As the clocked ticked down and the judges pestered and prodded, Stephanie Chen knew she had only herself to blame for her unique set of problems. With one challenge left, the former advertising executive was just hours away from the finale of “The Great American Baking Show.” She had made it this far: competing as one of the top two amateur bakers in the United States. Now, if only her macarons would survive the test of rainy London weather and set correctly, despite the humidity. Not to mention the weak consistency of her butterscotch pot de crème.
“There’s so much adrenaline going through my body in every single challenge,” Chen said in a recent phone interview, back in the comfort of her Santa Monica kitchen where her passion began. The show recently aired on ABC but taped over three weeks just outside of London a few months ago.
“By the end of it, I finished 24 total challenges which is kind of amazing since I never thought I would even be selected to begin with,” Chen said.
Chen’s performance was impressive because the show demands amateur bakers demonstrate expert-level skills as judges whittle the field week by week. Your average Betty Crocker enthusiast can’t tell a oeufs a la neige from a French cruller, much less cook one up from scratch. On the show, bakers must meet technical challenges with limited recipes for breads, cakes, cookies and chocolates.
Like her fellow competitors, Chen is completely self-taught through cookbooks and blog recipes. The hobby began as a relaxing escape from work when her husband bought her a stand mixer one year for Christmas. At the time, Chen was the account director for her advertising agency’s iPhone campaign. She began baking birthday cakes and cookies for members of her stressed-out team.
When Chen decided to take a break from her exhausting career and become a consultant, she began spending more time in the kitchen and more time watching baking reality TV like the British version of the ABC show: “The Great British Bake Off.” Chen says she had no idea if she was qualified when she applied to be on the show, but she liked the idea of the challenge.
“It’s really about showcasing the baking and not the nastiness of reality TV,” Chen said of the show. She says the competitors became very close friends during the taping.
Bakers must survive both the judge’s challenges and their own during showcase bake-offs. That’s what lead Chen to end up with an ambitious (but delicious) agenda for the very last episode: a winter celebration dessert display including butterscotch pot de crème with rose marshmallows, a dozen mini-maple eclairs and black sesame macarons with honey champagne buttercream filling.
The macarons were a risky decision but close to Chen’s heart because they incorporate a traditional Asian flavor, black sesame, in a French pastry. The melding of texture and flavor reflects Chen’s Chinese heritage and was a nod to her parents who immigrated to Southern California from Taiwan before she was born. While macarons have recently come into style, they are notoriously difficult to make.
“I’ve really only nailed it a handful of times that I’ve baked and there’s been plenty of disasters,” Chen said.
The macarons set and the judges loved the flavors. Although they had some minute critiques for both Chen and her final competitor, Amanda Faber, a stay-at-home mother from Atlanta, Georgia, the judges praised both bakers so much the end felt like a draw. Chen’s eyes were sparkling when the judges crowned Faber the winner.
“It really was about your personal best and how far you can push yourself so for me, at the end of the day I was so emotional…I literally couldn’t stop crying because I felt like I gave every single fiber of my being into what I was doing those last two days.’
Now that she has moved on from the adrenaline rush of the show, Chen is deciding just how far she wants to go with her baking hobby. She says she is in the process of turning her passion into a business, but is reluctant to bring on the sort of stress that caused her to leave the advertising world.
For now, she’s working on her blog and her recipes, baking for her friends and family and encouraging others who have an obsession with confections to apply for the show. If you’re interested, Chen recommends watching at least one season and having recipes ready for each of the disciplines.
“At the end of the day, believing in yourself is the biggest thing.”
You can reach Chen and check out her recipes through her blog, www.sugarbearbakes.com.