MasterChef Junior review: Who quacked under the mystery box pressure?


On this review of MasterChef Junior, the top fourteen face a mystery box ingredient that is challenging for seasoned chefs. They then must show their range in a sweet elimination round.

Before the young cooks are allowed to lift their mystery boxes, the judges offer to give them clues. Gordon starts by blowing a fistful of feathers out of his hand. Christina follows with a bird call which some of the kids think is a goose. Aaron offers the last clue by donning a giant yellow bird head with an orange sparkly bill. Somehow, this clues the kids into the challenge ingredient: duck. I’ve never personally seen a yellow duck, but to each their own.

The kids will have to break down their duck so Aaron is going to demonstrate. As he attempts to put his apron over the giant chicken (duck) head, one of the kids wisely tells him, “It’s kind of hard to take you seriously.”

Watching him break down the duck, the key is in the bones which act as guidelines. He starts by cutting right where the leg meets the body. This exposes a joint which he pops out and then cuts through to separate the leg. He then runs his knife along the breast bone on one side. In a move I’ve never seen before, he removes the breast and wing together. He then uses the joint in the wing to remove the wing from the breast. He now has two breasts, two wings, two legs. His final task is to trim the excess skin and fat from the pieces.

The kids will now need to break down their own duck and prepare a dish in one hour. Many have never cooked duck before and I don’t think any have ever broken down a duck. Che has never even tasted duck. His inexperience is obvious when he attempts to cut the breasts off from the back of the duck. He corrects himself quickly and plans a duck risotto, which sounds delicious.

MASTERCHEF JUNIOR: Contestant Che in the “Junior Edition: Quacking Under Pressure” episode of MASTERCHEF airing Tuesday, April 9 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2019 FOX MEDIA LLC. Cr: Greg Gayne/FOX.

All of the young cooks manage to break down their duck without drama and many plan ambitious dishes. As usual, only three will dishes will receive special attention. Jaala is called up first. This is her first time cooking duck and her first time in the top three. She has made a duck breast with orange-soy broth, mushrooms, bok choy and jasmine rice. The judges find the duck cooked perfectly with crispy skin. (I personally thought all three top dishes looked over-cooked, but I like my duck pretty rare.) Aaron’s only note is that he would like more citrus.

Rhashad is called up next for his five spice duck with carrot, parsnip, rice paper, and lime rice. The judges all rave about the many flavors and how his dish hits every part of the palate.

Evie rounds out the top three. She too has never made duck. Her plating is skillful with a neat pile of vegetables surrounded by fanned out duck breast slices, asparagus propped up for height, and a drizzle of sauce in a circle around the plate. Her pan-seared duck breast with white asparagus, baby potatoes cooked in duck fat, and cherry-port sauce is declared the best dish of all.

Watching the challenge, I am struck that everyone cooked duck breast. Whenever I have had duck, it is almost always breast, though I have had legs confit and roasted whole duck. I’ve never had duck wings on their own. It’s interesting when you think about it because with other fowl, the breast, legs and wings get used in more equal portions. In fact, many people agree that chicken legs are more flavorful than breast.

After the challenge, Gordon tells the kids that they should take a break and enjoy something special. Carrying a white box, he leads them out of the kitchen. We see Christina slip out a door.

Ben cleverly says, “I do not trust when Gordon says a break. This is MasterChef Junior. I think we’re walking into a really tough special challenge.” Gordon leads them outside and opens the box to reveal cupcakes. Those cupcakes wipe out all Ben’s worries. “I take that back. Gordon wasn’t lying. We’re actually getting a break and eating cupcakes on the patio and it’s so fun!”

MASTERCHEF JUNIOR: Clockwise From Top: Host/Judge Gordon Ramsay and judge Aarón Sanchez with contestants in the “Junior Edition: Quacking Under Pressure” episode of MASTERCHEF airing Tuesday, April 9 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2019 FOX MEDIA LLC. Cr: Greg Gayne/FOX.

While they sit and eat, Jaala asks Aaron and Gordon (Christina is still missing) if they bake. They both say they do. Aaron says it is important to be well-rounded. Gordon tells the kids that his first job in Paris was as a baker. I don’t think this is a typical opinion, though. From what I’ve seen, most savory chefs stay in their lane and have a discomfort with dessert. Culinary schools typically teach separate savory and pastry tracks.

Break over, the kids enter the kitchen to find princess Christina, resplendent in a ball gown decked with real cupcakes. She is surrounded by smoke and colored lights. The kids are enamored. Of course, they will be making cupcakes. The twist is that they will bake in pairs. Evie’s advantage from winning the mystery box challenge is to select the pairs.

MASTERCHEF JUNIOR: L-R: Host/judge Gordon Ramsay with judges Christina Tosi and Aarón Sanchez in the “Junior Edition: Quacking Under Pressure” episode of MASTERCHEF airing Tuesday, April 9 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2019 FOX MEDIA LLC. Cr: Greg Gayne/FOX.

Evie picks Sadie as she feels Sadie will help her win. She then attempts to pair up kids that like each other and/or have things in common. She tells us she wants to set everyone up for success. The pairs are Evie and Sadie, Brielle and Ben, Che and Kyle, Rhashad and Reid, Malia and Jaala, Aaron and Kate, and Matthew and Ivy. Each pair will produce a dozen cupcakes in an hour. The winning recipe will have the honor of being in the MasterChef Junior baking cookbook.

All of the teams seem to get along well. We hear a lot of kids tell their partner they are doing a great job. At one point, Gordon goes to check on Ivy. He tells her, “I was seventy-two when I got my first cookbook.” “Really,” she asks. “No, I’m joking! How dare you think I’m seventy-two. Do I look that old?” Ivy responds, “No. You look more like sixty.”

When Aaron asks Evie and Sadie what they are making, they explain they have been inspired by Christina’s flavors. He warns them it is a huge risk because, “when somebody tries to recreate one of my dishes, I judge them harder.” The girls are undeterred.

The most interesting moment comes when Aaron visits Aaron and Kate. Kate is piping a brown buttercream on the cupcakes with a round tip, in a soft serve style swirl. I immediately tell my husband that her frosting looks like the poo emoji. We actually have a joke in our house from watching many bakers unsuccessfully plate chocolate desserts. We call it “poo on a plate.”

MASTERCHEF JUNIOR: L-R: Contestants Kate and Aaron in the “Junior Edition: Quacking Under Pressure” episode of MASTERCHEF airing Tuesday, April 9 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2019 FOX MEDIA LLC. Cr: Greg Gayne/FOX.

Aaron tells Kate, “Here’s the deal, guys. A cupcake is all about the visual impact. It has to be something that’s inviting. Something that really calls you out there, OK?” Kate chirps, “OK!” as she continues to poke at her poo frosting. Aaron, clearly being too subtle, says, “alright, awesome” and turns away with what looks like a held-in chuckle. Folks, if you are going to put brown frosting on a cupcake, use a non-round tip and do anything but a pile.

Time is up and Sadie and Evie are up for judging first. They have made fruit cereal cupcakes with white chocolate buttercream, rice Krispies treats, and chocolate heart decorations. The frosting is a water color swirl and they replaced the milk in their cake with cereal milk. The judges love their offering. Christina recommends using lime zest whenever making a fruit cereal dessert.

MASTERCHEF JUNIOR: L-R: Contestants Brielle and Ben in the “Junior Edition: Quacking Under Pressure” episode of MASTERCHEF airing Tuesday, April 9 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2019 FOX MEDIA LLC. Cr: Greg Gayne/FOX.

Brielle and Ben present their vanilla cupcakes with lemon curd and torched meringue. Other than not whipping their meringue to stiff enough peaks, their offering is also well-received. Malia (11) and Jaala (10) claiming to have fourteen years of baking experience between them, present orange cupcakes with vanilla bean-cinnamon frosting. Christina simply loves them and proclaims that this “could be the most perfect box of cupcakes I have ever seen.”

Matthew and Ivy have created a vanilla cupcake with raspberry and lemon icing. Reid and Rhashad present a red velvet cupcake with cinnamon cream cheese frosting and strawberries. Kyle and Che have created apple pie cupcakes, half with maple cinnamon buttercream and half with spice buttercream. All three teams receive good reviews.

Now comes the team I have been waiting for. Maybe I misjudged Aaron’s comments. They present their box of banana-cinnamon cupcakes with espresso frosting. The poo now has little yellow flowers to brighten it up. Christina asks them, “so who did the piping?” and I know I did not misunderstand Aaron’s hints. Kate, still oblivious, enthusiastically raises her hand.

Christina then asks, “do you guys…you have cell phones? Do you text?” At this point, I am the enthusiastic one, telling my husband “I told you so!” Christina continues, “Do you use emojis? What does the top of this look like to you?” At this point, Aaron has to turn around to hide his laughter and Gordon has a huge grin. Kate gasps as she finally sees it.

Despite the unappealing look, Christina finds the cake light and the frosting tasty.

Malia and Jaala are declared the winners and will have their recipe featured in the new baking book. Safe are the teams of Reid/Rhashad, Kyle/Che and Evie/Sadie. That leaves teams Brielle/Ben, Kate/Aaron, and Matthew/Ivy in danger. Given the positive reviews that every team received, I am not surprised when the judges announce that nobody will be going home.

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So the episode ends on a sweet note and we got to enjoy the kids working in unison in their teams. How long will that good will last next week when they face an outdoor team challenge?