By CATHY LENNY
Chesterfield resident Sarita Gelner got to experience the thrill of a lifetime when she was selected as one of 10 contestants to appear on “The Great American Baking Show.”
Although she didn’t win the grand prize, Gelner did manage to hang in there for several episodes. The “Great American Baking Show” is the American version of the English contest “The Great British Bake Off,” in which amateur bakers compete against each other with one contestant being eliminated each week.
This is the fifth season for the American version, which, like its British counterpart, is held in a now-famous white tent in Iver Heath, England. Hosts of the show were Spice Girl Emma Bunton and former NFL player Anthony “Spice” Adams. Award-winning pastry chef Sherry Yard and celebrity chef Paul Hollywood returned as judges.
Gelner wasn’t the only local baker to be selected. She was joined in the tent by St. Louis baker Helen Pantazis and Tanya Ott from Bethalto, Illinois.
It was a long process to be accepted for the show, Gelner said. After completing a detailed application, she met with producers and attended a tasting round in Chicago. Then, she flew to Los Angeles for a screen test. The contestants were chosen months before they actually went to England.
Gelner grew up watching her mom cook, mostly food from her native country, Sri Lanka. She said her mom was a hard-working single mother who put who heart and soul into everything. She taught Gelner how to make her own spice blends, such as her homemade curry spice.
“I have always been interested in the story behind ingredients and what makes certain dishes stand out,” Gelner said.
Today, Gelner has her own recipe blog, RitzyMom.com, that features hundreds of unique and self-developed recipes. She focuses mainly on desserts and cocktails.
Prior to her appearance in the tent, Gelner had already achieved local fame. Several of her recipes and food photography have been featured on“Show Me St. Louis” and “Today Food,” the Instagram food page for NBC’s “The Today Show.”
Still, being a part of “The Great American Baking Show” took her fame to a new level.
“I’ve been waiting for this my whole life,” she says on the show.
The show features three new baking challenges each week – a signature bake, a technical one and a showstopper. The signature and showstoppers are created from the bakers’ own recipes, which means they can be practiced and perfected ahead of time. But the technical is a surprise chosen by the judges who purposefully leave out certain instructions.
The first episode was devoted to sweet and savory cakes. Contestants were given two hours to make a single-layer olive oil cake. Gelner’s “Spiced Pear Olive Oil Cake” earned her the coveted “[Paul] Hollywood Handshake.” Her attempt at the technical challenge – angel food cake with a hidden center of passion fruit curd – did not go as well. For the showstopper, contestants were required to bake a three-layer cake covered with chocolate icing. Gelner tried to please the judges with her “Grand Orange Praline Chocolate Gateau” [a layered cake with cream or fruit].
While she was not named star baker, she survived the first week to return for the bread challenges. Gelner’s “Smokey Rosemary and Cheese Grissini” signature breadsticks were well received, but her “Swan Family A Swimming” bread sculpture showstopper failed to win over the judges.
Gelner was ready for spice week, as that is one of her strengths, she said.
Her “Taste of Sri Lanka Cinnamon Rolls” gave her the chance to use saffron, one of her favorite spices, and she came in fourth for her Linzer cookies. Her nerves were tested, though, when she had to make a holiday gingerbread house, but she managed to capture fourth place for her “Wintry Nature Lodge.”
Dessert week required contestants to make 24 madeleine cookies. Gelner made her “Afternoon Tea Madeleine Cookies”, which the judges praised for their color and definition. However, her “Queen of Puddings,” a dessert made with pudding, jam and meringue, was a bit more challenging.
The showstopper for dessert week was a cheesecake tower with three tiers, two identical and one unique. Gelner’s “Winter Garden Cheesecake” was given accolades for her choice of colors.
Week five brought pastry, including a citrus tart signature that just wouldn’t cooperate. When the judges said the ingredients for her “Boxing Day Tarts” with tangerine and lime filling were slightly overmixed, it brought the normally upbeat and perky Gelner to tears. However, she raised the bar in the next challenge, coming in third for her hand-raised pork pies. British cuisine, the spiced-meat filling contained pork and bacon with a hard-boiled quail egg hidden inside.
The pastry showstopper required the bakers to make six glazed Napoleons and 12 heart-shaped palmiers featuring full puff pastry, which is not an easy dough to make. The trick is to get sufficient flakiness to please the judges; hence, Gelner’s submission was aptly named “When Flaky is a Good Thing.”
Gelner, who periodically chastised herself on the show for working slow, struggled with timing during cookie week. In honor of her daughters, she named her sugar cookies “Bea & Tilly’s Lost Mitten.” But with time running short, it was Gelner who lost her ability to neatly decorate every single mitten. Things worked out better on the technical and she achieved second place for her almond ginger fortune cookies.
Unfortunately, the “Cocktail Party” macaron tower she baked for the showstopper was her downfall.
“Timing got her in the long run,” Hollywood said of their decision to send her home.
Gelner made an appearance in the final episode that aired on Jan. 2, allowing her to enjoy the spotlight one last time with her fellow bakers.
“The show is quite a phenomenon, so I know it’s widely watched, but I’ve been shocked that strangers recognize me now,” Gelner said after her episodes aired. “I’ve been getting very sweet messages from strangers saying they love watching and what a fun season this has been and my blog traffic has skyrocketed.”
Gelner said she keeps in contact with a few of the bakers from the show and even numbers two of them among her best friends. For now, she said she plans to continue baking and creating recipes and maintaining her status as a local celebrity.