Last night I helped judge the 3rd annual Great American Baking Contest — a fun local event that raises money for Share our Strength. Contestants in three categories — professional, amateur, children — enter baked good, and a panel of overfed judges scores them and hands out prizes. This year, the event took place at the wonderful new Cook’s Warehouse in Ansley Mall.
I left Alon Balshan (Alon’s Bakery), Kathryn King (Aria) and Jonathan St. Hilaire (Bakeshop) to judge the kids and amateurs, while I focused on the professional entries with Mary Moore, owner of Cook’s Warehouse. (It was a blind tasting, with no chef identified.) We ended up with a kazillion-way tie after trying a lot of great desserts that each could’ve used a small tweak or improvement.
There was a gorgeous and complex charlotte undone by a (seeming) overload of rosewater, an exquisitely decorated layered torte that didn’t really sing with its advertised cherry flavor, a pitch-near-perfect lemon chess tart that needed its sweet-sour dial tuned a hair toward the latter, and an exuberant and delicious Mexican chocolate cake with a sticky center layer that proved impossible to cut.
As we were debating the four or five desserts that really stood out, wringing our hands, S.O.S.’s Amy Crowell came up and said, “Taste should really trump other considerations, like appearance.”
Bingo. The bauletti di ricotta — cheese and raisin filling baked inside “purses” in a perfect tart shell with honey gelato got the lowest possible scores for presentation, but the flavor kept us coming back. It danced on that edge — not of sweet and savory, but of serious and frivolous — that great desserts do. The resonances of cheese and butter, of raisin and honey, of crumbly edge and creamy gush, kept us exploring the nooks of flavor. As other desserts showed their flaws with repeated forkfuls, this one revealed it’s ugly-duckling refinement.
Jennifer Etchison of Pricci was startled, to say the least, when her name was called. “But it’s so ugly!” she cried. Apparently, a new kind of imported Italian ricotta did not behave properly, and the first tarts she baked exploded in the oven. Starting late in the afternoon, she baked more tarts that still bubbled up and overflowed their shells. On a good day, this kind of tart looks rustic. These looked like the farm animals themselves had a hoof in the preparation.
Etchison — one of the great unsung pastry chefs of the city, I think — does fascinating work at Pricci. I first became aware of her desserts when I first tried them during my 30 Restaurants in 30 Days post on Pricci. She takes an academic approach while researching chef Piero Premoli’s monthly regional Italian menus and applies a fine palate to the kinds of Old World creations that have nothing to do with current vogue. I can still taste in my mind her crisp strudel of dried fruits and bitter chocolate, and her chocolate-hazelnut ice cream coupe with candied chestnuts that I ate months ago.
“Piero has really inspired me to do a lot more research in books,” says Etchison, 34. “I really click with him, and I’m always trying to expand my knowledge.”
The Columbus, Ga., native first worked for Kirk Parks when he was the pastry chef at Nava. Later, she worked for restaurateur Bob Amick at One Midtown Kitchen, Two Urban Licks and Piebar, but found the stress of running the pastry kitchens at multiple restaurants too much. When the call came from Premoli, she jumped.
“My technical ability is definitely not as strong as some other pastry chefs in the city,” Atchison says, “but I think I have a good palate. That’s where my strength lies.” Without question.