"As the only Serious Eats blogger in the contest, I had to represent."
I've only been blogging for a few months now, so I was very surprised when Bon Appétit invited me to take part in their first ever Blog Envy Bake-Off on December 10. The first place prize was an all expenses paid trip to Las Vegas for the magazine's Vegas Uncork'd festival.
To be totally honest, I didn't think I had any chance of winning. I felt like Anne Hathaway going up against Kate Winslet, Angelina Jolie, and Meryl Streep for Best Actress at last year's Academy Awards. Sure, I was honored to be included in such an elite group of food bloggers, but knew there was no chance I'd go home with a trophy.
So I decided not to attempt anything too technical—I knew I'd be outclassed. Instead, I went with tasty and easy. The more I thought about it, the more all signs pointed to Mom's easy Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie recipe.
Entering a pie made out of peanut butter and Cool Whip in a contest being held by Bon Appétit? Yes, it was a bold choice.
Approval from Jacques Torres
But I was inspired by something that happened at The New York Chocolate Show this past November. After I did a cooking demonstration with this recipe, I witnessed Jacques Torres (yes, the Jacques Torres, undisputed king of all things cacao) munching on a few slices backstage. "What is this, it is so f**king delicious?" he said (in his French accent, naturally).
When he found out the recipe he said, nonplussed: "Sometimes, the simplest things are the best," and took one final bite before going on stage himself to present some jaw-dropping chocolate creation to a crowd of hundreds.
So if Jacques liked it, maybe it would go over well with the Bon Appétit judges: the magazine's editor-in-chief Barbara Fairchild, renowned pastry chef Francois Payard, and Fox news anchor Dari Alexander.
As the only Serious Eats blogger in the contest, I had to represent.
The Baking Process
When Mom makes this pie she uses a store-bought 9-inch graham cracker shell but I wanted to do individual mini pies. Given the busy December schedule, I didn't have time to make them from scratch but got my hands on 48 frozen shortcrust pastry tart shells.
They needed to be pre-baked in a two-step process (it took about an hour to get them all through my oven at home). Then I prepared the filling and after the shells cooled, spooned it inside. After emptying my freezer, I gently laid the delicate little pies inside to set overnight. The next day, they sat in my work fridge until 5 p.m.—competition time.
My plus-one for the bakeoff, Maria Steinberg, who works in marketing at Peanut Butter & Co., is a major foodie and skilled cook herself. We get to the Condé Nast building about 30 minutes early, cleared security, and went up to the Bon Appétit Cooking Studio on the fourth floor.
Carolyn Wright from The Wright Recipes checked in at the same time with her Panettone Bread Pudding with Boozy Caramel (which she threw into the studio's oven to finish baking). Maria and I started garnishing the pies, me sprinkling each one with chopped peanuts followed by Maria's pinch of chocolate shavings.
A few minutes later Olga Massov from Sassy Radish came in with her Guinness Ginger Spice Cake with a Vanilla & Star Anise Poached Pear Compote. I was even more impressed when she broke out a full-body apron and started whipping her heavy cream garnish by hand. She was "in the zone." (I could almost hear her contemplating her plating strategy.)
I then bumped into Kat Kinsman, editor of SlashFood, who brought Boozey Bacon Balls. Then there was Alice Currah of Savory Sweet Life, who had flown in from Seattle with her Salted Bourbon Caramel Bacon Pecan Bars—which were almost confiscated by the TSA before she got on the plane!
After talking to Victoria von Biel, Bon Appétit's executive editor (about everything from Gourmet folding to the bacon trend) I headed back to the kitchen—where I could smell Carolyn's pannetone caramelizing—to see if my buddy "Brownie" of Blondie and Brownie had arrived yet.
At this point, most of the desserts had been plated. As the food bloggers were sniffing out their competition, they started photographing every morsel. (My little Sony Cybershot couldn't compare to some of the huge digital SLRs being toted around. Yes, perhaps I had some camera envy.)
Brownie finally arrived with her Holiday Pop Pies (pies on a stick!). After arranging them in glass jars filled with dyed sugar, she presented them to the judges in the nick of time.
Francois Payard = Simon Cowell?
Bon Appétit's associate multimedia editor Emily Fleischaker, who organized the event, introduced each blogger as the judges nibbled on their entries.
"This crust is too thick," Payard said about one entry. "Too much cream" about another.
My stomach was in knots.
Cool Whip and peanut butter—what was I thinking? Emily introduced me next. I introduced the dessert then started riffing on my ongoing debate with Mom over from-scratch and sort-of-homemade cooking. Barbara Fairchild took a bite. She seemed pleased. Dari scooped some of the filling, tasted it, and smiled. Then it was Payard's turn.
"This is very rich and delicious." (Phew!)
After the last dessert was presented, the judges took a few more nibbles for "clarification purposes." The desserts were all brought into the reception for everyone to try. Now that Payard's critiques were over and everyone had a glass or two of bubbles, the mood was a little more festive.
Erin from Serious Eats stopped by to join me, Maria, Brownie, and Joshua Hume, representing Adam Roberts and The Amateur Gourmet (Joshua also directs Adam's Food2 show), who brought Walnut Orange Buche de Noel. One taste and I was convinced he was going to win.
But then there was also the Festivus Pear Cake by Mary Ann Porch from Puff & Choux—outstanding. It had to be a toss-up between those two.
My pies were vanishing though. Even Joshua polished one off and gave me some confidence. "I think you might win, man." (I didn't believe him.)
At this point, Jessie Konopa of The Hungry Mouse seemed to be over Payard's criticism of her Chocolate Caramel Tart (delicious if you ask me), and Kelsey Banfield of The Naptime Chef explained the story behind her Eggnog Cheesecake with Gingersnap Pecan Crust and Cranberry Glaze.
And the Winner Is..
By 7 p.m. the judges looked like they were ready to declare a winner. A hush fell over the crowd.
Marc Matsumoto of No Recipes won for his Kabocha Cream Cake with Caramel Ganache. Funny, while it looked beautiful, this was the only one I didn't try. Go figure!
Mary Ann's Festivus Pear Cake took second and Brownie's Holiday Pot Pies took third.
Entering the Bon Appétit Bake-off was as much work as it was fun. I'm already planning next year's entry. How does Peanut Butter and Jelly Fruitcake sound?
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