MasterChef: Baa Baa Black Sheep

Another day…another mystery box.

Man, I hate mystery boxes. I don’t know why, I guess it’s the pressure and the time limit. But last week, I was the worst of the bunch on the mystery box challenge with my strawberry-balsamic glazed salmon and pistachio crusted fennel and potato cakes. This week, I’ve got to redeem myself.

We lift that box and the first thing I see is a rack of lamb. Those who went to high school with me know that I was FFA President (that’s Future Farmers of America for you city folk) and was wrangling sheep since the time I could walk on two legs. I L-O-V-E L-A-M-B. It is my favorite red meat. We don’t eat enough lamb in this country. It tastes better and is leaner than beef or pork. There are few things in this world better than a nice rare lamb chop. And here in front of me is an entire RACK of New Zealand lamp chops…the best in the world. This is probably a $75 roast, if not more.

And I can’t use it.

Because I know everybody behind me is going to use it. And if I’m going to win today, I have to do something different. I see peaches. I see rice. I see cream. I see red wine, walnuts, sugar. And all these things are screaming DESSERT to me. Nobody else is going to make a dessert when there’s a gorgeous rack of lamb under the box. So…dessert it is.

Creamy rice pudding with walnuts candied in salted caramel brulee. (Think: walnut brittle.) And poached peaches. Simple, but lots of skill required. Many different techniques I can show to the judges. They’ll have to notice me today.

The dessert comes together perfectly. I even take the peach pit, crack it open, and remove the interior kernel. If you put this kernel into the poaching liquid, it gives it a delicate almond-like flavor. I doubt anybody else in this room, except for the judges, knows this. How can that not impress?

Ramsay comes around while I’m pulling everything together close to the end and asks what I’m making. I tell him.

“Why not use the lamb?” he questions. “Are you afraid of it?”

“Absolutely not, chef. I grew up on a sheep farm. I can cook a mean rack of lamb.”

He stares at me with his mouth open.

“Chef,” I say, “I was the worst contestant last week in the mystery box. If I don’t try something radically different than anyone else, I’m just going to fade into the background until you kick me off.”

He shakes his head and walks away.

Results are announced, and although I’m apparently not the worst today, Ramsay singles me out as having deeply offended him. “When I found out that you grew up on a lamb farm, yet you left the lamb in the box…you just don’t do that.”

No time for regrets, though, as Adrien, who has won the challenge with his lamb chops with pomegranate molasses and peach glaze, is headed back to the pantry to learn about the next challenge.

And…it’s dessert! HALLELUJAH!

I should note here that I don’t eat dessert. My parents raised our family without processed sugar. Honey was really the only sweetener we had growing up. So I never developed a sweet tooth. But I love to make dessert. And the feature ingredient Adrien has picked for us is coffee. There’s no doubt in my mind: I’m making tiramisu.

Tira-mi-su is an Italian dessert that literally translates into “pick me up,” and it’s basically miniature cakes called ladyfingers that are soaked in strong espresso, and then layered with a cream cheese called mascarpone that is sweetened and flavored with coffee. I make it all the time. So I bake my ladyfingers from scratch, which impresses the judges, but then I learn that Giuseppe, the Italian, is also making tiramisu. Last week we were battling pizza together…could I possibly pull off a win again up against the true Italian?

I wish you could have seen the footage of Giuseppe and I, and this great friendly rivalry we have.  We banter back and forth about who’s the best Italian cook. Ultimately the judges decide they prefer my ladyfingers, and his mascarpone filling…and if we’d use my fingers and Giuseppe’s cream, we’d have a darn good tiramisu!

Still, though, I’m solidly invisible to the judges. I feel like everyone around me is a million times more talented and my days in this competition are numbered. I have to find some stroke of genius deep inside myself if I’m going to rise to the title of MasterChef.

The judges deliver doom to Alvin. My roommate. Someone we all expected to win this competition. Someone with brilliance, hilarity, and determination. And they literally rake him over the coals for his forays into the world of “molecular gastronomy,” which is basically the application of cutting-edge technology and science to cuisine.

Fortunately, the judges have kinder parting words for Alvin once they finish criticizing his chocolate beignets (a cross between a donut and a sopapilla) stuffed with crystallized coffee balls. They tell him to keep practicing, don’t forget the basics, and feel he will be a bright star in the culinary world. And I couldn’t agree more.

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