Despite toppled cupcakes, Karina Wong triumphs in Battle of the Bakers
Excitement was in the air at Hong Kong's first Battle of the Bakers competition final on December 14. Or perhaps it was adrenaline, as many of the contestants pulled all-nighters to ensure that every drizzle of icing was as it should be.
The five finalists, whittled down from a group of 16, were tasked with presenting a table of festive treats for the last challenge, comprising a savoury pastry, tiered cake and cookies to showcase skills they learned over the past seven weeks.
The treats were polished enough to be professional, even though most of the amateur bakers had never worked with fondant.
Founded and judged by Anouska Mutreja of The Rose Petal Cakery and Nolan Ledarney of Umami Concepts, the social media-based competition involved contenders learning a new skill each week in the lead-up to the finale. These included mastering the technique of macarons to perfecting cookie dough. Helen Scott, founder of Mango Menus, was selected as the third member of the panel.
Karina Wong triumphed with her entry, "'Tis the Season". Her winning submission consisted of brie and walnut eclairs with fig jam and fresh figs, gingerbread stockings and stained-glass windows, and a green tiered cake speckled with bright yellow stars.
She won a HK$5,000 Cuisinart voucher and the opportunity to use the Umami Concepts space to showcase her creations to 40 people.
Wong's road to victory was not entirely smooth, as toppled chestnut cupcakes en route to the finale venue required a last-minute save, where the icing had to be scraped off the overturned confections and reapplied.
Wong found the final stage of the competition the most challenging as she had to deal with "a decorated cake, 50 savoury pastries, 50 sweet baked goods and 50 cookies. I have a full-time time job so I had to manage my time well."
As she had only recently moved here from London, Wong faced extra challenges. "The local palate is different. The feedback I received about my first batch of cupcakes was that they were too sweet. I had to adapt to Asian tastes."
Wong found the session on commercial baking useful as she learned about keeping costs down to make a business profitable. But passion is her priority. "A handmade cake is full of love and care. Each smile and compliment encourages me," she says.
Runner-up Grace Wong's dedication to dessert-making inspired her to leave her investment banking career to pursue baking. Her pastel "Let it Snow" creations included a cornbread muffin with cheese and roasted peppers, iced vanilla and mocha cookies and passion fruit chocolate macarons.
She has no formal training, and the tiered cake she produced for the final was only her third time using fondant.
"The process was well-guided and we learned how to balance taste and presentation," she says.
Her prize was a HK$2,000 Cuisinart voucher.
In third place, Veronica Monaci's "White Christmas" spread encompassed basil cheese puffs, melting moments and Christmas tree cookies. The self-taught baker is a mother of four and became interested in baking after making cakes for her children.
The competition is a stepping stone for the home bakers, and both Mutreja and Ledarney spoke to the finalists before the end to "see where they were hoping to take their baking", Mutreja says.
"I hope the competition has given Karina the extra skills and confidence she needed to take it to the next stage," she adds.
Battle of the Bakers has been approached by sponsors to host another event in 2015, and wants to introduce a children's version.