of how customers think about desserts adds a ton of stress to a baker’s or pastry chef’s job.

As Zac said, it was pretty darn embarrassing that Seth refused to engage in the challenge, and I’m glad Sylvia, in her polite and encouraging way, told him as much. Zac’s cake was not surprisingly pretty over-the-top, and the big shards of dark chocolate reminded me of something shark parents would insist on having as the shark-groom’s cake. My favorite thing anyone has said all season is when Sylvia told Malika, “It’s always positive. You learn from it.” 

Now, what about the bake sale and Heather C’s peanut butter cookies? The Elimination Challenge asked the chefs to compete to raise money for St. Monica’s glee club and cheerleading squad by staging the best bake sale ever. That is in no way a simple task, because the chefs had to strike the very delicate balance of appealing to their customer (high-school students) and making something out of the ordinary and beyond the typical. I firmly believe in introducing kids to new flavors and foods, and admired that Yigit and Seth ventured into intriguing territory. I don’t think it was Yigit’s use of ginger that turned off the kids, but rather the amount of ginger he used. It overpowered all the other flavors in his pudding, and burnt the back of your throat. And I absolutely love ginger.

Before the wheels came off at the very end, it felt like the teams were working really well together. They decided who would bake what, and which items were absolutely crucial to a bake sale, without too much trouble. I agree that each team needed to do a cookie. Erika’s ultimate chocolate chip cookie really was as good as it looked and seemed. Sylvia really did get the recipe from her. It was everything a cookie should be.

And that type of indulgent cookie is something every bake sale needs and each team wanted to do. Although Heather C. didn’t want to be the one on her team to make it, that’s how it shook out. Here’s the thing, though: there are 14 million creative, original, mouth-watering types of cookies in the world. (See: Erika’s).  Heather C. may have felt forced into making a cookie, but no one forced her to choose peanut butter, and no one forced her to not make it the chewiest, most succulent peanut butter cookie on the planet. There are 12,000 ways she could have made a better cookie, or better peanut butter cookie and sadly, she didn’t. She was peeved at her teammates, and let it get in the way of producing great food.

Eric’s winning crispy bars were a perfect example of staying focused on the mission, improvising (using Nutella when out of peanut butter), and keeping the customer in mind in concocting something every single person in that room (other than anyone with peanut allergies, of course) loved.

So what would you have made for the bake sale? If you have any secret weapons that sell out every time, tell us just enough about them in the comments section (your neighbors could be reading and we wouldn’t want them stealing your thunder!).

Until next week, Dannielle

Follow me on Twitter @DKyrillos

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