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MasterChef 3: Don’t Trifle with Walmart

Today’s blog entry is brought to you by Walmart, a proud sponsor of MasterChef.

(Just kidding!  Ha ha ha…  But please note that my blog is in no way endorsed or approved by either MasterChef OR Walmart, and my opinions expressed herein are ONLY OPINIONS.  I have no inside knowledge of the production of MasterChef, either this season or last.)

We’re down to 13 and Monti starts out the episode with another Montiism: “I’m in the top 13! Who’d have lost a bunch of money on that?  …  Everyone I know.”  I love that girl, everything that comes out of her mouth is a gem.

The Mystery Box is, of course, first.  Before lifting the box, Tanya quips: “Mystery Box, Mystery Box.  Give me anything!  I’ve made brains, I’ve killed crabs, I’m a warrior!”  The box gets lifted, and it’s a T-bone steak, plus corn, cabbage, watermelon, peach, sour cream, tarragon, and spices.  A couple of weeks ago I left a message for Cowboy Mike on his Facebook, to the effect of, “Let’s get you a steak challenge so you can have your moment to shine!”  And he’s incredibly pleased with this box.

As the camera pans over the mystery box, there’s one inedible component inside.  A little metal and plastic sign for Walmart.  Graham announces that all that stuff under the mystery box costs less than $15, collectively, at Walmart, but that the contestants’ job is to turn it into a restaurant dish that could be billed at $40.

Of course I’m immediately pulled out of the show as my mind races in a million directions.  First, and most practically…WALMART DOESN’T CARRY TARRAGON!!!  Certainly not fresh tarragon.  (And tarragon loses all its character once dried, like parsley, so there’s NEVER a need to buy dried tarragon.)  I know this for a fact because I DO shop at Walmart (more on that later, but I’ve been to Walmarts all over the WORLD, in fact, and never once seen fresh tarragon) and their fresh herb section is extremely limited and breathtakingly expensive.  (Today at WalMart, in fact, their fresh herb section consisted of mint, chive, basil, and thyme, all packaged in tiny plastic containers at $2.99 a piece.  Of course the cheap, popular herbs like cilantro and parsley were available loose in bunches for 50 cents each.  I get annoyed when herbs are packaged in plastic, it’s such a waste.  Bundle them with a rubber band or zip tie, people, and place them upright in a shallow pan of water.  I guarantee the plastic costs more than the actual herb.)

Secondly, ANY restaurant that has a $40 entree on the menu absolutely MUST source those ingredients for $15…probably less…in order to turn a profit.  So we’re not talking about a miracle here.

Thirdly, what’s up with all this Walmart stuff?  As I’ve mentioned in previous blog entries, I DO shop at Walmart.  It’s not the closest grocery store to me, but they DO, in fact, have the best produce, red meat, and poultry, of any grocery store near me.  (Their seafood selection, on the other hand, is dismal…however they USED to have a superb seafood section, including live lobster, but no one bought seafood at Walmart, so they got rid of their fresh seafood section.)  To get better meat and produce than I can get at Walmart, I have to trek to the gourmet stores, where everything is marked up so high that it actually PAINS me to look at price tags.  One of the reasons the standard grocery stores near me have sub-par ingredients, of course, is because they are struggling due to Walmart’s price competition, so I understand that it’s Walmart’s influence on the economy that has led to the decline of neighborhood grocery stores.  I harbor NO illusions about the impacts, both negative and positive, that Walmart has on the local, national, and global economy, as well as its impact on its workforce and the suppliers it buys from.

I grew up in a small town in West Texas where Walmart was really the ONLY place to get groceries, hardware, housewares, etc.  At that time, Walmart didn’t have the reputation it currently has, because it was still fairly small, and people in their communities loved Walmart.  The larger the company expanded, as I entered my 20s, activists started blaming it for the demise of the small independent business, the vaporization of “main street” shops, and for its AGGRESSIVE actions to prevent its workers from unionizing.  (All those cameras you see around the stores and in the parking lots were not installed to prevent theft…it is to allow surveillance of employees to help prevent unionization conversations between them.  Of course, anti-theft is an added benefit.  But the camera package is called the “anti-union package” and that’s its primary purpose.)  But none of this stuff was out in the open when I was a kid.  My family loved Walmart.  Everyone did.  So I have an ingrained affection for the brand left over from my childhood, even though I am well aware and outspoken against its darker side.

(A tiny rant about unions here…even though, politically, I’m on the far left side of the spectrum in most cases, I am NOT a fan of unions.  I worked in the airline industry for 3 years and got to experience unions first-hand.  Unions had their time and place…when employers were ACTUALLY slave drivers who treated their workers like commodities in coal mines and sweat shops, paid them pennies for a 12 hour workday in life-threatening conditions, and in many cases brought them to the US from foreign countries and required slave-like labor to “pay off” the expense of bringing them over.  In those days, workers would band together into a local union, so that they could more successfully pressure their company into providing a better workplace and compensation.  Today, unions are actually for-profit corporations.  The same union may represent tens of thousands employees at HUNDREDS of companies in different, unrelated industries, from baggage handlers at an airline, to office workers in the finance industry.  The union is in the business of making money.  That is its first priority.  NOT the livelihood of its workers.  Each month you pay mandatory union fees.  If a union is negotiating for a higher pay rate (because the more money YOU make, the more money THEY make) and the company extends an offer that’s acceptable to most employees, the union may reject the offer because IT wants more money for its bottom line, and may force the employees into a strike even though the employees were happy with the offer.  If the union calls for a strike, you are FORCED to participate without any option, or you may be denied your “strike pay.”  If a different workgroup at a different company is on strike, your own paycheck may be debited for extra expenses for that unrelated workgroup.  So if you’re a truck driver, and the steel workers go on strike, you may have to give up an extra, unforeseen $200 out of your paycheck each week so that the steel workers in another state get “strike pay.”  Union fees are direct debited from your paycheck each month, whether you like it or not.  And powerful union lobbies have created relationships with both lawmakers and companies, so that sometimes if you want to work for a company, you are FORCED to join the union, which means you’re FORCED to pay your monthly union dues if you want to work there.  Unions have lost their purpose and vision…and while they CAN assist workers in elevating their lifestyle and working conditions, I believe that any for-profit corporation will NEVER have its members’ best interest as its primary goal.  I’d LOVE to see a non-profit union out there somewhere…but it doesn’t exist.  Unions today are companies, just like Walmart, but they add an extra layer of costly bureaucracy to the already-inflated corporate structure, they are protected by century-old laws that provide far less regulation, they have a powerful lobby that woos lawmakers into staying out of their way, and they are every bit as corrupt as Walmart.  Rant ended.)

Now…back to Walmart.  I completely understand that MasterChef requires ridiculous amounts of money to produce.  They HAVE to have sponsors.  And certainly their target audience is middle- and suburban-America, where most viewers DO have a Walmart within a few miles of their home.  So, in terms of the audience they target, it’s probably an appropriate sponsorship.  But there is another audience to MasterChef.  Foodies.  (Believe it or not, foodies, you are NOT the people MasterChef is made for…if you were, you’d actually see more cooking, more technique.)  Middle and suburban America is the vast majority of the audience, but they are a silent majority.  They watch the show as part of their nightly 2- or 3-hour dose of television, when the episode is over they turn to their next show.  But they deliver ratings, and they buy the stuff the show promotes.  Foodies, however, are the HEART of the MasterChef audience.  They’re the ones who seek out and connect with the contestants.  They’re the ones who drive the anticipation for each upcoming season, and fuel the passion for the season as it airs.  They’re the ones who blog about MasterChef and talk about it on Facebook and Twitter.  So while you foodies may be a smaller audience, you’re a CRITICAL audience.  (But you don’t typically make your buying decisions based on what MasterChef tells you, which means you ultimately give less money to the brand, and are therefore “less important”…in a network’s eyes, at least.)  And I don’t think Fox was quite aware how surprised (and in many cases, disgusted) you’d all be to see Walmart so flagrantly associated with the show.  I guarantee you that NONE of the 3 judges has set foot in a Walmart in their adult lives…certainly not to buy groceries.  (I’m curious how they personally, privately feel about the sponsorship.)  I will be curious to see if they repeat this sponsorship next season.  But if there’s ONE THING that comes into EVERYONE’S mind when they think of Walmart, it’s “CHEAP.”  And “CHEAP” and “MasterChef” are not words that belong in the same sentence.

WalMart was actually a sponsor of the very first reality TV show I participated in: Rachael Ray’s “So You Think You Can Cook?”  (They now call it “Hey, Can You Cook?” because I think they got sued by “So You Think You Can Dance?”)  In our VERY first challenge, we had to rush through a Walmart to buy ingredients to cook for 60 tailgaters at a Rutgers game, with only a $40 budget.  The opening sequence was a “hero shot” of the 5 of us walking beneath a Walmart sign.  My coastal friends never forgave me for it.

But as I’ve previously mentioned…Walmart isn’t entirely evil.  As the single largest grocery entity on the planet, they have ENORMOUS influence over the market.  And Walmart will be the vehicle that eventually brings organic food into EVERY home in the country.  Walmart doesn’t force you to buy anything.  So the choices you make when you shop at Walmart send a very clear signal to the company.  If you reach for organic milk and organic eggs every time you make a purchase, they notice that.  Recently I’ve noticed that the organic eggs and milk I normally buy there are out of stock about half the time.  While that’s a bit annoying, it’s actually WONDERFUL.  Walmart sees this.  That means they have to pressure their organic suppliers into expanding, and their non-organic suppliers into branching into organics, so they can continue to supply the demand.  Walmart has the power to single-handedly FORCE agricultural producers in this country and abroad to switch to organic methods.  Thanks to capitalism, they have the kind of power the government will NEVER have.  And with their obsession over low prices that anyone can afford, they have the potential to change the landscape of agriculture and economy such that every household in the country has access to, and can afford, organic foods.  And each time you shop at Walmart, you vote.  So buy those organic eggs…they’re only $3.08 a dozen.  That’s the price of a latte at Starbucks, or a happy meal at McDonalds.  Buy the organic milk…it’s also $3 for half a gallon.  There’s really no excuse to NOT buy organic if you’re shopping at Walmart.  Granted, those $3/doz organic eggs are twice the price of the non-organic eggs.  But what’s an extra $1.50 to know that the eggs taste WAY better, are healthier for you with far less chance of disease and contamination, and that the chickens who laid them aren’t squished into a tiny cage their entire lives, being stuffed with antibiotics, eating the poop from the chickens in cages above them?  I’ll pay that $1.50 more ANY DAY OF THE WEEK.  And in terms of the health benefits of organic ingredients…you can pay an extra $1.50 now…or hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars later on in health care costs and negative environmental impacts.

If you haven’t yet watched the film Food, Inc., you absolutely must…for many reasons.  But something that really struck me in the film is that Walmart, a normally secretive and media-shy company, decided to participate in the film and talk about it’s vision in terms of organics.  It’s available streaming on-demand if you have Netflix at this link:  http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Food_Inc./70108783?trkid=2361637 It’s a fantastic movie, entertaining as well as informative, and I believe everyone in the country should watch it.

My goodness…this is a MasterChef blog, isn’t it?  I’d almost forgotten.  Back to the Mystery Box.  The only “exotic” ingredient in the box is tarragon.  (Foodies will tell me that tarragon isn’t exotic, but I’m willing to bet that most of you reading this blog haven’t cooked with it before.)  Tarragon is an herb with a licorice-like taste.  It was Julia Child’s favorite herb.  I’m growing it in my garden this year, but not finding myself using it all that often, because I’m not a huge fan of the licorice flavor.  However, tarragon isn’t overpowering in its flavor, and it can be used in both sweet and savory applications.  T-bone steak is one of the best steaks in existence, in my opinion.  Any time you can cook with the bone, you’ll get extra flavor and moisture, but cooking bone-in can be tricky.  Bone transmits heat at a different rate than meat fibers.  Depending on what kind of bone it is, your meat next to the bone can either cook more quickly, or more slowly…so it can be tricky to get a T-bone done properly and evenly.  A T-bone is cut from the center loin area of the cow, and it has 2 muscles separated by a bone.  The large muscle is a strip steak, and the smaller muscle is the tenderloin…so a T-bone is 2 steaks in one!

With fairly mundane ingredients, though, the contestants are having to really amp up their creativity to stand out.

Felix pounds out the meat from the T-bone and fills it with what appears to be a creamed corn mixture, and rolls the whole thing up.  This is called a roulade, and Bastianich is really intrigued by it.  Ramsay says that “The fibers of a T-bone don’t lend itself to being…” and doesn’t finish his sentence.  Beef roulades are typically made from steaks that are already mostly flat and have long fibers running laterally across the steak, like a flank steak or skirt steak.  However, even traditional steaks like tenderloin (which is actually the small part of the T-bone steak), and NY strip (the larger side of the T-bone), which have the meat fibers running vertically, make superior, exceptionally tender roulades provided extreme care is given in pounding them out, so that the delicate vertical fibers don’t separate and create holes that the filling can escape through.  If he was saying that T-bone doesn’t lend itself to pounding because it’s easy to tear, he’d have been right!  If he was saying that T-bone doesn’t lend itself to roulade, he’d have been dead wrong.

Frank chooses to separate the 2 steaks from the T-bone for separate presentations, which is clever.  He apparently utilized virtually every ingredient in the box except the watermelon, and his plate looks “Obnoxiously….perfect” according to Anna.  Frank is later told by Joe that it looks like he had the entire MasterChef pantry at his disposal for the dish, which is really a huge compliment, considering the tiny handful of ingredients under the Mystery Box.

Tanya marinates her steak in tarragon, cayenne, and olive oil.  She cooks it rare and slices it thinly, topping it with a creamed corn puree with sour cream and chili, and serves it with slow-braised cabbage.  Once time is called, she looks down at it and says: “I love how my meat looks.  I pulled it out of my a–, I don’t know how I did it.”

Becky again chooses to leave the protein behind and do dessert.  (She did this once before, earlier in the season.  I made the same decision a couple of times in Mystery Box challenges, but always got slammed for it, so I stopped.)  She’s making a tarragon-infused creme anglaise (which is basically a light pudding or custard of egg yolk, sugar, and cream, sometimes thickened with starch),

The time comes to choose the top 3, and Frank is first.  The only critique they have for him is that he needed a bit more acid in his dish.  (But there wasn’t much acid under the box, so I’m not sure that was his fault.)  The more I cook, and the more I talk to TRUE master chefs (there are only a handful on the planet), the more I realize that acidity is really the MOST important factor in a successful dish.  If you taste a dish and it’s missing “something,” it’s our habit to reach for salt.  And more salt CAN improve the flavor of the dish.  But at some point you get TOO much salt, and you’re still missing “something.”  That “something” is almost always acid.  So I always have a variety of vinegars and citrus around to boost the acidity.  It makes ALL the difference.

Tanya is called next, and she doesn’t even register it at first.  It takes her COMPLETELY by surprise.  And I’m elated.  Tanya is another one of my personal friends.  I met her at MasterChef auditions in Austin, and she stood out to me as a top-18 contender immediately.  We got to know each other for the next several months before she found out she had been cast.  She’s articulate and witty, with a big, bright personality…AND she can cook.  They’re just starting to feature her more on the show, and I’m so excited she’s in the top 3 on this mystery box!  Graham tells her she can win the competition if she keeps cooking like that.

And they choose Becky for the final slot!  The dessert move paid off.  But her presented dessert doesn’t look like what she was making in the beginning, so I’m confused.  Now she says she’s got a peaches and cream puree, which she might have converted the tarragon creme anglaise into.  She oven roasted a peach with caramel sauce, and it looks like pure perfection.  And she made a sugared tarragon leaf to present on top.  I’m not sure what her method was on that, but I’d like to know.  It doesn’t look like she CANDIED the tarragon leaf, because that would involve cooking it, which would wilt it.  And it looks fresh.  Her dessert was incredibly simple, but presented elegantly.  She’s probably got $1.50 worth of ingredients on that plate, and it’s presented in such a way that a high-end restaurant would charge $12 for it.  That’s an incredible transformation, and while other contestants may be frustrated that such a simple dish was in the top 3, what Becky has accomplished is actually masterful and valuable industry transformation.  If a restaurant can sell a $12 dessert that only includes a dollar and change worth of ingredients, and pull it off in an elegant and delicious way…they’ve got a brilliant chef.

And the winner is….TANYA!  And I did a little dance of joy.  Tanya’s got so much potential.  If you haven’t visited her website, check out CULTURALLY CONFUSED CUISINE!  Tanya grew up all over the world due to her father’s work, and her father is Persian and her mother is Indian and Australian, so her palate is all over the place.  This is one of the reasons I identify with her so closely…having spent half my life cooking and eating in home kitchens around the world, I completely understand.  Tanya, if you can pull something out of your a– and have it win a Mystery Box challenge, you’re going places!!!

Tanya is swept back into the pantry to learn about the next challenge, which is to cook the judge’s favorite desserts.  Joe’s is, of course, tiramisu.  Let’s chat about tiramisu for a second, because it’s one of my favorite desserts to cook.  (I actually cooked it during my season’s coffee challenge.)  Tiramisu is a quintessential Italian treat that is actually viewed more like a snack than a dessert in Italy.  It’s something you have in the afternoon after work, but before your 9pm dinner.  It literally means “pick-me-up”… “tira” to lift, “mi” me, “su” you.  Hey, you, lift me up!  This is because of the caffeine-laden espresso in the dish, and the filling aspect with the protein from the cheese and the carbs from the cake.  It consists of ladyfingers, which are small finger-shaped cakes that can either be made in the Italian way (crisp and more like biscotti) or in the French way (softer and more like sponge cake).  The ladyfingers are then soaked in espresso and sometimes liqueur.  Bastianich confidently pronounces espresso like “expresso” and that throws me for a second.  It’s actually the reason I took so long to post this blog.  Because Joe is of Italian descent, has wineries in Italy, and spends a lot of time there.  He speaks Italian well enough to actually be a JUDGE on MasterChef Italy.  His mother is one of the most famous Italian celebrity chefs in the world, Lidia Bastianich.  So I was dead certain that, of all the people on the planet, he’d be the last person to pronounce espresso “expresso.”  So I was calling and emailing friends in Italy, because I figured that maybe “expresso” is an accepted Italian pronunciation that I didn’t know about.  (I’ve been to Italy multiple times, though, and I’ve never heard it pronounced “expresso.”)  I wanted to be ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that I wasn’t branding myself a cultural fool by erroneously attacking a mispronunciation.  But I just can’t find ANY information that “expresso” is an acceptable pronunciation anywhere on the globe, not in Italy, and especially not in the US, where “expresso” is akin to pronouncing library “liberry.”  A few minutes later in the show, he repeats the pronunciation as “expresso.”  So I’m just completely and utterly confused.  Fans have been thronging me with questions about it.  All I can say is…Joe gets a little camera shy at times.  He’s a shrewd, intelligent restauranteur who knows his food.  I guess he was having a double brain fart.

To continue with mispronunciations and tiramisu, the espresso-soaked ladyfingers are layered with sweetened mascarpone cheese.  The only acceptable pronunciation for mascarpone is “MOSS-car-PONE-eh.”  However, it is flagrantly mispronounced (even by contestants!) “MAR-sca-pone” and sometimes “MOSS-car-pone” leaving off the ending “eh.”  Please don’t ever mispronounce mascarpone again…go ahead and practice it out loud a few times.  The word is so often butchered that when I pronounce it properly to people, they stare at me funny.  I even had the head chef of an Italian restaurant in Dallas pronounce it “MAR-sca-pone” to me once, and my blood boiled.

Tiramisu is one of my favorite desserts because it’s not too sweet, and I’m NOT a dessert person.  I have many variations…perhaps my favorite is my pumpkin caramel tiramisu.  (Recipe HERE!)  But I always make my ladyfingers from scratch.  I’ve never used store-bought ladyfingers.  I made my own ladyfingers on the show, too, but we had 90 minutes for the challenge.  They only have 60 minutes, which would be close.  Ladyfingers bake in only 8 minutes, but you’ve still got to cool them and soak them, and prepare your mascarpone.  You probably COULD do homemade ladyfingers in 60 minutes, but I’d have grabbed some packaged ones in the pantry just in case.

Graham’s favorite dessert is strawberry shortcake.  This is another dessert that gets butchered more often than done properly.  For some reason, it has become popular to use sponge cake or pound cake, rather than shortcake, for this dessert.  I don’t care what anyone says, if you’re eating strawberries on top of sponge cake, you’re eating Strawberries and Sponge Cake.  But I’d venture a guess than 95% of the “Strawberry Shortcake” served in this country is actually NOT being served on shortcake.  Shortcake is a biscuit.  Plain and simple.  Sometimes sugar and egg is added to the biscuit dough.  But it’s most certainly NOT a sponge cake or a pound cake.  You cut butter (or in the old days, shortening i.e. Crisco…thus “short” cake) into flour with a leavener like baking soda, then stir in liquid.  That’s it.  WAY faster and easier than an actual cake.  It results in a flaky, buttery pastry.  I often grind fresh nutmeg into my dough, and top it with raw sugar crystals to give it some extra flavor and texture.  You smother it with strawberries (traditionally they are macerated, which means they’re sprinkled with a bit of sugar and allowed to soak in their own juices for a few hours), and top it with whipped cream.  You can find my recipe for strawberry shortcake HERE.

Gordon’s favorite dessert is trifle.  I was a bit shocked.  I guess he developed an affection for it during childhood.  Trifle is the British version of the French “parfait” (which is fairly common here in the U.S.), or the standard US version of those layered jello and pudding desserts.  And they make me want to gag.  It’s sort of like a tiramisu gone all wrong.  Layers of sodden sponge cake, jello, pudding or custard, fruit, and whipped cream, with sprinkles on top.  *shudder*  And Tonya shudders, too.

Given the choice, I’d probably pick strawberry shortcake, because I make a damn good shortcake.  Tiramisu would be my second choice, only because I just can’t imagine having to use pre-packaged ladyfingers, and I think it would come down to that in a 60 minute challenge.  And trifle?  I’m not sure I could bring myself to ever make trifle.  *gag*

Tanya discovers that no only does she not have to cook, she has to assign one of the 3 desserts to each of her competitors.  And a further twist is that they’ll pick the worst from each of the 3 categories for the bottom 3.  So they’re not necessarily competing against the whole group.  They’re competing against only 3 other people for the possibility of elimination.  VERY tricky!  She picks tiramisu for Anna, Frank, David, and Felix.  Strawberry shortcake goes to Scott, Mike, Tali, and Christine.  Trifle goes to Stacey, Becky, Monti, and Josh.

Time starts and trouble begins.  Becky didn’t get enough gelatin sheets to solidify her strawberries.  Monti gets asked by Gordon where the sponge is for her trifle, and she says, “The sponge? I don’t even know what he means by that.  He talks in this language that I don’t entirely understand sometimes.”  I rolled on the floor for a bit after that.  Monti kills me, I can’t wait to meet her.  We see Tali cutting his shortcake dough, but he’s twisting the cutter back and forth, which seals the sides and doesn’t let the shortcake rise and separate into flaky layers.

Time is called and tasting begins with the tiramisu.  Felix is upset, probably because Joe chastised her at her bench for assembling the tiramisu free-form directly on the plate.  Most traditional tiramisu is made in a baking dish, allowed to set, and then cut out (like a brownie) for serving.  Here in the U.S. we’re seeing more and more tiramisu served in a cocktail glass.  (That’s the way I served mine last season…90 minutes isn’t enough time for the tiramisu to set up in the fridge before you serve it, if you’ve taken the time to bake your ladyfingers yourself!)  She also chose to put macadamia nuts (from her home state of Hawaii!) into her tiramisu, and Joe eats her soul for it.  (Nuts are NOT traditional in tiramisu.)  Gordon tells her it’s her worst performance thus far in MasterChef, and she’s a mess.  Anna chose to present her tiramisu in a clear glass bowl, and Joe loves it.  Frank dangerously gambled on his tiramisu setting up in the short allotted time, but since we was using packaged ladyfingers, he had some extra time.  It looks traditional (and DELICIOUS), and the judges love it.  David’s tiramisu is nontraditional…his mascarpone is mixed with marsala wine and brandy and he put hazelnuts on top.  Gordon tells him it’s a big let down, and we see clips of Frank and Tanya laughing.

It’s important to note here that when you see a contestant reacting to something, that reaction could have come from ANYTHING on the filming day.  Like when Ryan was wickedly rubbing his hands together right after Christine poked herself on the crab shell…he wasn’t doing that in response to Christine.  Gordon was probably saying something to the contestants like, “Ryan’s been a wicked little boy making assignments for each of you today!”  Ryan rubs his hands together while everyone is looking at him, camping up the experience.  Then that reaction gets cut and spliced in a completely different location, out of context, to make him look evil and stir up the audience.  That happens ALL the time in reality TV.  This is another reason you need to avoid making hasty judgements about someone’s character based on watching a TV show.  I’m willing to bet a LOT of money that Tanya and Frank’s laughing clips were taken from other moments that day.  I doubt either of them would publicly laugh at David being criticized.

Now it’s time for trifle, and Josh is first.  His first layer is strawberries and raspberries reduced with blood orange juice and amaretto, the other layer is banana cream.  He had loaned ladyfingers to Monti, so I assume there’s some sponge in there somewhere, too.  Joe says it tastes like a banana split, and Josh says “Thank you.”  Then Joe says, “It’s not supposed to be a banana split.”  Ouch.  Ultimately his trifle isn’t complex enough.  Not enough layers.  Monti’s trifle is raspberry jello with raspberries and raspberry liqueur, topped with a layer of cream.  Gordon says she needs more sponge, but that it’s delicious.  Stacey made “Italian trifle” with strawberries and balsamic vinegar (a classic combination, but not for trifle), then a layer of lemon curd with mascarpone, with toasted almonds on top.  Gordon is unsure of the balsamic before he tastes it, then he loves it.  Becky’s trifle is stunningly presented: the first layer is raspberry and orange liqueur jello with orange flower water…the FIRST time anyone has followed a truly traditional trifle element.  Blossom waters are almost always a component in trifles.  (I think blossom waters are nasty, personally, they remind me of ladies at church who wear too much perfume.)  Then she’s got a custard of lemongrass and vanilla bean, which sounds AMAZING to me.  Then she’s got a layer of Chantilly cream with star anise (which has a licorice flavor).  And it’s topped with a raspberry and candied orange peel.  Joe criticizes her for way too many flavors in bizarre combinations and ultimately he chooses to spit it out, declaring it inedible.  The judges tell her that she’s trying to show off with a dish that’s too complex.  Of course I didn’t taste it, but it sounds intriguing to me.  I don’t necessarily think that the flavors are dissonant, but it IS an excessively complex dish.  However, many of the world’s most expensive restaurants brand themselves on excessively complex dishes…some single bites at Alinea in Chicago have DOZENS of ingredients in a single spoon.  (Alinea is widely recognized as the best restaurant in the country.)

Cowboy Mike‘s strawberry shortcake is first up.  His presentation is grandiose for a dish that is legendary for being rustic.  Joe tells him it looks like a go-home plate, and GOSH I feel for him.  My presentation was always so terrible on the show, and the judges were always telling me it was my weakest point.  Christine’s strawberry shortcake is full of blackberries, blueberries and raspberries, which puzzles Gordon, even though he says her shortcake is perfect.  (Incidentally, Christine and her husband spent the night at my home this week, and we had an amazing time.  Christine is SUCH an amazing person, we instantly bonded.  She’s a fellow writer, loves food, is incredibly intelligent, very witty…I’m so thrilled about my new friendship with her!)  Tali’s shortcake includes a nontraditional “strawberry air” or foam which is a light puree of strawberries, typically stabilized with an emulsifier like tapioca maltodextrin, and frothed up in a CO2-powered whipped cream dispenser.  I’m not a huge fan of foams…I think they look gross and the texture is unappealing to me.  But Tali’s foam really impressed Graham, who also uses Modernist techniques in his restaurants, and isn’t slow to criticize contestants for misuse of Modernist or “Molecular” techniques.  Scott’s shortcake is too dense, apparently.  This results from overkneading.  Like all butter-shortened pastries, you have to work the dough very gently, and only enough to bring it together into a cohesive mass and create layers.  Overworking biscuits or pie crust or shortcakes will make them tough and dense, and Scott tells us he’s accustomed to making pasta dough and probably worked it too much.  His strawberries are simply sliced on top (exactly like the example cake they presented) but Gordon tells him they need to be glazed, even though the sample they provided was not.

Stacey gets recognized as the BEST dish of the challenge: her standout moment on the show thus far, and she says it’s one of the top 3 of her life, along with meeting her husband, and sky diving.  YOU GO GIRL!!!

The bottom dish for each category gets pulled to the front: Felix’s tiramisu, Scott’s shortcake, and Becky’s trifle.  Becky is sent back to her station, safe, leaving Felix and Scott.  They ask Felix to step forward, and begin a typical goodbye speech, complete with sappy music.  Then they tell her to say goodbye…TO SCOTT!  A classic Ramsay twist, and they’re much more frequent this season.

Scott has a smile on his face as if he knew his time was up.  I always feel such respect for contestants when they have a smile on their face at elimination time.  It may have been Scott’s time, but I also think that he wasn’t a “big” enough character to last long in the show.  MasterChef is a competition not only between cooks, but between characters.  I’ve said a thousand times that, skill-wise, I didn’t belong in the top 18 in my season.  Cooks FAR more talented than I were sent home without aprons, or eliminated before me.  But I’m a character, and they want characters on the show.  From chatting with my friends on the show, I know that Scott was a favorite of everyone.  He’s funny, incredibly warm, very bright…  I’m sad that we won’t get to know more of him.

Scott has a really cool blog called The Comfortable Dish.  It’s one of the best-styled food blogs I’ve seen in a long time, and the photography is stunning.  Check him out!