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Sugar Challenge

Grand-niece Emmaline

Grand-niece Emmaline

My family finally got together for the holiday!  (And incidentally I got to meet the new baby!)

1 year old Charles.  Isn't that what Christmas is about?

1 year old Charles. Isn’t that what Christmas is about?

As promised there was a new challenge this year.  SUGAR.  This wasn’t as easy as it sounds and the competition was fierce.   My youngest sister and her family opted out.  They celebrated with my folks over the Solstice.  (I was not available.)  Andrea (the middle sister) and Butch hosted and friends of theirs stopped by.  We’ve known them for at least 25 years, they’re family!  In spite of every Besnett debating in their head if their dish would stretch there was plenty to go around.

Because of timing, scheduling, and all the comings and goings courses were not served individually this year.  Instead the feast was piled up for everyone to take some and find a seat.  So I’ll have to give you the plate by plate low down the way I saw it.

The "spread"

The “spread”

That soup in the corner was Darcy’s offering.  She’s the new Mom, the mother of the 1 yr. old and the mother of Adian who is maybe in 2nd grade?  Anyway, she’s got a lot on her plate and still managed to produce a very tasty offering in spite of all the obstacles in her path.  Admittedly I was one of them.

From the stove to the table, not much for presentation.  And it's such a pretty soup!

From the stove to the table. And it’s such a pretty soup!

The soup is a curry with sweet potatoes and peas.  Darcy figured she’d just grab some curry powder out of the cupboard at Andrea’s.  That’s when I got in her way.  Most commercial curry blends have cinnamon in them, and I’m deathly allergic.  Sorry Darcy.  In my defense I did mix her up a curry blend that I could eat.  I tried to make it better and many of us agreed it was a very tasty soup, but Darcy wasn’t happy with her offering and that’s probably mostly my fault.

Alyx wasn't giving up her turn with the new baby.

Alyx wasn’t giving up her turn with the new baby.

Alyx, my niece, is prepping her dish with her new niece tucked into her hoodie pockets.  She also did a sweet potato dish, but the main ingredient (all that green stuff) is minced brussel sprouts.  This is why the competition is so close.  Everyone manages to find a way to challenge their own abilities and up their game.   A lot of people who don’t usually like brussel sprouts thought it was great.  Alyx told me she got nervous and may have added a little too much pepper.  For a novice cook it was a great effort.  Unfortunately the judges ruled it didn’t place.

Dad's job is always taking things out of the oven

Dad’s job is always taking things out of the oven

Mom and Dad went all out with that duck.  It was beautifully cooked, nicely carved and pretty tasty.  The dipping sauce was genius.  It had a crushed raspberry base.  Between the honey in the marinate and the sugar in the dipping sauce it was a great presentation of sugar without being crazy sweet.

Presentation was pretty too.

Presentation was pretty too.

Karina and I thought they should have at least placed but the judges didn’t.  I suspect the judges like the notion of Mom and Dad continuing to take the main dish next year.  I know I do!

Aren't carrots sweet enough to count as sugar?

Carrots are sweet enough to count as sugar, extra with the glaze.

That’s Andrea, our hostess, with her carrots.  She did a flambé with brandy.  She got the judges involved, but most of the group missed that part of the presentation.  Her modest entry involved a lot of time and effort and  she could have raked in cheers if she’d made it a production.  They were perfectly cooked carrots, beautifully plated.  Her son Zac (last year’s winner and the other judge) knew one of the extra guests wouldn’t touch carrots.  The fact that he not only ate them, but liked them gave Andrea extra bonus points.   When they announced her second place the judges said that was the reason.

Karina plates with precision

Karina plates with precision

Karina has been swamped.  As a professional baker she’s working extra with catering orders this time of year.  Adding to her stress was her assistant quitting right before Christmas production started.  Bless her boss for gifting her the perfect solution to our secret ingredient.

Is this really a side dish?

Is this really a side dish?

The beans are steamed, the nuts are sugared but it’s the sauce on the wings that had the judges attention.  Made with pure sugar cane syrup – thank you Alex!

I know this post is getting long, but hey it was a BIG MEAL.  We still have to have dessert.  I coerced Dylan (Karina’s boyfriend) into being on my team rather than hers.   I needed the help!   He doesn’t have a lot of cooking experience, but he stepped up with flying colors.  With dessert we knew we had to take sugar seriously so we spent a day in my kitchen experimenting with pulled sugar.

Karina stood on the counter to take this for proof Dylan helped.

Karina stood on the counter to take this for proof Dylan helped.

In planning for dessert I knew by the time we got here everyone would be too stuffed to want anything too heavy.  I had the perfect solution.   We made both peppermint and cayenne pepper sticks.   I made handcrafted marshmallows.  At Andrea’s we made hot cocoa with organic sugar and high-end cocoa powder and to seal the deal spiked it with Bailey’s Irish Cream.

I thought it plated pretty too.

I thought it plated pretty too.

The peppermint and cayenne sticks stuck in the cocoa were perfect.  The great part was that dessert was adjustable to taste.   Everyone had control of the spices.   They could have alcohol or not.  I even offered good coffee as an alternative to the cocoa.  We got RAVES.   Of course Dylan and I thought we should have won.  We placed third.

The victor for the day, and judge (along with Butch our host) for next year is our baker: Karina.  I’m happy for her.  She can use the break over the holidays given her busy work schedule.  It also means next year the judging will be at a whole new level.  Those two can really talk about food!  Watch out family – I’m playing to win!



proud Mom

This weekend we attended the commencement ceremony for my daughter Karina.  She graduated from the baking and patisserie program at Le Cordon Bleu.  It was a grand event with speakers who talked about passion and working your butt off, both essential elements of the culinary industry.  She’s very proud of herself, and she should be.  She has dreamed about being a baker since about the 7th grade.

Since she’s my baby it’s also another milestone for me.  She is out from under the wings of academia and all alone in that cold cruel world.  It doesn’t seem like such a big change for her.  Part of the program requires an extensive externship experience.  Karina found a job that hired her and was happy to do the externship paperwork on the side.  She’s working as the lead baker at Brasa in St. Paul. ( It’s a restaurant that prides itself on using local and seasonal ingredients.  They cater to accommodating the gluten free crowd so she’s learned a lot about that.  The deserts turn over seasonally, along with the sides, but she’s not leaving school to go find a job in her field.  She has one.

Hopefully she’s a little nicer to her customers now than she was then.

Actually she has two jobs in her field as she’s also waitressing at Fat Lorenzo’s a pizza and Italian eatery in South Minneapolis (  She loves being on her own in the kitchen, but she also enjoys the social aspects of front of the house work.  Karina has visions of someday opening her own bakery and I’m sure this experience will help her.

My little girl has always been a go getter. I remember her as a toddler always eager to help out.  Always wanting to do more.  Of course she had to do more than many kids her age because she had a brother with special needs.  I used to whisper to her as a babe in arms “You will walk, you will walk early, and once you start walking you’ll never be carried again.”  Since I stuck to my guns on that one she became very adept at charming other adult friends into picking her up and hauling along.  Those early social skills and charm continue to aid her in her new adult life.

I didn’t believe her when she first started talking about wanting to be a baker.  Her brother is a morning person.  He’s up at the slightest hint of morning with a smile on his face and eager for what the day brings.  Karina has always been more like her mother the night owl.  Getting her up in the morning for school was a chore and getting her to go to bed at a reasonable hour even worse.  She never had a problem on those special occasions (like New Years) when she was allowed to stay up.  In fact she would start looking for reasons to get an exemption to bedtime.  I suspected the reason she got into choir was as much for the evening concerts, and subsequently delayed bedtime as it was for the music.

Minnetonka Chamber Choir 2009

So when Karina first started talking about being a baker I did the most horrible thing a mother could ever do.  I laughed at her.  YOU?  You know that bakers are up and at work at 4am don’t you?  You really want a job, a life, that requires you to be functional at that ungodly hour of the morning?  You’ve got to be kidding!  She told me quite succinctly that she could sleep when she got off work and meet the morning from the end of a late night.   Then she turned on her heel and slammed the door of her bedroom.  I eat my words as I listen to her rattle off her intentions to be at work early at 4am or that she over slept and didn’t get in until 6am.  I also note that she does agree to go out dancing knowing that at 2am when the club closes she can pack a change of clothes and head over to work for a really early start.

All focus in competition

When she decided to go to Le Cordon Bleu we knew there would be a mad dash to find the money.  Karina entered a cooking competition, culinary rather than baking.  She won a scholarship.  She found jobs in the industry.  She worked with financial aid.  She got another scholarship based on recommendations of merit from her employers and teachers.  She hustled, took out student loans, applied for pell grants and managed to get through pretty much on her own.  The experience of juggling the money for her education will also be a huge benefit to her when she decides to go into business for herself.

As much as she’s done on her own, Karina still gives me credit as an inspiration.  I cook.  I’ve cooked for dinner parties.  I’ve cooked to save the budget from the expense of eating out.  I’ve cooked for weekend conference events.  I’ve even brought Karina along as my assistant in the kitchen.  She’s got a precision that I lack, which is why she’ll be a better baker than I ever was.

Dreaming big while seeing Buddy from Cake Boss

I think, part of the appeal of baking is the competition with her mother isn’t as great.  In baking she’ll have to take on my father, the north woods king of bread.  A loaf of his gets $50 in the DFL fundraising auction they hold every year.  My mother is no slouch as a cook either.  I tease that their retirement home is really a bed and breakfast because they host so much company.

My sister sent a card to congratulate Karina.  Hands down it was the best.  The card is unremarkable, it’s what my sister wrote along with her love.   “Finally there is someone in the family who REALLY knows how to cook!”

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