Seasons by the Sea: On Your Mark, Get Set, Cook!

A dessert inspired by a sparkly shoe? Laura Donnelly prefers a raspberry tart, or, perhaps, a cookie plate. Carissa Katz and Laura Donnelly Photos

    When did the act of preparing delicious food become a competition, an entertainment, a way to win lots of money, or best of all, an opportunity to humiliate oneself in front of a national audience?
    Television and radio game shows have been around for at least 60 years. The most distressing one I can remember growing up was called “Queen for A Day.” Women in the audience were brought up onstage to tell their tales of woe to a man named Jack Bailey, a former World’s Fair barker. They would reveal their most intimate, unfortunate circumstances to the audience and the biggest sad sack won a washer and dryer or a night out on the town with her husband.
    Now we have “Survivor” shows, dating shows, and, on the Food Network, cooking competition shows. They often have a cruel twist. A secret ingredient, such as jellyfish or geoduck (gag) is added to your well-thought-out menu. You have a limited amount of time to make your dish. One of your fellow contestants steals all the butter. These shows are nerve-racking, and I have recently been asked to participate in one.
    It is called the “Food Network Challenge.” You can win $10,000 after a two-day competition. I was asked to fill out a three-page questionnaire and submit six pictures of my best work. Some of the questions were ones I had never asked myself: How competitive are you? How do you react to criticism? How would your toughest detractors describe you? I never thought about it, don’t know, and ouch.
    I ask the question again: When did making delicious desserts that put smiles on people’s faces become a scary, sweat-inducing contest?
    I was summoned to a casting agency to be interviewed by two 14-year-old girls. It was easy to identify the other potential pastry chefs in the waiting room — they didn’t look like me. Nowadays they are large, heavily tattooed men half my age.
    Since I don’t spend a lot of time watching the Food Network or cooking shows, I had to do a little research on “Food Network Challenge.” On some of the past episodes contestants have had to make desserts for Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney, rock stars, Disney Pixar, cowboys, Cirque du Soleil, Pillsbury, Disney Classics, Miley Cyrus’s sweet 16 birthday, more Disney themes, and by far two of the scariest sounding — Elvis’s birthday and “Sex and the City 2.”
    A few of them were right up my alley, demolition derby cakes, American pies, and cookies. Yeah, cookies I can do!
    Upon being miked and put in front of a camera, one of the extremely young girls handed me a picture of a sequined stiletto heeled shoe. “You have 40 seconds to tell us what you would do, and three hours to prepare your creation. Go!”
    If there’s one thing I am good at, it is B.S., so I prattled on about a sparkly opalescent sugar topping I procured in New Orleans and explained how I would use it to decorate my cake. Folks, if you saw the last cake I made for a colleague’s farewell party, you would die laughing. (Sorry, Ro’ee!) But I can assure you, it was a moist and tasty confection.
    I informed them that I am self-taught, have never carved an ice sculpture, can’t do sugar work, and don’t know how to temper chocolate. When the tween finally asked “Why do you want to be on the ‘Food Network Challenge?’ ” I was flummoxed. “I never said I wanted to be on the show, you called me.” True.
    So now I am waiting to hear if I will be chosen to compete. As I reflect on the experience, I realize how proud I am that someone, somewhere suggested me for the program. I am proud that I am the pastry chef for one of the best restaurants in East Hampton. I am proud that I get to write about food for this newspaper. Most of all, I am proud to share some of my favorite recipes that always put smiles on people’s faces. And that is what cooking is all about.­


Paté Sablée
    This recipe is for paté sablée dough, a French cookie dough for tarts. It is easy to make and can be blind-baked before filling. It is perfect for fresh fruit tarts in summertime.
    Make approximately 21/2 pounds of dough, enough for a few large tarts or lots of little ones.
8 oz. butter, cold, cut into small pieces
4 oz. confectioners’ sugar
4 oz. almond flour (you can make this yourself by grinding almonds in food processor until finely chopped)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3 oz. eggs
4 oz. flour    

    Mix these ingredients on low speed in mixer or processor until blended. Then add:

    13 oz. flour
    1 tsp. salt

    Mix until just incorporated. Chill for a few hours then roll.

Pastry Cream
1 qt. whole milk
31/2 eggs
3 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/4 lb. butter
2 tsp. vanilla

    Begin by whisking eggs, egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch in a medium-size bowl.
    Scald milk in heavy-bottom saucepan. Temper egg mixture by slowly adding hot milk, whisking all the while.
    Return mixture to stovetop and reduce heat to low. Whisking constantly, slowly cook the pastry cream until a few bubbles pop up on surface and it has thickened considerably. Remove from heat, whisk in butter and vanilla extract. You can strain the pastry cream if it appears lumpy, otherwise chill immediately with a film of plastic wrap placed directly on surface to prevent skin from forming. Once chilled, it can be used to fill fruit tarts, profiteroles, éclairs, or just eaten as a delicious vanilla pudding!
    To make fresh raspberry tarts, roll out sablée dough to about a quarter-inch thickness. Place in desired tart pan (the fluted tin pans with removable bottoms are good). Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown. Cool.
    Spoon or pipe some of the pastry cream into the baked and cooled crust. Top with raspberries, or any fruit you wish. You can glaze this with diluted apricot preserves for a little sheen, but I like the fruit to shine on its own.