Big Time Bake review: Food travel inspires stunning desserts

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 /

In the finale of Big Time Bake, four baking teams will take on the theme of travel.

For the Big Time Bake finale, it’s a fitting theme given the Food Network baking competition grand prize, an all-expense paid vacation. To get there will be no relaxing trip though. They must pass three tests- cookies, cupcakes and cakes- all in six hours.

Rachel Dunston is being inspired by her family road trips with the kids. She plans to start with a drop cookie that includes her kids’ favorite car snacks. Then she will make a dark chocolate stout cupcake with a molded Bigfoot on top. She admits that she likes to take the kids Bigfoot hunting and even slips into the woods to make noises for them. Her final dessert will be a three-tiered cake that references Area 51 and all things alien. If the theme was paranormal or something like that, I could see it. But Rachel seems to be falling into one of my pet peeves- needing a full backstory to explain how your creations fit the required theme. In any case, she is steaming ahead with her assistant and sister, Meagan Merrill.

Anjail Belton spent twenty-one years in the Navy. Not only should that give her the nerves of steel she needs against the clock, but she is using it to inspire her take on travel. She wants to reference places that she went while in the Navy. She is starting with a macaron inspired by Dubai. She then plans to move on to a limoncello Italy cupcake with strawberry basil compote. Finally, she will showcase Japan in her dark chocolate cake with matcha swiss meringue buttercream. Her design features cherry blossoms, bonsai trees, and Mount Fuji perched on top. She is being assisted by Jackie Donaldson.

Kevin Moulder plans to spend his travel time in Mexico, start to finish. He is also bringing in the signature from his bakery- the cubecake. This is a cupcake baked into a cube shape instead of the traditional muffin shape. He and Mayra Sibrian are starting with a stack of cookies layered to look like a temple from Chichen Itza. He then is making a mole sauce spiced cubecake topped with a molcajete (Mexican mortar and pestle) fondant topper. His final cake will take inspiration from Frida Kahlo. The bottom tier will look like the famous Frida Kahlo museum, then above that are Mexican serape (fringed blanket) tiers, and finally the top tier will feature some of the imagery from her art such as horns and a heart.

Viki Kane is taking inspiration from her Scandinavian roots. She and her assistant Monica Stout are working on her cookie from Norway, a traditional kransekake. This is an almond cookie tower that is in the shape of a pyramid or Christmas tree. Then she wants to travel to Sweden with her cinnamon swirl cupcake with tiny roll on top. Finally, she wants to embody the concept of hooga, an idea of coziness and comfort. She will layer on Scandinavian imagery such as gnomes, skis, berries and more. I am immediately worried for Viki because she plans, not a fondant cinnamon roll for her cupcake, but an actual baked roll. This requires her to immediately start on a dough that then needs to prove and get baked, all before the two-hour mark.

Forty-five minutes into the baking time, the judges arrive to poke around. Today we have main judge Buddy Valastro along with guests Aarti Sequeira and Thiago Silva. They start at Kevin’s station. He explains his concept and plans. Thiago is worried about such a large cookie stack, but Kevin assures him that most of the cookies will be hollow. Only the bottom layer is a complete cookie. When Kevin describes a plantain filling for his cubecake, Buddy is worried if he can pull this off texturally. Will it be gummy and dense? And will it read as a dessert filling given that plantain is very starchy and potato-like? Kevin assures them that it will be spicy and sweet.

Next they visit Rachel. She describes her road trip theme and Buddy looks skeptical. He agrees with me that this isn’t really a cohesive theme. When asked how she is doing for time, she is proud to say that her cookies are baked and the filling made. She tells them she purposely went with a simple recipe for time. Buddy points out that Kevin is making an elaborate stacked cookie so her simple cookie will need to really wow them. The judges are also worried about whether her drop cookie is on theme. She tells them that the cookie is themed more by taste than look but the rest of her bakes will be more visually on theme. “If you get there,” Buddy says ominously.

They stop off at Viki’s station and hear about her Scandinavian ideas. They are worried that her final cake will be pumpkin with hazelnut filling. They advise her to consider a different filling as hazelnut spread seems far outside of her theme and more Italian. The judges finally move over to Anjail’s station where she is stressing that her macarons haven’t dried yet. Macarons, once piped, need to sit out and form a skin. Once they have dried enough, you can bake them.

With just a few minutes left, Anjail decides she has to bake her macarons even though they never dried out. They emerge quite puffy but badly cracked. Things don’t improve. To go with her Dubai theme, she piped out little palm leaves in chocolate but they haven’t set properly and they fall apart as she tries to apply them to her macarons. Meanwhile, Viki is stressing about the over-brownness of some of her cookies. Kevin is over there microplaning his cookies into perfect square shapes and Rachel is done and has moved on from her simple cookies.

At two hours in, the judges return to review the cookies. Anjail is up first with her orange cardamom macarons with cinnamon white chocolate ganache and date nut filling. Her macarons are very puffy and slightly orange, so they look to me like mini burgers. On top, her chocolate palm fronds now look like squashed spiders. The judges note the cracked appearance but they are pleased when they taste them. Thiago tells her they don’t look like macarons but they eat like them with crunchy exteriors and soft insides. Buddy really likes her flavor profile.

Rachel is next with her gas station treat- a drop cookie with her kids’ favorite candies, a peanut butter cream cheese filling, and kettle chips on top for salty crunch. Buddy says they are visually appealing but a long way from the travel theme in looks. Thiago wishes she would have made some reference to road signs. Aarti notes that these suckers are huge. They are each the size of a small dinner plate and there are two of them sandwiched together. Everyone likes the taste but says they are way too sweet and need more salt through more peanut butter or more salt in the cookie batter.

Kevin is up with his corn achiote (a spice) polvorones (Mexican shortbread) temples with cinnamon glaze. Each temple is made up of a stack of ever smaller, hollow square cookies. Inside, each judge gets a “stone relic” made of fondant. Aarti is really impressed by the look and the texture of the cookies but says something in the flavor just isn’t working for her. Thiago feels like the cookies, which include corn meal, need more corn flavor. Buddy wishes it were sweeter. Kevin had considered glazing each cookie before making the stacks, instead of glazing the finished stacks, and he probably should have done that.

Viki is last to present her almond cookie tower with light lemon ginger glaze. Aarti loves the delicate look of the cookies and the sweet little fondant flowers that she has added but Thiago notes that her cookies are inconsistently colored with some being quite dark. They sample and enjoy the texture but they wish for more ginger and lemon kick. Buddy wishes she would have glazed each cookie, so it looks like both she and Kevin fell victim to the same lack of glaze.

The judges debate and I am thinking they will send home Rachel. They recall that her cookie was not balanced and far too sweet and that it also was a stretch to consider it on theme. However, they surprise me by sending home Anjail instead. Her macarons weren’t perfect but they were more on theme and were tasty, but all the same, she goes home. There’s no time to consider what happened as the clock never stops, so everyone else presses on.

Kevin’s assistant is worried the mole flavor isn’t strong enough in their cupcakes. His solution is to toast and spice peanuts and plantains. He can then put these spicy bits into the molded fondant mortar and pestle on top of the cupcake. Meanwhile, Viki puts her itty bitty cinnamon rolls in the oven only to overbake them. They come out like crisps. With less than an hour left, she restarts her rolls which seems crazy as they show her creating a new yeasted dough.

Soon the judges return for the cupcake round. Rachel is up first with her dark chocolate stout cupcake with a chocolate buttercream and molded chocolate Bigfoot on top. Aarti thinks they are really cute but Buddy notes that her frosting to cake ratio is way off. Aarti says the texture of her cake and icing are great but again, things are too sweet. Thiago misses the stout in the cake. It is good but is just chocolate on chocolate on chocolate.

Kevin presents his mole inspired cubecake filled with plantain filling, topped with his little molcajetes which are filling with spiced peanuts and plantains. Aarti thinks the decoration is darling but Buddy worries about that much fondant decoration on the cupcake. Aarti loves the spice of his peanuts but Thiago finds the plantain texture inside to be unpleasant. Also, Buddy is not impressed by his cubecake. The edges have gone crunchy and dried out which, unlike a brownie, is not acceptable in a cupcake.

Viki is next with her cinnamon swirl cupcake with cinnamon cream cheese buttercream and tiny cinnamon roll. She has cleverly swirled the cinnamon roll filling into her cupcake batter. Everyone loves the look of her presentation and Aarti is pleased that it is not overly sweet. But even remaking them, her little rolls are overbaked. Thiago recommends, with something so tiny, that you crank up your oven temperature so that you can quickly cook the outside while leaving the interior moist. Buddy thinks the rolls might have simply been a waste of time.

Though everyone had flaws with Rachel still stretching on theme and being too sweet, Kevin having an unpleasant texture, and Viki making cinnamon roll crackers, it is Kevin who goes home. That leaves us with a final battle of Scandinavian charm versus alien invasion. What was that theme again?

Before they are really prepared, their six hours expire. Rachel is first to present her masterpiece. Her cake tiers represent the setting sun. Starting at the bottom, she has stripes of icing that gradually change from yellow to orange, pink to purple. This continues on her second tier from purple to blue, until her third tier is a sparkling black sky. Her tiers are decorated with fondant aliens, sugar cookie cacti, rock candy, moon rocks, and chocolate planets. Her crowning achievement are her molded UFOs, covered in silver foil and stuck to the top of neon straws covered in lights to represent tractor beams. The flavor of the cake is apple spice with a caramel filling and cream cheese frosting.

Thiago admits that she has taken them on a crazy journey today but that it is whimsical and fun. He does wish her details were cleaner. Her UFO silver foil could be better, the seams on her planets are showing, and Aarti points out that the cake is not straight. Aarti loves the apple flavor in her cake and calls the texture “unique.” Buddy tells her that yet again, her dessert is too sweet, which is I think her real theme for the day.

Viki presents the competing cake. Hers is a whole collection of items. On top of a brown stump sits a birch tree stump, the bark cleverly made with wafer paper brushed with black dust. On that stump is a little gnome as well as berries and pinecones. In front of that, she has a dalla or two- a traditional Swedish horse toy. Beside the stumps is a stack of quite realistic books. In front of the books sit a mug and a plate of cookies. On top of the books rests a gingerbread and isomalt lantern and another gnome, this one with skis. It sounds like a crazy amount of stuff but it is all well made and all hangs together as a theme.

Aarti is charmed by the cake and Buddy really likes that she has carried through her theme of the day. He is impressed by the details, especially the books. Thiago is also impressed by her realistic details, and the only flaw he points out is a small crack between the cake board and the display. She has stuck with her guns and done her pumpkin cake with hazelnut filling and brown butter buttercream. Aarti loves the pumpkin flavor but Buddy says the hazelnut just kills it. Thiago agrees and wishes she would have gone for some of the acidic berry flavors of Scandinavia.

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The judges deliberate. Viki has it on theme and look but the judges agree they would go back for more of Rachel’s cake. In the end, Rachel’s cake isn’t quite enough to edge out Viki and she wins the day! I wonder if she will head to somewhere Scandinavian for her Big Time Bake prize?