This is not your typical baking contest.


We tend to assume a certain amount of competence in our cooking shows. When you watch the “Great British Bake-Off” or cake competitions on the Food Network, it can be intimidating to see the level of comfort contestants have with things like laminated dough and sugar sculptures — challenges that seem more appropriate for professionals than for home cooks.

I’m not saying no one ever uses spun sugar and fondant for their school bake sale contribution. I’m just saying we all know they’re full of it when they pretend it was just something they “threw together.”

But Netflix’s new baking contest “Nailed It!” is a show for everyone who bakes from a mix, but still shares pirate-themed donuts and emoji cakes online. The producers realized that setting up very average cooks with Pinterest-level challenges was destined to end in hilarious failure, so that’s exactly what they did.

Still, having legendary chocolatier Jacques Torres (as well as a succession of pastry chefs) watch in stunned amazement as contestants ignore recipes and overfill pans has an unexpected upside: there is some good advice to be gained from the show.

Sure, most of the spectacular failures of “Nailed It!” come from attempting something way beyond the baker’s skill level. But along the way, Torres and the other chefs give some useful baking tips.

So here are eight things I learned while watching “Nailed It!” to help turn a Pinterest fail into a Pinterest not-half-bad:

    1. More is more when it comes to greasing your cake pans. Torres and company seem to prefer butter to cooking spray when it comes to greasing cake pans, but whichever way you go, this is not a place to skimp. Be generous with the spray (or butter) in order to avoid that awful moment when a fully cooked cake has to be excavated from the pan in a set of sad chunks.
    2. One-bowl recipes risk overworking your batter. Distrust cake and cookie recipes that have you dump everything in one bowl and mix. You run a good chance of overworking the batter and ending up with a tough cake (or cookie) texture. Flour should come after you’ve creamed the butter and sugar together (and added eggs).
    3. Go with granulated sugar for a better cookie texture. Some sugar cookie recipes recommend using powdered sugar, but Jacques Torres says this is a mistake. (And who am I to argue with Jacques Torres.) The fine texture of powdered sugar creates a harder cookie. For a pleasant, crumbly cookie, use granulated sugar instead.
    4. Don’t overfill. The more batter you have, the longer it takes to cook though, risking a cooked exterior and a raw or under-cooked middle. Fill the cake pan too much, and you can also end up overflowing the top and ending with a very, very messy oven. Try not to fill cake pans more than halfway. If you want height, you can always stack the layers.
    5. Let the cake cool before icing it. At home, you rarely have the pressure of a countdown clock and a panel of judges waiting for your finished creation. But there are plenty of other reasons to rush. Just don’t rush the frosting stage. Adding frosting while the cake is still warm will lead to a melt-y drippy cake. Sometimes, the frosting will even slide right off. Wait until the cake has had a chance to cool before icing it. Sadly, unless you have a $30,000 blast chiller, this probably means letting it sit on the counter for a while.
    6. Buttercream is the tastiest glue. It is insane what buttercream can do. It’s basically the culinary equivalent of that white paste that preschool teachers use for everything. It can support candy decorations, add structure and cement to a cake sculpture, and give fondant a base to stick to. It also helps keep cake layers from sliding when making a massive cake shark or princess tower – something that’s especially important when you need to carve your stack of cakes into a particular shape.
    7. Start small when adding color. As wedding cake designer Sylvia Weinstock points out in the very first episode, extremely dark and vibrant colors aren’t necessarily appetizing. A pale blue cake is elegant without seeming inedible. But a garish turquoise doesn’t look like anything an adult would eat on purpose. So when coloring fondant and buttercream, start with a tiny bit. Not only is it easier to add more than correct an overly-bright frosting, but you won’t run the risk of accidentally ruining the texture in the process.
    8. For smooth fondant, cover and drape. Handling fondant too much can leave fingerprints in your finish. Use wax or parchment paper to roll it out. Then, when it’s time to lay the fondant on your cake, don’t flip or toss it onto the base. Instead, pick it up and drape it over a rolling pin, then gently slide it onto the cake. (It’s pretty much the same move you use when transferring pie crust into a pie pan.) This keeps you from tearing the fondant or exposing the side that was dusted with cornstarch or sugar.

Of course, the biggest baking lesson is that you shouldn’t try to take on more than you can handle. And that aesthetic issues can be forgiven if everything tastes good.

Which leads to one more interesting fact, and it’s more of a life lesson than a cooking one.

A gracious host will smile and try to compliment just about anything you serve her, even a cookie topped with a Flamin’ Hot Cheeto. But it’s a lot kinder not to make her eat it.

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