In this episode, Mandy calls on the bakers to deliver Parcels, food that contains other food. And, for the very first time, we had a bake off so big that we had TWO Star Bakers!
The first entrée we sampled was Dan’s superb calzones, which tasted as good as they look. The aroma from these was mouthwatering, a combination of the smells of a busy pizzeria and a bakery. The herb and Parmesan crust was baked to crisp perfection, and was complimented by Dan’s beautiful Alfredo-esque sauce.
Dan’s calzones were stuffed with marinated grilled chicken and bacon, surrounded by a perfectly baked Italian bread crust. Very impressive, indeed!
Next up were my crispy Bacon & Herb Stuffing Egg Rolls. A very long time ago, Kristi Burger Van Vranken made bacon wrapped stuffing appetizers for a poker game, and I have never forgotten that amazing flavor. My goal was to recapture that bacon-enhanced Thanksgiving miracle in a non-traditional parcel, and I decided to use rice paper to provide a contrasting crunch to the stuffing’s softness. Working with rice paper was trickier than I anticipated, but ultimately rewarding. These didn’t look great, and, in retrospect, I would have benefitted from more practice with the rice paper. But the result was promising, and I intend to continue with my rice paper experiments. I really enjoyed the snap it provided to these rolls.
I wasn’t the only one who was inspired by Asian cuisine. Mandy delivered some truly delicious pot stickers served alongside an excellent brown dipping sauce of her own invention. I have to admit that I ate more than my share of these amazing little parcels. Between the two of us, Mandy and I made quite a mess of the kitchen, as neither of us anticipated the amount of oil that would be spread around by finishing off our bakes in a fryer. But after sampling Mandy’s pot stickers, I feel the mess was absolutely worth it.
Mark was a double threat this week with his Pie Crust Empanadas and his puff pastry… meat… things. Okay, I have to come clean, I have delayed writing this for so long that I have forgotten what Mark called his creations. But I haven’t forgotten the flavors. Whatever Mark called these, they reminded me of elegant little shepherd’s pies, and they were excellent! But, as much as I liked them, the real treat for me were the empanadas.
Despite my lifelong love of Mexican food, I had never before had empanadas. I LOVE THEM. They were like wonderfully baked little tacos, but without the mess. They were tacos for people on the move. My god, where have these been all my life?! As you can see, Mark included black beans in his recipe, which, for my money, is always a smart move when making anything Mexican. But perhaps the most impressive thing about these was their uniformity. Each one of these looked machine made. Mark used an empanada press, if memory serves (which it may not at this point). It was a smart move, These empanadas were delicious and looked professional.
So, at this point we had served and sampled our four entrées, which is normally where our competition would end and the judging would begin. But for some reason, we all showed up with TWO bakes each, a savory and a sweet. And I’m so glad we did, because if we hadn’t I would never have known Dan was capable of making what may well be the finest Danish style pastry I have ever eaten. I don’t remember what was in these. Blueberry? Blackberry? I’ve waited so long to write this I can’t remember. What I do remember is that Dan’s puff pastry, which can be a pain in the ass to bake, was spot on. But the real star, his sublime cheese and fruit filling, was PERFECT. Most cheese Danish are at least a little dry. Not these. Most filled puff pastries are at least slightly softened by the moisture of the filling. Not these. Most cheese pastries are either too cheesy or too sweet. Not these. Every single aspect of these were flawless. I can only assume Dan made some sort of Faustian bargain with Lucifer to achieve these pastries. They were that good. I’m kind of hard to please where pastry is concerned, but I can tell you that not only are these the best thing Dan has ever cooked, they were one of the best desserts I have ever had, bar none. Positively EXQUISITE.
It was difficult to follow Dan’s dessert, but I was pretty proud of my Pumpkin Bread Sandwiches. I was concerned that these would not fit the definition of parcels and Mandy would disqualify me, but as it turned out, the food-inside-food rule did not mean the foods had to be completely enclosed. Here we have slices of ginger pumpkin bread with a creamy filling made from whipped cream, eggless pumpkin pie filling, and some Tennessee apple butter I found at a roadside shop just west of the North Carolina border. I topped these with a little whipped cream for dipping, and a confectioners’ sugar garnish. Dan found the filling to add unnecessary sweetness to an already sweet dessert bread, but I was very pleased with the apple/pumpkin harvest fruit flavor combination, and I think I will almost certainly be making these again.
Once again, Mandy and I were on the same page this week, as she also incorporated apple into her dessert bake. Mandy’s very photogenic Apple Roses were gorgeous to all the senses. One of my big problems with apple pastries is that efforts to prevent the apples from making the pastries too soggy are often taken too far, resulting in dry bakes which mask the apple and make the entire pastry unpalatable. Mandy avoided all of these pitfalls, turning out a moist but flaky pastry which featured the apple above the pastry or spices, just as it should be. If I recall correctly, Mandy was unhappy with the final texture of the roses. The recipe called for leaving the peel on, which she did not care for, as it toughened the mouthfeel of the fruit and made the pastries slightly more bitter than she cared for. I remember these aspects more positively; they simply reminded me of eating an apple, which is never a problem for me. In either case, the attractiveness of these roses is undeniable, as Mandy delivered what may be our most picturesque bake to date!
When Mark told me his bake featured blueberries, I got excited. I absolutely LOVE blueberries. And his Blueberry And Goat Cheese Tarts are certainly beautiful. At this point I’m going to skip ahead and tell you what happened AFTER we tasted these, because the story will make more sense once you know Mark’s reaction to our feedback. When we offered our honest critiques, which highlighted the bake’s good qualities as well as the bad, Mark immediately lashed out, telling us that we never like his food because our palates aren’t sophisticated. I had spent all of dinner praising his empanadas, but suddenly I was unfit to judge food. I usually try to keep my episode recaps positive, but now that you know Mark’s reaction to our very gentle judgement, let me now describe to you what my mundane, pedestrian palate experienced when I bit into one of these monstrosities. The first thing my uneducated, poor man’s palate noticed was how every molecule of water in my mouth was violently vacuumed away by the perfect moisture void of Mark’s filling. If moistness were a temperature, these tarts were absolute zero. My mouth was so dry I could barely chew. Compared to these tarts, saltines are positively JUICY. But that wasn’t the real problem, because the second thing my ignorant, insensate hobo palate noticed was that the only flavor was goat funk. Not goat cheese. FUNK.
I love Mark. I really do. And when I felt my face recoil, I tried to stop it. I swear, I tried. But there was no cheese flavor to be had. Only goat. You see, I’m starting to suspect that Mark knows his own palate is the problem here. The nasty goat flavor wasn’t a chorus, it was one single note, played at maximum, painful volume. No one sensitive to flavor nuance would ever require, let alone enjoy, the blunt force trauma inflicted by this filling. It was a strong, distinct flavor, yes, but that doesn’t mean it was a good one. To Mark’s credit, though, the pastry was perfectly baked. At least that’s my judgement, if you can trust this simpleton’s dirty gutter tongue.
With so many excellent bakes and also Mark’s tarts to choose from, it was difficult to determine a Star Baker. Despite his insults, Mark’s empanadas were, to me, the savory standout, while Dan’s Danishes were the unparalleled sweets winner. I wasn’t alone in my thinking; Dan and Mark ended up tied for votes for Star Baker. Because they were tied for the lead, the decision came down to Mandy and I. But we were deadlocked. Dan’s calzones were far too bready to beat Mark’s light and crisp Mexican dish, and the god awful abominations Mark served us for dessert were not fit to share a time zone with Dan’s unbelievable pastries, let alone be served on the same table. So Mandy, final arbiter of all things culinary and judged, decided that we would, for the first time ever, have TWO Star Bakers! Congratulations to Mark for winning Savory Star Baker, and congratulations to Dan for taking home Sweet Star Baker! We will see you all next time, when our theme will be Canapés!
Until next time, bon appétit!