Are you shifting into a holiday state of mind? The Food Network sure is. The fifth season of “Holiday Baking Championship” premieres tonight, and with it come nine chefs ready to whip, sizzle and scorch their way to the $25,000 cash prize. For the rest of us, the show provides an opportunity to brainstorm some recipes. Looking to impress the fam around the dinner table on Thanksgiving this year? Or maybe you’re hoping to pocket a tip to use when you’re ready to cook up a new pastry for your Christmas Eve party.
One competitor, Ohio native Douglas Phillips, chatted with Dailybreak about what he’s learned about holiday baking from his own career and from competing on “Holiday Baking Championship.”
“I’d never done any cooking competitions period, let alone on television. All in all, it was a wonderful experience, and it was incredibly eye-opening,” Phillips said. “It was exactly as it appears; there are no smoke in mirrors. There’s a reason it's reality television.”
Phillips almost didn’t want to join the competition; he’d studied under Modernist Cuisine’s head chef Francisco Migoya after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York City for baking and pastry arts -- Migoya had always told him that chefs should avoid contests for the sake of their restaurant’s reputation.
“There’s the fact that you can lose, and when you have the reputation for a business, that’s a big deal,” Phillips said.
But Phillips, who has been an instructor at Northshore Community College since leaving the restaurant business -- he’d decided he wanted to spend more time at home when his child was on the way, a luxury that running a restaurant doesn’t allow -- was convinced to take the leap.
“My wife was like, ‘What do you have to lose?’ and I guess they liked me for whatever reason,” he said.
Now, as a pastry and baking arts instructor, Phillips said he took some of what he learned from teaching into the competition.
“You can troubleshoot [as an instructor]. Generally, I hand out a recipe, and I get back 10 different results. As students, they’re learning, and in the beginning everybody makes mistakes,” he said. “Knowing how to fix all the mistakes...I think it’s a huge advantage. It’s knowing what to do when something doesn’t turn out right.”
I'd assume that's a huge benefit on "Holiday Baking Championship," where contenders are usually thrown a curveball in the middle of their timed baking rounds.
Likewise, Phillips's tenure at Woods Hill Table, a 100 percent organic, farm-to-table fine dining experience in West Concord, Mass., gave him a flexibility he brought to the table (pun fully intended) during “Holiday Baking Championship.”
“If we didn’t have ingredients, we didn’t serve ingredients. I once made a red velvet cake with beets. It forces you to use things that you aren’t 100 percent comfortable with,” he explained.
Now, a red velvet beet cake doesn’t exactly seem like something the average amateur baker is going to try their hand at in their kitchen during the holidays, but Phillips had other suggestions for how to make the holidays easy-peasy from behind the stove.
“Some of the things that people are most afraid of are the easiest to do, like pumpkin pie -- the recipe is literally on the can,” he explained, emphasizing that the easiest recipes can be “really striking” if you take the time to add some detail and make them exceptional.
Like a trifle, for example.
“One of the things I always suggest [to impress the relatives] is a trifle. You just layer it, and the cleaner the layers, the more elegant it becomes. Each element itself is not difficult, but when you layer it all up...it turns out really beautifully,” Phillips explained. “It’s all about the impression you leave at the end. No one has to know how easy it is, as long as it looks good.”
He also pointed out that a yule log -- aka a cake roll -- isn’t as intimidating as people think. We suggest a recipe like this one absolutely covered in chocolate to test it out.
Phillips also told us that when it doubt, go for what you know: “The big hits are always going to be cookies and pies. They hit so close to home, because everyone knows someone who made them all the time.”
He used the example of his mother’s almond spritz cookies.
“She would color the dough all these different colors, so when she stamped them out, they would look like Christmas wreaths,” he shared. “But I tried to make them last year, and they weren’t as good as when my mother made them.”
Want to recreate the Phillips' almond spritz cookie? Try something like this, and then watch Phillips compete on “Holiday Baking Championship” tonight at 9 p.m. ET on Food Network.