Broadcast from a Food Network kitchen studio before millions of TV viewers Thursday night, Erin Gardner said nerves had her on edge as round after round of surprise ingredients were put before her on the dessert competition, "Sweet Genius."
Those nerves didn't show in her confectionery concoctions, though, as Gardner, owner and pastry chef at North Hampton's Wild Orchid Baking Company, received near-perfect marks from host Ron Ben-Israel en route to a $10,000 prize and the title of "Sweet Genius."
Gardner wowed Ben-Israel with her use of the mystery ingredients during the elimination-style bake-off, masterfully utilizing oddball choices like baby formula, horseradish root, tahini paste and quinoa into three different dishes that led Ben-Israel to use complimentary phrases like "exorbitant flavor," "intense" and "very well controlled and balanced."
"It kind of just caps it off and gives me validation that I might not have had before," Gardner said on air about winning the competition and receiving high marks from a man she considers a mentor. "It's a pretty big accomplishment."
Gardner faced stiff competition and plenty of curveballs during the three themed rounds of the competition, which also featured mystery ingredients that could be considered more traditional dessert items, such as cherries and applesauce.
She told Patch in an interview after the hourlong premiere Thursday night that seeing the episode for the first time was "amazing" and "surreal" experience that put her knowledge and career to the test.
In the first round — the chocolate round — Gardner was tasked with making a baby-inspired dessert that somehow incorporated infant formula. She didn't seem too pleased with the ingredient, as cameras quickly cut to the new mother making faces of disgust and saying things like, it has a "funky flavor."
Gardner substituted the formula for milk to bring out the chocolate in a devil's food cake recipe that played on the innocent-yet-fiendish nature of infants. She incorporated the second mystery ingredient — applesauce, which was revealed partway through the 40-minute round — into an apple-based caramel sauce that blew Ben-Israel away.
The second round required using cherries to make a snow globe-inspired candy dessert, and Gardner made several miniature cherry snow globes. She stuffed the fruit with dried figs, spices and a wine-based sauce that eventually was infused with the spicy horseradish root, which was revealed partway through the 40-minute round as the second mystery ingredient.
Her miniature globes had plenty of sparkle and a white exterior, although the only mark against her during the competition was that the horseradish didn't come out strongly enough — something with which all three remaining chefs struggled — in the filling or in the sauce on the side of her dish.
Gardner had to use tahini paste — made of ground sesame seeds — and quinoa seeds to create a Taj Mahal-inspired cake dessert in the 60-minute third round.
The paste served as a rich, almond-like flavor base for a tower cake Ron-Israel loved, although Gardner — a cakemaker — was in tears while initially doubting the quality of her work. Those tears were quickly replaced by smiles as she listened to Ben-Israel give high praise for toasting the quinoa and prominently showcasing the tart citrus flavor of blood oranges — the surprise ingredient No. 3 — within her "simple yet stunning" work.
It was then that Gardner said she realized "how much winning" meant to her because it was "right there," and Gardner told Patch after watching Thursday's episode that she's excited for how the honor will influence her passion and career in the near future.
"It feels great and I can't wait to see what's next," said Gardner.
Gardner's episode of "Sweet Genius" will air again on Food Network at 11 p.m. on Thursday, May 3.