Top Chef Just Desserts: That's the way the cookie crumbles

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I'm enjoying Just Desserts more than I enjoyed the regular Top Chef, though in many ways I'm more interested in savory food than dessert. Although the Dessert contestants are pretty high-octane, they're also more emotionally honest, and there's a lighter, more playful feel to the whole thing -- perhaps because Gail Simmons is a warmer host than Padma and main judge Johnny Iuzzini is less self-important than Tom Colicchio.

Gail Simmons's blog might explain the change in tone. She talks about how talented the chefs are and adds, "Whatever happens in the kitchen, whatever happens in the house, in the Stew Room...we will always treat our chefs with dignity, reverence and respect." I like the contestants -- even volcanic, unstable Seth, because he's so transparent, though I probably wouldn't want to share a kitchen with him. Funny how differentiated the group is already; by the third episode of Top Chef D.C., I still couldn't tell Steven from Ed.

Episode two featured Sylvia Weinstock, a tiny little lady with huge black-rimmed glasses, famed for her wedding cakes, which are impossibly creative, elaborate, beautiful, sometimes crazy. (One that I saw online was in the shape of a chubby, curled-up baby. Seriously -- check Sylvia Weinstock out here.) The chefs were told to make wedding cakes. They had one and a half hours, and basic cakes were already prepared, so it was their job to create shapes, layers, towers, fillings, icings, fondant, decorations and flavors.

Wedding cakes are a specialized form, and some of the contestants had no idea how to go about making one. Seth refused to undertake the project, creating a small, pretty concoction he characterized as an engagement cake. Malika simply couldn't put her cake together; her buttercream was too soft. She placed the top layer off-center and created havoc trying to take it off; the whole thing began falling apart as the judges approached. Anyone who's ever struggled at home with unevenly cut layers and melting buttercream had to sympathize. Though Malika ended up with Seth and Eric in the bottom three, the judges said they liked her flavors: She'd made a coconut custard filling infused with cardamom. "It's not death," Weinstock commented as Malika tried to hold back tears. "It's only a cake."

The winner was Erika's mocha explosion. She was joined in the top tier by Morgan and Heather H, whose beautiful creation featured pale, delicate dogwood flowers.

For the elimination challenge, the chefs had to divide into two teams and make items for a school bake sale, one group raising money for the glee club, the second for the pep squad. The team that raised the most money won; someone on the other team would be sent home.

Eric was on the winning team, and his peanut butter-Nutella-crispy chocolate bar ultimately won the contest. It was nice to see Malika in the top three for a toffee fudge brownie, though it was less than complete victory: She'd used Eric's basic recipe and created a new topping for it. Erika was extravagantly praised for her chocolate chip cookie, which was a bit puzzling. I once tried a recipe from the New York Times that promised the best chocolate chip cookies ever, and though the cookies were delicious, they were hardly earth-shattering. So I'd really like to know what Erika did to hers.

Here's something that interests me: Regular Top Chef contestants are always getting into trouble for using ready-made ingredients -- most particularly, puff pastry in the last season. But Nutella, processed peanut butter, liqueurs and commercial candies are all fine in this context. Doesn't it matter if dessert tastes artificial?

The big dramatics occurred when the losing team stood in front of the judges, each in turn being accused of some culinary sin: Zac's strawberry shortcake was too messy for a bake sale, and the shortcake wasn't tender; Yigit's pudding was overwhelmingly gingery; Seth's financier -- well, it was delicious, but what kid approaches a bake sale table and asks for a financier? Danielle's cupcake wasn't moist; and Heather C had made peanut butter cookies but -- unlike Erika -- hadn't done anything particularly interesting with them.

The floodgates opened. Danielle raged at Seth for his arrogance in ignoring the challenge parameters and refusing to chat up the children. Zac defended Seth. So did Yigit. Heather C started to explain that she hadn't really wanted to make a cookie (she'd actually planned whoopie pies, but Danielle had dissuaded her), and suddenly everyone turned on her. Though she'd been a bit of a hog with the peanut butter earlier, taking all the jars when Eric needed some, I couldn't for the life of me see why. It wasn't Heather who started attacking her teammates.

But she probably did deserve to be sent home for her bland little offering. "You could almost taste the resentment in her cookie," commented one of the judges.

Read Juliet Wittman's review of the first episode of Top Chef Just Desserts here.

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