MasterChef 4 Recap: Children and Cheesecake (S4E5)

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not endorsed or approved by MasterChef or Fox, and they probably would rather you not read it.  The info contained in this blog is exclusively opinions from a former MasterChef survivor who has no inside knowledge of this season or how the show is produced.)

It’s time for the first group challenge of the season, and I remember back to my own first group challenge…feeding the lunch rush in the cafeteria at the LA Times building in downtown LA.  Hundreds and hundreds of people.  None of us had ever cooked for that many people before.  It seemed completely impossible, but somehow we pulled it off.

The show opens with the contestants on a school bus headed to an elementary school, where they learn they have to cook a healthy AND delicious lunch for 301 kids, and the kids will be the judges.  No small order.

Jessie and Jordan are our team captains this time, and they have to pick their teams.  This is where we get to see who the contestants think, at this point, are the strongest contenders, rather than whoever the producers have chosen to feature in the editing thus far.  And, in true form, it’s somewhat of a surprise to us…  Jessie picks first, and she picks Lynn.  Jordan was also going to pick Lynn first.  So it’s pretty obvious who everyone thinks is the strongest, even though Lynn hasn’t been positioned that way by the editing thus far.  So I think it’s a safe bet that Lynn is probably one of the most knowledgeable and capable cooks in the bunch, even if he’s never featured as such.  (And likely one of the friendliest, as well…that makes a huge impact in team challenges.  You want people who are nice and who you can work with.)

To round out her team, Jessie picks Bethy, Beth, Bime, Natasha, Bri, Luca, and Malcolm.

Jordan’s first pick is Savannah, because she’s a school teacher and understands kids, and goes on to select James, Eddie, Jonny, Krissi, Adriana, Howard, and Kathy.

Menus must be selected, and Jessie’s Red Team decides on teriyaki chicken, corn, and a strawberry crumble, while Jordan’s Blue Team will make spaghetti and meatballs, green beans, and apple crisp.

I’m having some horrible flashbacks to my own reality TV battles, cooking for kids.  The first was on Rachael Ray’s “So You Think You Can Cook?” back in 2007.  We were down to the top 3, and were taken to an elementary school to cook the lunch rush for 4th graders.  Officially, the kids were deciding the winner, but the school’s dietician also had some sway.  The protein I was assigned was tilapia, and the vegetables I had to use were zucchini and potato.  I did crunchy fish stix…breading the tilapia in whole wheat cracker crumbs, oven “fries,” and I turned the zucchini into cupcakes with strawberry frosting.  (A stroke of genius, if I do say so, myself!)  I was up against spaghetti with turkey meatballs, and chicken strips, so naturally I had the hardest sell.  The kids didn’t vote in as transparent a way as they do on MasterChef, where you can SEE how they are voting.  They filled out secret ballots which were tabulated by the producers, so WHO KNOWS what the real results were.  But I was axed.

So naturally, when the neighborhood children’s block party challenge came up on MasterChef, I was a bit nervous.  I know EXACTLY how picky kids are.  My sister’s youngest is an aspiring chef, and even HE won’t eat a thing he cooks…he wants McDonalds after he’s finished cooking.  My team ended up cooking chicken nugget sandwiches with homemade ranch dressing and sweet corn fritters with caramel sauce, while the opposing team made turkey burgers and apple slices with caramel sauce.  We won, despite some rants by Gordon that kids in America would never go for something called a “chicken nugget sandwich” and they’d prefer to eat something healthier.  (Sometimes that beautiful man lives on his own planet where it’s always Opposite Day.)

I gotta admit, Jordan’s team has the upper hand, at least in terms of the protein.  If they can pull off meatballs for 301 kids, they’ll easily win.  But that’s a LOTTA meatballs, and I immediately wondered how they’re gonna hand-roll 600 meatballs in an hour and 45 minutes.  At 15 seconds per meatball (a VERY fast pace), that’s 150 minutes of meatball rolling, and even if he devotes 6 of his 9 team members to that, that’s half an hour just to get the meatballs formed.  Then you gotta cook ’em, and that’s a LOT of meatballs to cook all the way through on the flat top.  Literally impossible.

The cooking begins, and both teams immediately have trouble.  Jordan’s team is discovering what I feared…there’s just not enough time to prep so many meatballs.  Jessie’s team has all their chicken crammed onto one of their two flat tops, and all the liquid cooking out is boiling the chicken, rather than searing it.  (Commercially produced chicken is “enhanced” with a “broth” of delicious sodium phosphate, generally up to 15% of its own weight, so when you cook it, that nasty stuff comes out in the pan.)  Jessie’s team is also having trouble getting their teriyaki “gravy” just right.

While the contestants are fixing their dishes, Gordon goes to hang out with the kids.  This may be the ONLY time the audience gets a true glimpse of what Gordon Ramsay is like when there aren’t any cameras around.  He becomes the big, fun, happy teddy bear that he truly is.  I love seeing Gordon interacting with kids.  He also learns an interesting lesson…kids don’t know what chicken teriyaki is, apparently.

Time is called and an ocean of screaming children are headed in a massive wave toward the contestants’ tables.  James remarks, “This is my nightmare.  This is the day I die.”  I know how he feels.

The kids taste the food and are typically picky.  One kid pouts, “The blue team’s green beans bent my fork.”  Jordan is out working the crowds and establishing rapport with the kids…which is EVERYTHING when you serve kids.  If they like you, they’ll vote for you, whether your food was good or not.  (We used this tactic to great advantage on my season.)

Jessie’s Red Team is having trouble keeping up, and some plates are not getting filled, which will probably mean automatic votes for Jordan’s Blue Team, which appear to be filling ALL the plates.  (That could be preferential editing, of course.)  The judges prefer the Red Team’s menu, but the editing is indicating that the kids prefer the Blue Team.  However, when it’s time to vote, it’s clearly the Red Team that wins.

I’m always intrigued by this method of kids’ voting.  When the kids run toward which team they like, the producers have absolutely NO control over the judging.  In most other group judging scenarios, they can retain control over results, but not when the kids run to their favorite team.  It must be a scary thing for them to NOT have control over the results, when they normally have careful control over them.

So Jordan’s Blue Team is headed to a pressure test, and Krissi is PISSED and naturally blames Jordan.  It’s always easiest to blame the leader.  Back in the MC kitchen, the judges reveal that only 6 of the 9 team members will participate in the pressure test, and Jordan gets to choose which 3 to save.  He picks Howard and James, and then Joe announces that he can choose to save himself, if he wants.

Increasingly, the producers are putting contestants in these unique moral experiments.  Part of me is very intrigued to see how people respond in such intense situations, but they often bring out the worst in people, unfortunately.  (And it’s also WILDLY unfair to break up a team for a pressure test and let some be safe.  The WHOLE TEAM should participate in the pressure test.  Every time.  Period.  This is a cooking show.  Not a strategy game.  People should be cooking.)

Jordan saves himself, naturally.  I wonder how many of his teammates would have made that same choice?  What would YOU have done?  As I’ve mentioned before, I’d pick whoever I thought would be MOST challenged by the pressure test, to give them the best chance of staying.  When my team lost the Hollywood Cocktail Party challenge, I could tell, based on the ingredients out in the kitchen, that the pressure test would be baking, so I asked my team who was least comfortable with baking, in order to decide who to save.  Personally, I can’t ever imagine saving myself above my teammates…I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.  That’s not because I’m a good person.  It’s because I’m a spineless coward and I’d be terrified to face them the next day knowing I had saved myself.

My best friend J-P loves to debate this issue with me.  He considers anyone who WOULDN’T save themselves as weak and foolish.  He believes it’s a competition, and you do whatever it takes to win.

To me, “winning” doesn’t necessarily mean getting the trophy.  It means acting with integrity, doing your best to help everyone, doing no harm to anyone, and performing to the top of your ability.  I guess therein lies the difference.

Krissi has some choice words for Jordan when he heads upstairs.  “Captain goes down with the ship,” she finishes.  I wonder if she would have saved herself if she was in the same position.  My gut tells me no.  I think she’s too stubborn to take the easy pass, and would stay and cook to prove a point.  I like Krissi.  I know some of you are turned off by her crassness.  But to me, she comes across as being VERY genuine…very real.  What you see is what you get.  She’s not keeping any secrets.  She’s not humoring anyone.  She grew up in a rough part of town, she struggles as a single mom every day, and she don’t take sh-t from no one.  I think her “rudeness” is more jokey than real, like Christian from my season.  Half the stuff he said that was edited as rude insults were actually jokes, pulled out of context.

So the pressure test is a cheesecake challenge.  I don’t know what it is about MasterChef pressure tests, but they are ALWAYS made for me.  If there was ever a show that was ONLY MasterChef pressure tests, I’d totally do it.  My best performances on MasterChef were always the pressure tests.  And this one would have been no different…except for one small thing.  You can’t bake a cheesecake in 90 minutes.  You can’t.  It’s impossible.  Don’t ever try it.  If you see a cheesecake recipe that says it can be accomplished in 90 minutes, look for a different one.  YOU CAN’T BAKE A GOOD CHEESECAKE IN 90 MINUTES.  Period.

Cheesecake needs to be baked low and slow to prevent it from cracking, to prevent the sides from rising and the center from sinking, and to result in a light, airy, moussey texture.  I bake my cheesecakes at 200 degrees for 6-8 hours.  The only faster way to properly bake a cheesecake is inside a water bath, which can be REALLY tricky with a springform pan, because the water can seep into the joints on the pan and soak the crust.  So you have to use a solid form pan when baking in a water bath, which means the cheesecake has to FULLY chill for several hours before you can remove it from the pan in one piece…

Are you getting that you can’t make cheesecake in 90 minutes?  It’s not possible.  At least not possible to make a PROPER cheesecake.  Commercial bakeries and the Cheesecake Factory add synthetic binders, like guar gum and xanthan gum, to their cheesecake batter to allow them to bake them more rapidly but still hold together.  The MasterChef contestants are baking thinner cheesecakes, but I can guarantee you the texture won’t be right.

You can also see many of them pouring the batter into the pans and there are big lumps in there.  This is another tricky aspect to cheesecake baking.  The batter has to be velvet smooth, which means extended beating, but on VERY low speed, because the more air you whip into the batter, the greater the chance that the cheesecake will rise high during the initial stages of baking as the air bubbles in the batter expand.  If you’re baking a high temperature (325-350 is VERY high for a cheesecake), the edges set quickly at that high level…but as the center of the cake bakes more slowly, it gives those air bubbles time to collapse, which causes the center of the cheesecake to fall.  (This is such a common error that we’re accustomed to seeing cheesecakes that look like that and consider it “normal.”  But it’s not right.  A proper cheesecake is perfectly flat across the top.  Some recipes then call for spreading a sour cream topping on to level everything out.  But that’s cheating.)

I’m not sure what pantry options were available, but I’d probably make my legendary pumpkin cranberry swirl cheesecake, or perhaps my chocolate espresso cheesecake.  I’ve never been wild about fresh fruit cheesecakes, for some reason.

Krissi is first for judging, and she admits in the beginning that the cheesecake fell.  That means too much air in the batter, too high a baking temp, and too little time in the oven.  (But, again, when you’ve only got 90 minutes, you can’t make a real cheesecake.)  Her cheesecake has raspberry topping and chocolate covered raspberry “bombs.”  I wonder if she tempered the chocolate covering the raspberries.  The chocolate is “sweating” which means the cheesecake was stored in the fridge (probably courtesy of the culinary team during the “beauty shot” phase) so it’s not possible to tell if the chocolate was tempered.  If it just came out of the fridge…the chocolate will be hard, regardless.  The judges love her cheesecake, and Joe says it has lots of “restraint.”  (Not quite sure what that means, but I’ll attempt to make my next cheesecake with restraint and see how it turns out.)

Jonny is next, with his pineapple “Foster” cheesecake.  I’m not entirely sure what he means by that, probably he flambeed the pineapple in rum or cognac, the way “Bananas Foster” is prepared, but the “Foster” in that title doesn’t refer to the preparation, it refers to the dude the dessert was named after.  Joe says his cheesecake is like a “lumberjack trying to do a pirouette” and is confused by the excess crust, and the pineapple, which has a “fibrous” texture that is detracting from the delicacy that a proper cheesecake should have.

Kathy is next, with her cheesecake topped with blueberry and blackberry compote.  Graham loves it, because she apparently put a decent amount of lemon in the batter, giving it a nice bite of acidity…VERY important in a rich dish like cheesecake.  (Thus the cranberries in my pumpkin cranberry cheesecake, and the heavy dose of espresso in the white chocolate espresso cheesecake.  You HAVE to have acidity in your cheesecake, or it’s so rich it’s hard to eat.)

Eddie presents his vanilla bean cheesecake with mixed berry compote, and he forgot to strain his berries after he cooked them, so the juice has drenched the cheesecake filling.  Still, the flavors are excellent, so he’s safe.

Savannah has a salted caramel cheesecake with hazelnut almond brittle and honey whipped cream.  Wow, Savannah!  Sounds amazing.  Unfortunately, her crust is too thick and the topping is too sweet, which she admits after tasting it.  Bravo for your honesty, girl.

Last up is Adriana, who has probably become my favorite after Sasha Foxx left.  She’s both adorable and stunning at the same time.  Her food always looks great to me, and she seems as sweet as honey.  Before he even tastes the cheesecake, Gordon lights into her for using guava paste rather than fresh fruit.  Apparently, Gordon has never even TASTED guava paste before.  (“There’s something really weird about canned guava,” he says.)  Guava paste is a STAPLE in Latin American cooking, from Mexico all the way south to Brasil and Argentina.  (I have about 4 pounds of it in my pantry right now.)  Adriana probably grew up with it.  It’s a VERY versatile ingredient, and it’s delicious.  Guavas have a very delicate flavor and are peppered with large round seeds that make it very challenging to eat a guava.  (You either have to swallow the hard seeds, or spit them out.)  So there’s no way to elegantly eat a guava.  Guava paste is the answer…the juices are strained out, the seeds discarded, and then they are cooked down and concentrated, and set with gelatin.  This results in an INTENSE guava flavor that you’d never get from fresh guava alone.  So in the sophisticated kitchen, guava paste is a SUPERIOR ingredient to fresh guava.  I’m completely flabbergasted that the judges aren’t familiar with it and are criticizing her for using a very quintessential Latin American ingredient.  But they find other things wrong with her cake…Joe says the crust is like sand.  (Another news flash…cheesecakes are often made with the traditional French pastry pâte sablée which directly translates as “sandy pastry.”  Michel Roux, Gordon’s big chef competition in the UK and the first chef there to get 3 Michelin stars, makes ALL his cheesecakes with sandy crust.)

Nevertheless, they axe Adriana.  Man…my favorites are not being treated kindly by the judges.  I’ll try to stop having favorites from now on, it’s apparently a curse.

Adriana Guillen, you were a breath of fresh air.  And I know a LOT of folks who would love to meet you and cook with you.  I hope our paths cross someday.

Bookmark Adriana’s lovely website, where she has some amazing Mexican recipes which are primarily vegetarian.  Like her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter, and send her a message to wish her all the best!  And comment below about what YOU thought about this episode!

32 Responses to MasterChef 4 Recap: Children and Cheesecake (S4E5)

  1. Hello, Ben!

    I remember you well from your season, and you were my favorite! I only recently came to this blog from AV Club, but I have been fascinated with your posts ever since! I am finally commenting (granted, on an old post) because it seemed like the right place to mention something I’ve been thinking increasingly often this season. While I can’t answer the question as to what *I* would do, should I have the opportunity to save myself – I’m sure you can’t know the answer to that until you’re in that situation – I do wonder about the strategizing of the whole thing. Part of me understands *why* the contestants feel that they need to save themselves and knock out their most serious competition, but the other part of me thinks, “Don’t you want to win because you’re the best? Isn’t it only going to push you to do better if your competition is stronger than you, not weaker?” Not to get too far off on a tangent, but that’s what I think of sports players that use illegal drugs. I understand the inner desire to WIN, but if it’s not truly YOU and your accomplishments, what’s it worth?

    Anyway, /rant, and thank you so much for sharing your fascinating and worthwhile thoughts!

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