MOULTONBOROUGH — Jennifer Clifford, local-girl-turned-star-baker, did it again, producing one of the judges’ favorite desserts in the latest episode of Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship.
The show aired on Monday night.
Judges, though they declared her cupcake one of the best they’d ever tasted, gave the win of Episode 5 to one of her competitors. That made it the fourth time that her creation finished in the top two, at the halfway point in the season.
The Holiday Baking Championship began with 10 bakers, ranging from home bakers to culinary instructors. Clifford falls somewhere in the middle — a woman who has baked professionally since she was a teenager but never went to culinary school and never worked outside of Moultonborough.
When she agreed to be part of the Food Network show, which ends each episode with one of the contestants sent home, she said she had modest expectations for herself.
“My goal, that I was comfortable saying out loud, was not getting kicked out first. But, deep down, if I could make it halfway, I would be okay with that,” she said in a phone interview on Tuesday morning.
“Coming from such a small town, not having a lot of experience outside of this town — not any, actually — I didn’t know if I could do this. Making my goal, I’m proud of myself,” she said.
Despite her successes in the early episodes, Clifford said she was as nervous as ever for the filming of Episode 5.
Their first challenge was to repurpose the fruity Italian holiday bread Pannatone, which was something she was barely familiar with, but, with the clock ticking, she had to think on her feet.
“I’d had it once in my life. I remember it being not nearly as bad as fruitcake,” Clifford said.
Tasting the bread, she thought it would be a good complement to a pecan coffee cake — something she makes frequently at Cup and Crumb in Moultonborough, where she’s head baker — so she made the Pannatone into a base for the coffee cake, then made a rum- and Pannatone-infused ice cream just in time to put before the judges.
For the elimination round, bakers were challenged to create a platter of pull-apart cupcakes inspired by a pair of holiday pajamas. Clifford’s PJs had strings of Christmas lights, so she created her platter to look like the side of a house, decorated for the holidays, complete with Santa’s feet sticking up from the peak of the roof.
While some bakers focused on the intricacy of their design, Clifford wanted to be sure her cupcakes would be worth eating.
“I knew I didn’t want to use vanilla [batter], because that’s so basic,” she said on Tuesday. She decided to go with a pastry that is a hit with her patrons in Moultonborough: a chocolate cupcake stuffed with a dollop of chocolate-chip cheesecake.
She had her cupcakes already stuffed when the producers served up a curveball: Each of the bakers would have to include a specific stuffing into their cupcakes. Clifford’s stuffing was white chocolate ganache.
While some of the other contestants used fancy-sounding batters or obscure techniques, Clifford’s cupcake recipe, which she had been using since she was a teenager, was selected as one of the top two of the episode. Judge Nancy Fuller told her it was the best cupcake she had ever eaten.
Watching the fifth episode on Monday night, Clifford said she was reliving the conflicting emotions she was experiencing as filming progressed. On the one hand, she was thrilled to be recognized as one of the best bakers on the show. However, she said that she was starting to become acutely homesick.
“I had never been away from my husband and kids for so long. Phone calls every day weren’t cutting it,” she said. “You so badly want to stay in the competition, but you so badly want to go home to your family. It was an emotional struggle.”
It was at that moment, she said, that she also doubled down on her expectations for herself.
“When I came in, my goal was to make it halfway. After I made it there, I said, maybe I want to win this thing. I didn’t even think this was within the realm of possibility when I started,” she said.
At stake is the $25,000 grand prize, as well as the cachet that would come with the win.
But don’t expect Clifford to chase foodie stardom.
“I’m very comfortable hiding in the kitchen and doing my thing and going home to my kids and my husband. If I took full advantage of this, took all the orders in the world, I don’t think I’d be as happy. I want to be a mom and a wife. I want to enjoy being in the kitchen and going home to my family, having that time with my family,” she said.
She has found one way to leverage her newfound fame, though. She will be baking one of her previous episode-winners, a chocolate yule log with cookies-and-cream filling, and donating it to the Moultonborough PTA Holiday Fair, taking place on Saturday, Dec. 7, at Moultonborough Central School. The yule log, which has about a dozen servings, will be offered as part of the silent auction.
The next episode of the Holiday Baking Championship will air at 9 p.m. on Monday on the Food Network.