We are walking into the MasterChef kitchen as the top 15. That means, since apron battles concluded, that we are down contestants by 25%, which means….less and less room for error. As the numbers dwindle, you can’t just hope to skate by in the middle, all flaws are shown the smaller the numbers get. Every time we walk into the kitchen, we scan the room for indicators of what type of challenge or cuisine we will be encountering. Today, in the front of the kitchen, is a GORGEOUS display of desserts. And I don’t mean banana pudding, peach cobbler and no-bake cookies. We are talking decadent, elegant, major baking skills required desserts. So, no matter what else this challenge consists of, we already know it’s going to be crazy tough.
Baking challenges are always a mess. I believe it’s because baking is a science. With savory cooking, you have time and room to adjust. Need more salt? Add salt! Purée is too think? Add a little cream. But baking….once you get whatever it is you’re baking in the oven, fingers crossed you did it correctly because there is no fixing a cooked dessert that wasn’t measured properly. What’s crazy is that I LOVE desserts. I love eating sweets. I love cooking sweets. One of my favorite things to make is a cheesecake (which is NOT in the display and I’m a little salty about it).
Looking over the desserts, I know I’d love to get the key lime pie. Graham cracker crust, key lime filling, whipped cream on top….I could make two in 90 minutes! The lemon meringue tart also looks pretty straight forward, and I have chocolate mousse on my menu, so I think I’d be fine with that too. There are some desserts up there, however, that’s I’ve never heard of (and we honestly can’t see much from where we are standing to study these desserts). When I find out Christian’s advantage is to pick the order in which we choose desserts, I’m not overly concerned. I know I won’t be his first or second choice. These will either be his close friends or someone he doesn’t feel threatened by. I also don’t think I’ll be picked last. These are going to be people that Christian either dislikes and wants to go home, or people that he feels threatened by. I’m correct when I get called about middle of the pack to pick (and I’m correct in Derrick being picked last….Christian does not care for Derrick, and I think Derrick has started to reciprocate the hate).
Shanika has already taken the key lime pie, Willie has the chocolate mousse cake, Tommy has the lemon meringue pie, and for some reason Shelly was picked second and took the Napoleon. Call me crazy, but I was really wanting the Napoleon (one of my top 4 choices). I know how to make rough puff (quick puff pastry dough) and pastry cream. The only really intimidating part of that dish for me is the intricacy of the ganache designs on the top. Shelly was a pretty good friend of mine at this point, and she had made it very clear to me that she DOES NOT bake. So I’m thinking one of three things when she chooses the Napoleon. 1. She is wanting to step out of her comfort zone and be ambitious. 2. She has no earthly idea how difficult this dessert is. 3. My girl just may be well-versed in Napoleons and know exactly what she’s doing!
By the time I get to pick, most of the desserts I’m familiar with are gone. I’ve never made a strawberry pistachio tart, I’m still not sure what Fred’s choice was called, and I DON’T want sticky toffee pudding because that is a signature Ramsay dessert, and I just don’t want the pressure. I look about half-crazy picking the macarons….I know, but hear me out. I’ve made macarons before, I haven’t made these other desserts. So even though the macarons are the hardest dessert up there to cook, I feel as though I’m taking the lesser of several evils. And I already know how this challenge will go….immaculate and in top 3, or an absolute disaster. But, if you’re going to be a MasterChef, a few little French cookies shouldn’t stress you out…right? I also heard Gordon say 40 cookies. In my head….40 cookies makes 20 sandwiches right? Wrong! 40 SANDWICHES, which means I have to make 80 COOKIES!
As I’m standing at my station waiting for the time to start, I notice a little perspiration on my forehead, and realize how hot it is in the kitchen between all ovens being on and an insane amount of production lights. We are use to the heat and lights, but all of a sudden I’m starting to panic. If you’re from the south and have ever made (or know someone who has made) a meringue pie, you know the weather is key. Hot, humid, rainy weather is not an ideal condition for meringue. Macarons are, in essence, meringue cookies with the addition of almond flour. ***Warning, My teacher side is about to kick in*** See, the problem with meringue and humidity is SUGAR. Sugar is hygroscopic, which means is attracts and absorbs moisture. This can affect the batter, causing it to be too wet. Then, when combining the dry ingredients, you can end up with a grainy texture. After you pipe out your meringue batter, the trays of cookies have to set out for at least 30 minutes before baking. This allows the batter to start to dry out, and a thin shell/crust forms on the outer layer of the cookie, creating its signature crunchy outside and chewy interior. If the room is too humid, the shell can’t form!
I begin making my batter and things are starting well, then when I add the dry ingredients, I notice a slight graininess. I DON’T have 30 minutes to let these cookies set out to form a shell, and even if I did, the humidity levels are so high in this kitchen that they would probably have to set out at least two hours to set!!!! I’m definitely regretting my decision at this point.
So, the macaron cookies themselves are only a third of the elements of this dish. I also have to make a homemade strawberry preserve from fresh strawberries (which means I have to cook them for an extended period of time on high heat, AND get it cooled to be able to pipe in my cookies). I also have to make a Swiss meringue buttercream frosting. That’s right! Not one…but TWO meringue based elements…and we just mentioned meringue and humidity. Oh, and let’s not forget I have to assemble all 40 cookie sandwiches and build an immaculate tower!!!!
My first batch of cookies come out and I’m NOT happy. They taste absolutely delicious, but they look horrid. With half the time remaining I decide to start a new batch…worst mistake ever. After adjusting my almond flour measurements with humidity into consideration, I realize I now have a beautiful cookie batter, none of it baked, no strawberry jam, and no buttercream. I’m panicking so badly that I think I don’t have room to get all of my cookies in the oven, and ask Willie to borrow his since he isn’t technically baking. He is more than happy to let me use his, and even puts the trays in for me. Much too late, I realize that I could have turned the trays sideways and fit them ALL in my oven at once!!!! I didn’t even need Willie’s oven…and I’m feeling like an idiot.
All of a sudden I smell something burning….and see smoke and flames… and hear Fred yelling, “Brandi, your parchment!” I have started a fire. I’m in the MasterChef kitchen. I have STARTED A FIRE in the MasterChef kitchen!!! I can’t get the flames out because it just keeps spreading to all of the other random sheets of parchment all over my station! Everyone is watching me struggle, but they are obviously worried about their own dishes (and for good reason). They don’t have time to mess with my fire! But y’all realize if this kitchen burns down, your desserts are gone too right!!! Shelly, ahead and diagonal from me, tries to rush to my rescue and help put out the fire (Thank you sis!), but it is NOT going out. Cue hero Gordon Ramsay to the rescue! He ceases the fire in a matter of seconds (what is he not good at?) I’m thankful, yet also embarrassed. Because, honestly, yea, the fire sucked, but it wasn’t near my biggest concern. I had plenty of other problems going on.
Now the buttercream. You guys know what happens to warm butter right!?!? The heat levels are so high at this point that my Swiss meringue buttercream, like me…is having a hard time. It’s just too warm!!! I’m doing my best and utilizing the blast chiller. I pull out my new batch of macaron cookies and they are absolutely flawless. They are also HOT AS SIN, so there is no way I can even use them because they will melt my filling. Yep, that’s right! I wasted almost half of my time rebaking cookies that I couldn’t even use. If I were smart, I would have used the ugly, but delicious, cookies and spent the rest of my time making sure all other components were perfect.
I tell you guys each week, I’m not focused on anyone else, I’m just competing with Brandi. And right now, in this moment, I am NOT happy with Brandi and her performance. Brandi was not happy with her first batch of cookies. So, instead of taking the L and finishing strong, I decided to torture myself instead.
I’m in a complete frenzy. I have no idea what I’m doing, all I know is that I’m like the little engine that could trudging along and not giving up. If I go down, I’m going down swinging….enters Gordon again. Gordon can see how distraught I am and starts to give me a compassionate, motivating speech. He is being so kind and considerate because he knows I’m falling apart and he wants me to push through. What he does not realize is that his sincerity and genuine belief in me are now causing me to have a crying meltdown. I was trying to leave emotion out of this frenzy, and Gordon brought it right to my front door. Cue the waterworks.
I though I had had an anxiety or panic attack before today. I was wrong. In the last five minutes of the challenge, I’m GASPING for air. The oxygen has been sucked out of the room and I literally can’t breathe. I was honestly seconds away from just sitting down or walking out of the kitchen. I started thinking about all of the obstacles in life that I have overcome. Heck, the last 85 minutes that I had overcame. I just needed to get through 5 more minutes. I can do anything for five minutes, right? I somehow get myself together and assemble ALL 40 macaron sandwiches….and I get them on the tower….AND I even get the decorations on!
I should be proud right?!?! WRONG! I’m so disappointed in myself. I know I am better than this. And I’m even more disappointed in my meltdown. I usually have complete composure in these situations. Never let ‘em see you sweat! But today, today was just too much. I’m overwhelmed, I’m overstimulated, I’m hot, I’m tired, I miss my family, I just let myself down, and I’m taking the situation pretty hard. After time has been called we are standing around waiting for a few minutes. Me, a puddle of tears, is a highlight for the camera crew right now. I know, they are just doing their job, but I need some space from them because I’m still not recovered. Willie sees the look of despair on my face and walks over to my station, turns me away from the camera, and holds me in a giant bear hug. He tells me, “If they want to film you, they can film the back of your head.” Although I’ve thanked Willie since, I know there is no way he truly understands how much I needed that and appreciated it in that moment.
We are asked to clear set before judging for just a few minutes. Walking back into the kitchen and up to my station, I look down at my tower. Y’all….it’s not that bad. Are they perfectly shaped? No. But they are delicious, and complete. All components are on this tower. Instead of being proud that I somehow made 80 macarons, strawberry preserves, Swiss meringue buttercream and BUILT a tower in 90 minutes, I had let my emotions take over and only see the wrong I had done.
During judging I had absolutely no hope of being in the top three. When Michael was called up, I could tell that his dessert was beautiful and delicious. I had been way too intimidated to choose a ricotta cake (I’ve done a lot of things with ricotta, even used it in a cheesecake, but never in a chocolate cake), but he basically got stuck with it. Amanda is no surprise to me to be in the top 3. She is well known for baking, and has actually baked several cakes in this season so far. Her passion fruit cake looks adorable and delicious (I actually think hers is aesthetically better than the model). Dara’s cake was so beautiful every other contestant on the floor was probably embarrassed! I joke, but she really did kick this challenges’ butt! She definitely deserved the immunity pin.
I’m not gonna lie. I tell you guys I zone out in these challenges. I have no idea what mistakes were made, except the ones at my station, and the ones at Shelly’s because she is close by. I see her dessert and want to cry for her. It’s a mess, but when called up, the judges say the flavors are nice and the rough puff is delicious. Poor Tommy did not get his crust in the oven in time. His dessert is so raw, it’s deemed inedible.
One more person is about to be called up, and guys, I just knew it was me. ***Funny side story: I don’t hear very well…at all. I get by with reading lips and using closed captioning when watching shows. I told a few producers I was having a hard time hearing the judges on challenges where I get placed close to the back. The last person is being called up and I’m straining to hear the name. Although Gordon says, “Bri,” I’m trying to read his lips and think I hear “Brandi.” Next thing you know, Bri and I are both starting to walk our desserts up. We both stop dead in our tracks and stare at Gordon. He repeats, “I said Bri,” and I still cannot hear or understand who’s name he is saying. He is getting understandably frustrated and asks me if I know my own name and to go back to my station. I yell out, “ I’m sorry, but I can’t hear ANYTHING back here!” Walking back to my stage, I honestly, at the time, still did not know if he had called my name or not. Now, not only did I just have a panic attack on national television, but also feel like an idiot because the judges think I’m ignoring them and I simply can’t hear! But…at least my name wasn’t called up.
Bri was actually a shock for me this time around. I figured if any of us has made a beautifully intricate strawberry pistachio tart before, then it had to be her. Her crust is also raw and deemed inedible (although Joe says the flavors are nice). The design of the strawberries is also very half-hazard, which is unusual for the “Plating Queen.” Tommy got sent home due to a raw tart. Tommy was always so kind to me. He told me, “he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea,” but I can’t imagine why, because I don’t think he has a mean bone in his body. I’m happy I had the opportunity to get to know him and cook with him. Another sweet, friendly, spirit gone.
I’d like to say I felt relief after this challenge, but honestly, I’m a wreck. Week after week, year after year, I have people tell me they love how confident and fearless I am. I try. I really do. I try to stare hardship in the face and prove it wrong. But, everyone has their days. It was traumatizing that day, I’ve replayed it in my head many times since, and I relived it this week watching the episode. Was it hard to watch? yes. But looking back at how completely consumed by failure I was, to now watching the show, I realize, “I really did OK.” And sometimes, OK just has to be good enough.
I live to fight another day, and hopefully take today’s lessons learned into future challenges. Because, no matter what, the next challenge…ain’t gonna be easy!