(PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not affiliated with Fox or MasterChef. Contained below are the maniacal ravings of a season 2 survivor who has no inside knowledge of how this season was produced. Well…not much, anyway.)
When I posted my blog about the first of this week’s episodes (which happened to be a bit depressing and hopeless), my fans all said, “Oh, then you don’t wanna know what happens in the next episode.” I had already watched it folks…I generally watch MasterChef the night it airs, not taking notes or pausing, but just watching it the way you do. The next day I watch each episode more carefully, taking notes and stopping to type out quotes. Then I watch it again as I write the blog. (It takes about 4-5 hours total to “produce” one blog entry.) So perhaps some of the drama from the episode I’m covering now bled into my disgust and rage yesterday over the show’s complete lack of integrity and its decision to throw away its core theme, rather than making the show about C-O-O-K-I-N-G.
But we’re brought back to a place of supreme happiness in the beginning of this episode, as the contestants find themselves strolling through a Hollywood set that’s familiar to millions of us: the set of Glee. And Bri is about to pee in her pants with excitement. (The first thing I thought when I saw Bri on the show was, “That girl looks like she just stepped off the set of Glee!”) I feel ya, Bri. I’d be going nuts, too.
I watched the first couple of seasons of Glee, which is uncharacteristic of me, because I don’t watch TV. But as a former theatre geek who can often be caught singing at the top of my lungs at any given moment of the day, I couldn’t stop myself. I was that weird kid in high school who wasn’t a jock or a rich kid, nor was I conventionally popular. So the show resonated with me. Even though the script is wretched (come on, guys, a middle schooler could write better!), the themes they explore are interesting, and at times uncomfortable, and the show’s popularity is proof that people are connecting with it.
I stopped watching Glee after the first two seasons because, no matter how good the music was, I couldn’t get over the bad writing. Too presentational. Too awkward. Not realistic. And I migrated over to their feeder show, The Glee Project on Oxygen network. It’s everything that Glee should be, because it’s real. If you’ve never seen it, catch the next season if it gets renewed. (It probably will, since Glee got a 2 year renewal.) They cast aspiring actors who want to be on the show, and put them through a series of challenges to ultimately win a role on the show. These kids aren’t acting roles…they are exploring themselves. And they represent the full spectrum of youth. There are gorgeous, hunky jock guys. Pretty cheerleader girls. Nerds. Kids with real disabilities. Kids struggling with their weight and their self image. Kids struggling with their gender identity. Gay kids. Devoutly religious kids. And they work with a panel of judges (as well as cast members from Glee) on a reality TV show that is a MODEL of what reality TV should be like. The judges are nurturing and supportive. While drama NATURALLY arises in a competition, they don’t prod it. They reveal it, but don’t make judgements on it. They celebrate compassion and humanity, and their goal is self awareness. It’s just incredible stuff. It’s TV that makes you feel proud to be human. Can’t get enough of it.
So our group challenge today will be cooking for the cast and crew of Glee. And the incomparable Jane Lynch stops by the choir room to assign teams.
I have to stop and talk about Jane Lynch. Her Glee role certainly skyrocketed her to fame, but I’ve been a Lynch fan for years, ever since she joined the powerhouse team headed by Christopher Guest in 2000 that makes such brilliant films as This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman (one of my favorite films of all time), Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration…the last 3 of which have featured Lynch in fabulous roles.
She’s quite simply an INCREDIBLE actor. While her Christopher Guest films have her playing kooky roles, her role as Coach Sylvester in Glee has allowed her true breadth as an actress to spill out on screen. She has these rare moments on the show when the tough exterior wall comes down and we see moments of rare and raw tenderness and emotion, like when we first discovered her older sister had Down Syndrome and how it affected her relationship with the DS student who wanted to be a cheerleader.
Off stage, Lynch is a staunch supporter of gay and lesbian rights. As an out gay woman, she joins the ranks of Ellen and Rosie in her sweeping influence and her position as a role model for young gay women.
If you can’t tell…I have trouble offering up ANYTHING but sweeping praise for this woman. She is a gem.
In her own special way, Lynch separates the contestants into 2 teams: Beauties and Beasts.
Jessie heads up the Red “Beauty” team: Bri, Savannah, Eddie, Luca, Beth, and Lynn.
Krissi heads up the Blue “Beast” team: Bime, Jordan, Natasha, James, Bethy, and Jonny.
Something interesting happens, because after she first arbitrarily assigns teams based on whether she thinks someone is a beauty or a beast, she goes back and makes some changes. My guess is that the producers wanted a bit of shuffling on the teams, so they stopped filming and consulted with her on the switch. (Of course, I could be totally wrong, maybe it was truly arbitrary, but with both Jordan and Lynn originally on the Krissi’s team, that places the balance of what we currently perceive as “strong male talent” on one team.)
The teams have 90 minutes to prep 3 different meals for 127 members of the cast and crew of Glee. Their designated menus are: fried chicken with fries and slaw, grilled salmon with asparagus and scalloped potatoes, and vegan lasagne with salad. After the 90 minutes of prep time is up, they’ll have an hour for service.
The first challenge is that you don’t want to waste time and ingredients by over-prepping food (100 servings of each meal), but you also can’t forecast which dish will be the most popular and have the most demand. Personally, I’d assume the salmon and vegan lasagne would be the most popular because Californians in general and actors in particular tend to eat lighter and healthier, because they all have to be camera- and beach-worthy all year long. (But I’d have been wrong, because we later discover the the fried chicken is the most in demand.)
Luckily, salmon only takes a few minutes to grill, the lasagne can be quickly prepped far ahead of time and held in the oven, and chicken can be fried ahead of time and held fairly well in the oven.
From the start, Krissi’s team is sailing smoothly. They are working together and are ahead of schedule. However, when I see the segments of Krissi’s interview, which is usually recorded the day AFTER the challenge is filmed, there’s something wrong in her voice, so I immediately know they are going to lose the challenge.
Over on Jessie’s team, it’s total chaos. In a moment of distraction, Jessie stops using the slicing guard with her mandoline while she’s slicing potatoes, and she shaves off the tip of her finger, including part of the nail.
Mandolines are one of the most dangerous tools in the kitchen. Instead of a knife, where you control the blade as you push it through the food…with a mandoline you are pushing the food down onto the knife to cut it. It’s highly effective for making perfectly thin, uniform slices, and I can’t live without my mandoline. But if you choose to use it without the slicing guard, you are taking a MASSIVE risk of a very bad cut. (Many contestants on my season cut themselves on the mandoline.)
Jessie doesn’t do well with blood, and as the medic is trying to patch her up, she nearly faints. And with the volume of blood pumping out of that massive cut, you can imagine she was down for a bit until the wound stopped bleeding. (The narration indicates she cut herself 15 minutes in, and returned with 20 minutes left, which means she was out for almost a full hour.) During her absence, her team is falling apart around her. (Which, of course, means they’re going to win, somehow.) The sugary marinade on their salmon is causing the skin to stick to the grill. (Though I would imagine the average California diner won’t want the skin on, anyway.) It’s VERY tricky to keep salmon from sticking on the grill, unless your grill is incredibly well seasoned and you oil the skin thoroughly. When I grill salmon, I serve it without skin, because the grill removes the skin for you. I grill the bare side first to get great char marks, then I flip it over onto the skin side. Then I spatula the fillet right off the skin, which sticks to the grill.
Prep time expires, and the teams present their flavors:
Jessie’s chicken is a traditional Southern buttermilk fried chicken, while Krissi has a spicy “Latin” fried chicken with jalapeno ranch sauce. (I’m trying to figure out what “Latin” fried chicken is…)
Jessie’s salmon has a soy ginger glaze on it, while Krissi has marinated hers in balsamic vinegar.
Jessie’s vegan lasagne has a pesto sauce, while Krissi’s has a spicy tomato sauce.
Both teams run out of fried chicken, which is definitely the most time consuming of the 3 entrees. This results in some chicken going out raw from Bime on Krissi’s team. And everyone freaks out, including Krissi who says that raw chicken is “deadly.” Gordon is the only one who utters the dreaded S word: “s-a-l-m-o-n-e-l-l-a.”
Let’s chat a bit about salmonella, shall we? Because I feel like this maligned bacteria has a far worse reputation than it deserves. Chances are good that YOU have had salmonella. Multiple times. We’ve pretty much all had it. It’s a very, very common bacteria. Some humans carry it in their digestive tract permanently. When you get infected with salmonella from food, the symptoms are almost always mild…gastric upset for a few days, nothing more. Some “severe” infections will include fever and vomiting. Ever had a “stomach bug?” It was probably salmonella. Most people recover without the need for medicine. And salmonella isn’t lethal…however, extreme dehydration can be deadly, which is why the most important treatment for salmonella is hydration.
Of course, you don’t want to infect an entire cast with salmonella, because it will halt the show’s production. But I do get a little puzzled when people whisper “salmonella” as if it was comparable to ebola. It ain’t gonna kill ya if you get it. “So you lose a few pounds, big deal!” to quote a line from one of Christopher Guest’s films. Stay hydrated and rest, and see a doctor if the infected person is very young, very old, or has a compromised immune system. (Among those groups, salmonella infection CAN be deadly, with around 400 deaths a year due to complications from salmonella infection. 400 may sound like a lot, but compared to the number of deaths versus the number of infections…the CDC estimates over 1.2 million cases a year…it’s not even remotely on the radar of serious deadly diseases.)
Virtually all infections from salmonella in the US are actually from fruits and vegetables, or from live animals like hedgehogs and baby ducks, not from chicken meat. Click here to see a list of salmonella outbreaks in the US, on which you’ll find a grand total of 1 outbreak from chicken meat since 2006, out of a total of 50. You’re far more likely to get salmonella from cantaloupe or peanut butter than you are from chicken. And many cultures eat chicken rare or even raw.
But still…on MasterChef you need to serve fully cooked chicken to your diners. Service is finally complete, the the Glee cast and crew place their votes in a box. A parade arrives to deliver the results, and Jane Lynch grabs the megaphone from Gordon and says, “This is my set. Not yours. I’m in charge.” And the results are shocking…(which shouldn’t be shocking, because they always are)…out of a total of 127 votes, the team snagging a whopping 90 of those votes is Jessie’s team. With only 37 votes, Krissi is furious over the loss and attributes it to Bime’s Latin chicken.
Back in the MasterChef kitchen, the judges reveal some interesting statistics. There were 56 servings of chicken, and 30 votes went to Bime’s “Latin” chicken. Their team only got 37 votes total, which means that Bime’s chicken was, in fact, the hero of the team. And it turns out that Jordan’s salmon only garnered 2 out of the 54 servings that went out. (A little math reveals, then, that only 17 servings of vegan lasagne went out, and 5 voted for the losing team’s.) However, I am always highly suspect of the legitimacy of scores on group challenges. I am quite certain they are very specifically manipulated.
Now it’s pressure test time, and as usual, the producers are turning MasterChef into The Hunger Games…making it about strategy rather than cooking. Krissi can save whoever she wants, as long as she saves at least 1 person, and at least 2 people compete. (What ever happened to this being a cooking show? How does winning MasterChef because you were able to strategically handicap and sabotage your fellow competitors mean that you actually won anything at all?)
Krissi saves Jonny and Natasha.
Krissi keeps Bethy on the floor because she considers her a threat. She keeps James on the floor because she expects him to do very well, knocking out someone in the pressure test. In a surprising move, she keeps Bime on the floor, even though his component was the star of the team. And she keeps Jordan on the floor as well.
For the record, I HATE this concept of saving people from a pressure test…the entire team should compete. But I would have made this decision the way I was going to make it when MY team lost the pressure test. Pressure tests are typically baking-intensive. If I was forced to save someone, I’d save the teammates that were least comfortable baking…REGARDLESS of their performance in the challenge…to give them the maximum chance of staying in the competition.
Now Krissi has to decide whether to save herself. Formerly, she attacked Jordan when he saved himself as the team captain, saying, “That’s a bitch move. Where I’m from, that’ll get your -ss kicked.” But it’s easy to say that when you’re not the one faced with the decision to save yourself or compete.
She says, “What comes to mind is my kid. And what my kid would say is ‘You had a chance to save yourself, for us, and you didn’t take it? And you went home on that?’ I’m not gonna disappoint my kid.”
In the world where I grew up, kids didn’t teach the parents about integrity. When your kid suggests you basically cheat in order to survive, that’s when MY parents would have sat me down and gave me a stern lesson. In fact, I specifically remember my father choosing to go to prison, when he could have “gotten off,” even though it left his family without a breadwinner, to teach us a lesson about integrity. Yes…that’s a big story. It’s also sorta private. But my father has, time and again, demonstrated to me that sometimes you have to make difficult decisions in order to retain your integrity as a human…as a parent. Because when you sell off your integrity, there’s not much left.
So let’s theorize a bit…say Krissi chose to stay and compete. She immediately wins the respect of the entire audience, rather than the audience going nutso on her and heaping hate all over her social media. Let’s say that she performed poorly in the pressure test and got eliminated. (The producers LOVE to eliminate a team leader following a pressure test, it’s VERY common in previous seasons.) She goes home to her kid, who says, “You had a chance to save yourself, for us, and you didn’t take it?” That’s when you sit your kid down and say, “It’s time for a chat. I stayed because I’m a fighter. Because I have principles. I wasn’t gonna let the whole country think of your mother as scumbag who took the hall pass. You come from a family of fighters, and when it’s time to show your stuff, you compete at the top of your game rather than slinking off to hide on the sidelines. And even if you fail, you know you did your best and you behaved with dignity and respect, so that’s all anyone can give back to you.”
Still, you have to respect Krissi for making the decision for her kid’s sake. Her whole purpose of being on the show is to try to make a better life for her kid. She’s a single mom. She sleeps on the couch in her 1-bedroom apartment, so her kid can have a room. I don’t know what that’s like…but it must be incredibly hard.
So I’m not gonna criticize or attack Krissi for this decision. (I don’t think ANYONE can do the same unless they’ve been in her shoes, and faced the same decision.) But I DO think that the more powerful lesson for her kid would have been for her to stay and compete. Bowing out teaches the kid to cheat the system to get ahead, rather than working. (At this point I should make it clear that I am NOT a parent. And I have no business doling out parenting advice. That’s just an opinion based on the lessons my parents taught me when I was a kid.)
James delivers a genius barb of sarcasm: ” ‘I’m doing this for my son.’ Oh, right, right! You’re the only person who has someone at home that they love that they’re doing this for. Got it!” For the record, James, is doing this for his fiancee and they’re gonna be married soon. (I’m pretty sure.) All the best to them!
This season’s pressure tests have been primarily about desserts, and this one is no different. Lemon meringue pie. (But without lemons, for some reason…they’re being offered every other type of citrus known to man.) This is yet another repeat challenge from my season, where lemon meringue pie was used to take the top 4 down to 3…ironically Suzy Singh, who specializes in baking, was eliminated after presenting a weepy meringue.
Let’s chat about meringue, because working with egg white foams is probably the single most important skill for a baker to master. There are 3 types of meringue, French/classic, Swiss, and Italian. Classic or French meringue is made by beating sugar and cream of tartar into egg whites. This is a raw meringue that can be baked into a pie topping, but it’s used far more often to bake cakes and souffles (in which case it is baked) and make mousses (in which case, it is served raw). Yes…raw meringue is perfectly acceptable to serve in many culinary applications, but if I remember correctly, Mike Kim was eliminated from season 1 of MasterChef for serving a raw meringue on top of fruit. If eating raw egg freaks you out, use pasteurized eggs.
The other 2 types of meringues are cooked meringues. They are “done” even in liquid form, and if Gordon says “raw” he just means they weren’t baked until dry. Which you don’t do with a meringue pie. The meringue should be more like whipped cream. There are 2 types of cooked meringues, Swiss and Italian. With the Swiss method, you beat the whites, sugar, and cream of tartar over a simmering water bath until they reach 170F. Then you beat them in your mixer. This results in a chewy meringue, perfect for cookies and decorations and macaroons. The Italian method involves making a hot sugar syrup and once it reaches 240F-250F, you pour the hot syrup in a thin stream into the egg whites as they beat, and this results in a light and fluffy meringue that is the best choice for meringue pies. The meringue is fully cooked and only needs to be baked until the outside browns a bit for flavor and texture.
“Pastry Chef Ramsay” delivers the secret to the perfect lemon meringue pie: “It’s in the base. That nice, firm salt crust pastry.” I have never in my life heard of any pastry referred to as “salt crust.” Now, you can bake meat in a crust of salt held together with egg whites, and that’s a fabulous technique that I love using. But you don’t eat the salt crust. It’s pure salt. I spent about 5 minutes Googling and looking through my culinary school textbooks, and couldn’t find a thing on it. So that’s just a Ramsay flub. We gotta cut the guy a little slack. He’s a culinary chef, not a pastry chef, and he’s got HOURS of screen time to fill.
He also says that the secret to the meringue “is to make sure it doesn’t weep.” That’s not the secret, Gordon, that’s the problem. The secret would be HOW TO PREVENT it from weeping. “Get it wrong by 1 gram of sugar, and it can go absolutely pear shaped.” Not quite sure what that last bit means. But he is slightly right. Sugar is what stabilizes the egg white foam and gives it structure. Not enough sugar and the meringue can sag. But the sugar content isn’t what prevents the meringue from weeping. Beating the whites to the proper texture…just barely before stiff peaks are reached…is what prevents it from weeping. Underbeaten meringues haven’t had enough protein structure developed, so the scaffolding web of protein can’t hold in all the moisture. Overbeaten meringues have over-worked the protein web and crammed too much air into the structure, so the structure begins breaking down and leaking moisture. The addition of cream of tartar acidifies the whites, so they can hold a firmer structure, and it should always be used sparingly. Too much cream of tartar and the meringue will be so acidic that it won’t easily brown in the oven. (Alkaline ingredients brown much more readily.) As a side note, cream of tartar is a byproduct of the wine making process. When the pH, or acidity, of the grapes is adjusted downward, to make the juice less acidic, what precipitates out of the wine is potassium bitartrate…or cream of tartar. This VERY handy ingredient can also be used to prevent sugar syrups from crystallizing (handy for caramel sauces and glazes), and you can add a pinch of it to boiling water to prevent blanched or boiled vegetables from becoming drab as their sugars reach the caramelization point. (Conversely, you can add baking soda to the boil water to encourage browning, because it makes the water more alkaline. I do this with my potatoes when I pre-cook them before turning them into french fries, home fries, etc.)
Swiss and Italian meringues are far more resistant to weeping than the classic French meringue. You can provide extra insurance against weeping by using powdered sugar instead of granulated sugar, because the corn starch in the sugar helps absorb excess moisture from the whites. The addition of a bit of tapioca starch also makes a dramatic difference, and it also helps the meringue stick properly to the filling, so that it doesn’t slide off. (You should also put the meringue onto room temperature filling, not hot or cold.) Bake the meringue slowly with lower oven temp than most recipes call for, to prevent rapidly stiffening egg white proteins from squeezing out beads of moisture while they bake. 350F for 10-15 minutes will give a better result than the traditional 400F for 5-8 minutes.
Of course, the contestants aren’t going to have that luxury, because they have only 90 minutes to bake the pie. So the pastry cream is going into a hot crust, the meringue is going onto hot pastry cream, and there’s really no chance at all that any contestant will produce a PROPER citrus meringue pie in that amount of time. (90 minutes isn’t even enough time to produce a proper butter pastry crust on its own, as it needs to chill before rolling out, and again after rolling out, to be the proper texture and minimize shrinkage when it bakes.)
For the record, I H-A-T-E meringue pies. I find the texture disgusting. Let’s have whipped cream on top, shall we?!?
There are some disasters. Bime makes his pastry cream with cream of tartar rather than cornstarch. (Which would result in an inedibly tart, acidic paste that won’t set up because there’s no starch to hold the filling together.) When tasting, Gordon literally pours the liquid filling into 2 martini glasses for them to sample. Virtually all the contestants have under-baked crusts.
We get shots of Krissi up in the balcony “laughing at the contestants’ misfortune.” I never trust these, not once. In my season, PLENTY of reactions were pulled out of their original scenarios and edited into a different place, to make it look like someone was laughing to be mean. Sometimes comments and footage are pulled from completely different challenge days and edited in at different times to increase drama. Last season, when the audience got up in arms after seeing Ryan Umane, the “flavor elevator,” laughing and rubbing his hands maniacally when Christina Ha injured herself trying to deal with the live crab he had assigned her to cook. In fact, that clip was completely unrelated to the crab incident and was pulled from a totally different scenario, just to make him look evil. Don’t trust everything you see.
Yes, she does say, “This is working out exactly as I had planned. Bye, Bime.” You can bet that phrase was encouraged, if not flat out given to her to say, by the producers. Yeah, Krissi is polarizing, and she’s not afraid to insult or criticize her fellow competitors. (Most folks from the northeast are like that, it’s part of their culture.) I’m not trying to say she’s an angel. But I AM saying there’s no need to think she’s wicked and evil to the core, and seek her out on Facebook or Twitter to spew hate at her. It’s not hard to find pictures of her hanging out, hugging on her fellow contestants both during filming and now. They clearly don’t hate each other as much they show makes it appear.
James’ meringue is overbeaten…you can see it “chunking up” as he spreads it on top of his filling. (Properly whipped meringue will be smooth and malleable, just like a thick liquid or pudding. If it gets ragged, splits easily, or separates into chunks when you’re working with it, it’s overbeaten.) He ends up having to torch it to brown the top, leaving the meringue beneath “raw.” He doesn’t have enough filling, either, but what is there tastes good. But his crust is underdone.
Bethy’s pie looks beautiful, but the curd isn’t set and the crust is underdone.
Jordan has a stunningly-presented pie, but his crust is too thin and is still raw. The curd is set properly and tastes good. In fact, Joe says, “It’s definitely the best cake I’ve tasted so far.” Originally I figured they must have patched that comment in from another challenge, but you can see the fork full of pie in the shot, so I guess this is just another flub and the editing room let it through.
Bime’s pie is the biggest disaster, with the runny filling that includes 10 Tablespoons of cream of tartar. Gordon says, “What are you trying to do, kill us?” While there are no documented cases of poisoning by cream of tartar, it can, in large doses, affect the rhythm of the heart, as well as cause diarrhea and vomiting.
Ultimately, Jordon is the only one who executed a nearly-acceptable pie. But again…not even a professional pastry chef will try to execute a meringue pie in 90 minutes from start to finish.
Bime is eliminated. And Gordon says, “You shouldn’t be leaving the MasterChef kitchen tonight. You know that.” I think the judges expected him to go much farther. He certainly produced some stunning dishes.
Follow Bime on Facebook and Twitter, and I wish him and his daughters all the best!
Feel free to comment below…I’m sure you all have LOTS of thoughts about this episode!
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