Food Network's 'Chopped': Cooking My Way to the Finals

(Image credit: David Lang/Television Food Network)

By Rachel Willen

It was round three, the dessert round of the Holiday "battle" of Food Network's "Chopped" that I was in the midst of waging against my fellow competitors. I began to believe that I had a better chance of winning than when I'd arrived that morning. A burly chef, hailing from the DC area, whose shoulder chip began to waver by this third and decisive round, decided that winning fair and square was too much of a risk. As we waited in the chef's holding area to be called back on set for the final cook-off, Chef Will asked me "what are you going to do for dessert? Do you think you'll make an ice cream?" I replied that I had practiced ice creams and if the yet unknown mystery basket ingredients lent itself to that, I might go for it. "What are you going to do?" I asked in return. "Well, whatever I do, I know it won't be ice cream. I have a pastry chef at my restaurant. I don't do ice cream. I haven't made an ice cream since culinary school, so I know I'm not doing that." It was a friendly conversation. We wished each other well and headed out to complete the game.

"Chefs, open your baskets," Ted Allen instructed us. I saw Eggnog, Panettone Bread, Pomegranate Molasses and Hanukah Gelt.

That jug of eggnog said "ice cream" to me, but first I wanted to get some butter and sugar creaming in a stand mixer because I was determined to serve my eggnog ice cream with a big festive chocolate chip (or Hanukah Gelt) cookie as an homage to Santa's traditional Christmas Eve repast. With that done I ran over to the fridge to get a dozen eggs-two I'd need for the cookie, and another five to make the ice cream base. When I got there-no eggs-where there would normally be two dozen.

Then something mysterious happened that had nothing to do with those mystery baskets. "Check the fridge again," Will told me. "I think there are more eggs in there." Did Will replace a dozen of the hoarded eggs when I wasn't looking, when a pang of conscience got the best of him, or did they appear out of nowhere, like a Chopped version of the Chanukah miracle…with eggs multiplying instead of the supply of holy oil? I'll never know. I just grabbed them and ran back to my station to finish my cookie, get it in the oven and start my ice cream. As I was making the "anglaise" custard needed, Ted Allen came over and informed me that Chef Will already had an ice cream churning in the one and only ice cream machine on set. "Oh really?" I said. I turned to face Will at his station, his look somewhat sheepish, yet defiant. "You told me you weren't going to make an ice cream," I said and added another sentence that contained an expletive I don't need to repeat here but that made the the show, bleep included. "It's a competition," was his reply.

What happened next was another miracle. Instead of being flustered by this act of slimy sabotage, I turned to my station, saw the gorgeous Panettone bread and pomegranate molasses and knew in an instant what I would do. I worked fast and confidently to cube the giant, fragrant bread, divided it up among four ramekins, and soaked them with the eggnog-laced custard that would have been my ice cream had Will not bogarted the machine. I popped those in the oven and prayed they'd rise up and be gorgeous in the 10 remaining minutes on the clock. The pomegranate molasses, when added to red wine, bay leaves, cinnamon and vanilla would reduce down to a beautiful holiday-inspired syrup that would tartly compliment the sweet heaviness of the pudding. When the puddings came out of the oven, I spontaneously decided to unwrap more of the Chanukah Gelt and submerge one coin in each of the hot, steaming puddings for another sweet holiday surprise and a nod to the blended Judeo/Christian family I am a part of.

How did my competitor's ice cream stand up to my bread pudding? Well, call it Karma, lousy luck or poor judgment, but that ice cream, topped with the hot donut he made, left him with more of a soup than a frozen confection. Though his ice cream was warm, in the end his behavior left the majority of the judges cold.

Recipe: Panettone & Eggnog Bread Pudding with Pomegranate Syrup and Chanukah Gelt

Watch the results for yourself when the Holiday episode of Chopped repeats on 12/4 at 10 p.m. on Food Network. Chef Rachel Willen is the chef, writer and founder of the popular food blog FoodFix Kitchen.

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