Big Time Bake review: Ready to go under the sea

Host Buddy Valastro, as seen on Big Time Bake, Season 1. photo provided by Food Network
Host Buddy Valastro, as seen on Big Time Bake, Season 1. photo provided by Food Network /

Big Time Bake takes a dip in a magical ocean fantasy.

It’s that time again, Big Time Bake. Four new bakers will battle the endless clock, ticking down six hours. In that time, they must produce cookies, cupcakes and a stellar final cake to avoid getting dismissed before time is up in this Food Network baking competition.

We begin with the clock already ticking down and our first baker starting in on her creations. We meet Nicole Dechert, owner of The Cake Lovers. She and her assistant Veronica Duguay are working on their cookies which are due two hours into the competition.

The Big Time Bake theme today is under the sea, so they are making a shortbread sandwich cookie in the shape of a starfish. Their cupcake will be a coconut and pineapple concoction with a macaron on top. A sneaky tentacle will be grabbing the macaron, and each cupcake will come with a shot of squid ink rum. Finally, she is hoping to make a scene straight from Davy Jones’ locker- an old treasure chest guarded by two jellyfish.

Next door, Chelsea Kravitz and her assistant, Elisabeth Rosado, are working on an unusual cookie. Chelsea likes to experiment with flavors so she is making a black cocoa cookie filled with a red miso and seaweed cream cheese and a dark chocolate and red miso buttercream. She really wants ocean flavors in her dessert.

For her cupcake, she is going a little tamer with a banana and pineapple spiced cake topped with a diver’s helmet made of fondant. For her final cake, she wants to showcase her particular style. In each of her portfolio pictures, we see that she makes intricate patterns in colored buttercream. It has the look of cross-stitch or embroidery and is quite beautiful. She wants to use that style on a blue background on her final cake to create a coral reef scene. While Nicole is mostly focused on her cookie, Chelsea and her assistant are trying to tackle all the baking at once.

Amanda Saab, owner of Butter Bear Shop, is going this same route. She plans to get all her baking completed right away. She is making one cake batter and then splitting it for different flavorings for her cupcakes and final cake. In the midst of getting together all their dough and batter, she explains that they are making a sugar cookie decorated to look like ocean waves. She will then present a cupcake decorated with coral reef elements. Her final cake will be a three-tiered affair with a coral reef bottom, mermaid scaled middle, and pink top tier.

Throughout, she will bring her specialty- introducing Middle Eastern flavors to classic American desserts. Her cookies will include caraway, her cupcake will be flavored with sumac, and her cake will have turmeric and rose water. In no time, Amanda has all her batter and dough made, has her cakes and cupcakes baking, and is on to making fillings.

Our final contestant is Robert Diaz, owner of Sweet Tooth. He is mostly focused on his cookie and has grand plans for it. He is hoping to present a highly detailed sea turtle cookie. For his cupcake, he wants to make a cinnamon cake with caramel sauce, decorated with lollipops that have fondant fish trapped inside.

Finally, he wants to top it all off with a three-tiered Abuelita cake (Mexican hot chocolate flavor) with a golden seashell crown on top and two little octopi hanging out on the second tier. They represent he and his wife as they were married on the beach.

I always find it interesting to make guesses on who is going to make it to the end. Right away, I worry about Robert. He seems to be a perfectionist and I notice that he spends a lot of time explaining exactly how he wants things done to his assistant, Christina Sanchez. I see her spend a lot of time standing next to him, watching, rather than getting the chance to get in there and get things done. There is no way he will finish in six hours if he tries to do this alone.

At one point, his assistant is making rounds of fondant that will act as the shell on his turtle cookies. She has made pretty thick rounds but he tells her they are not thick enough. He decides to redo them himself and he makes them crazy thick, like three quarters of an inch. Not only is he wasting time but that much fondant is gross. Fondant isn’t tasty.

As I watched him, I suddenly remembered that years ago, I went to a friend’s wedding. Her cake was decorated in really pale peach fondant. It was really thick too so everyone ended up peeling it off to eat the cake. Left behind were these sheets of pale peach that looked for all the world like skin. Gross.

Around an hour in, the judges arrive for a look around. Today we have main judge Buddy Valastro along with guests Tregaye Fraser and Ralph Attanasia. They stop by Robert’s station in time to see the hockey puck of fondant. Buddy immediately points out that the fondant looks awfully thick. Robert tells him he will “smash it down” for the judges and maybe trim some off.

Smashing it down leaves the same amount of fondant, my friend. You need to reroll those circles. Buddy tells him there is basically as much fondant as cookie. The judges also ask how he is doing in terms of getting on with the cupcakes and cake but Robert hasn’t started anything other than the cookies. Buddy tells him this is a “bold” move.

All the bakers other than Chelsea are putting fondant on their cookie. This is not a trend I can get behind. Amanda feels her fondant is too thick so, avoiding the Robert trap, she rerolls it even though she loses time. When the judges stop by, they specifically praise her very thin layer of fondant. You know what is better than a very thin layer? None.

Anyway, less than an hour and a half in and Amanda has managed to have her cupcakes and cakes baked and is finishing her cookies. Soon her assistant begins working on stacking the cakes but one of the layers is badly cracked. They decide to fill in the large gap with buttercream but this means Amanda has to make more buttercream when she thought she was done. This is a time set back but they are well ahead. I am more worried about a layer that is repaired with an awful lot of buttercream.

With seconds left before the cookie round is over, Robert is working on hand painting his cookies and inserting little rock candy crystal geodes into their shells. He finally realizes, too late, that he has spent way too much time on this cookie. So not only is he not taking advantage of his assistant’s help, but he has wasted a lot of time on the first round. Worse, to me, is that a lot of that time was spent on something that is not even good to eat- a thick, hand painted fondant turtle shell.

Chelsea is up for judging first. She presents each cookie in a glass box filled with cookie crumble sand. On that sand rests a black sandwich cookie, stuck together at one side so that the two halves form an oyster shell. Inside is a white pearl. The cookie is a black cocoa, cardamom and cinnamon spiced cookie rolled in sesame seeds. This is filled with a layer of black cocoa and red miso cream cheese frosting and then the pearl is made of a red miso, seaweed cream cheese frosting.

Buddy thinks her presentation is brilliant but he is worried about sushi flavors in his cookie. They taste and Ralph tells her that the flavors are really strong at first but that it finishes nicer. I don’t think this is a complement, really, as it sounds like, “it starts off kind of gross but ends less gross.” Tregaye says this took her on a journey under the sea. Buddy stares disapprovingly at Ralph and Tregaye as they comment, something Ralph notices. Buddy says the cookies are baked perfectly but he really dislikes the flavors, as in he almost takes it as a personal affront to his sensibilities.

Robert is next up. His turtles are beautifully decorated with hand-painted shells inlaid with crystal. Everyone is impressed with the look. Then they taste his lime and coconut sugar cookie with a secret white chocolate and lime ganache center. Under the blanket of fondant, he scooped out the center of the cookies to make a shallow depression for the hidden ganache. The problem is, the fondant is so overwhelming, Tregaye can’t find the filling. Just like at the wedding I attended, everyone starts dissecting their cookie, peeling off the fondant layer. Everyone agrees there is just way, way too much fondant.

Nicole is next with her macadamia nut shortbread starfish sandwich cookie with key lime whipped ganache. She has used a thin layer of painted fondant on top and then finished with bits of gold leaf. Tregaye likes the gold and Ralph appreciates that she piped her ganache. No one ever thinks about the inside of sandwich cookies and making them pretty. Buddy really likes the fresh flavor. He thinks the cookies are a bit overbaked, but the ganache saves it.

Lastly, we have Amanda. She has made very pretty ocean scenes on her caraway and orange spiced sugar cookie. Each cookie has a layer of fondant covered with brushed buttercream waves. At the base of each cookie she has added graham cracker and gold sanding sugar sand, and then a blue and gold 3-D fondant seashell. They are very pretty and Buddy appreciates them, but Ralph wishes for more color contrast. Her seashells disappear in the sand and waves. Ralph really likes the orange in her butter cookie, though. Tregaye does too but can’t really find the caraway. Buddy finds her cookie to have a nice sandy texture, which is good in a cookie but also for an undersea challenge.

The judges feel Amanda has done the best without a doubt. They also liked Nicole, so it is down to Chelsea and Robert. Buddy says he couldn’t even take a second bite of Chelsea’s cookie so his vote is for Robert to stay. Tregaye tells him that they should reward out of the box thinking and not doing a basic cookie flavor. Ralph tells Buddy, “you have a very traditional kind of expectation of things.” Buddy sputters at this and Tregaye lays a hand on his arm. She tells him he is “classic.” Ralph comes back with “old school.”

In the end, the young’uns outvote Buddy and Robert is sent home. Chelsea really thought she was going home and when Buddy personally tells Robert, “I’m sorry” and tells everyone that the decision was not unanimous, Chelsea says, “I think Buddy just put me on notice.”

The clock never stops so everyone has still been working during judging, deliberation, and elimination. Before you know it, we hit the four-hour mark and it is time for cupcakes.

Chelsea is up first. Buddy approaches and asks how she is doing. “Good, I hope,” she says. He tells her, “I hope better than the cookie.” She presents her pineapple and banana spice cupcake. Each one sits in a scallop shell. On top is a citrus cream cheese frosting and a salted honey swiss meringue buttercream. Perched on top are quite large diver’s helmets made of fondant, painted gold. Those suckers took her an hour to make and are simply going to be removed and put aside by the judges. Tregaye and Buddy like her presentation but Ralph notes seams and fingerprints in her diver’s helmets. Then comes the tasting. Buddy loves it. Everyone says it is moist and bright. Buddy decides she has made it up to him and offers her a fist bump of peace.

Nicole is next to present her cupcake. Each one is topped with a swirl of blue frosting, a pink macaron, a purple and pink tentacle trying to steal the macaron, and pale sea glass shards. Each cupcake also has a pipette full of ink rum. The judges love her color palette which screams ocean to them. Buddy is nervous about the ink rum having recently been burned with sea flavors, but he says it really wakes up the coconut cupcake with pineapple filling. Tregaye is really happy with the macaron, which is well-baked. Ralph wants more pineapple.

Amanda is our last presenter with her sumac spiced cake with strawberry and pomegranate molasses filling and swiss meringue buttercream. Amanda had some difficulty this round. She was working on fondant coral but she really didn’t like the shape. She ultimately gave up and instead made a pale pink chocolate that she turned into shards. She also made quite large acid green chocolate balls. The idea is that the shards are coral and the balls are seafoam. As soon as she went to this plan, I worried that she had failed on the theme.

Tregaye loves her colors and Ralph doesn’t mind that she went abstract, but he admits that he wouldn’t guess under the sea as her theme. Buddy feels she has put too much buttercream on the cake but loves the filling. Everyone agrees that her tart filling is a stand out.

The judges feel that this round was very close. They all agree that Nicole is safe. Between Chelsea and Amanda, they liked Amanda’s presentation more as Chelsea’s helmets were all different and not well-made. But Amanda did not really nail the theme. In terms of flavor, Chelsea won there. In the end, flavor and working within the theme push Chelsea through and Amanda is out.

After the cupcake elimination, there is just about an hour and ten minutes left. Both teams work frantically to complete their epic cakes in time. In general, they finish most of what they wanted to do and we are ready for the final judging.

Nicole is first to present her dark chocolate cake with chocolate ganache and café con leche buttercream. Her cake features a sea floor on which sits a skull and an old treasure chest. The chest is quite impressive as she has paneled the sides and then used food color to stain it, exactly as you would stain real wood. Hovering over the chest are two jellyfish with wafer paper tentacles. They are multi-colored and the tentacles are lit up.

Tregaye tells her it is stellar. She is really impressed by the realism of the chest and loves all the details such as the skull with its gold teeth. Ralph also loves the level of detail, pointing out all the textures of the sea floor which includes sand, shells, pebbles, coins, and jewels. Buddy loves it too but he thinks her airbrush got away from her on the jellyfish, giving them a less than perfect look. Upon tasting, Ralph likes the strong coffee note but says the cake is too dense. Tregaye and Buddy agree.

Chelsea’s creation is quite different. She has not gone for the drama that Nicole went for. Rather, her wow factor is in the highly intricate buttercream piping that she has done. Using at least 8 bags of differently colored icing, she has made her needlework coral scene. Her cake features three tiers and on the top, she has carved out a dark cave out of which wave tentacles of the kraken. Tregaye loves the cave and wants to explore it. Ralph notes that her top tier, holding up all those tentacles with nothing but buttercream and cake, looks wobbly. Buddy is enamored with her piping skills and calls it exquisite art. They all like the flavor of her salted caramel espresso cake with swiss buttercream, but just like Nicole, her cake is too dense.

The judges deliberate one last time. The flavors are an even tie between the two teams and both suffered from dense cake. Chelsea’s is impressive up close, when looking at the small detailed piping. Nicole’s is a wow from across the room. Buddy is leaning toward Chelsea to win as he says Nicole’s wow is all smoke and mirrors. He feels Chelsea’s cake is more refined and has a higher level of difficulty given the piping technique. The other two seem to be leaning toward Nicole’s more modern cake design.

In the end, Nicole wins out. She admits that she and her husband of fifteen years never got a honeymoon, so they are using their all-expense-paid vacation prize to go to Maui together. That seems a fitting treat after making an undersea cake. Congrats to Nicole!

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Which Big Time Bake under the sea dessert was your favorite? Would you eat fondant on a cookie?