MOULTONBOROUGH — Four episodes in, and Moultonborough’s Jennifer Clifford is the baker to beat in Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship. Her creations have been in the top tier three of the four shows so far, and she has won the last two.
In the fourth episode, which aired on Monday night, bakers were challenged to create a dessert using a prepared ingredient they scavenged out of a pantry. She was a step too slow to snag the cookie dough or cake mix that she preferred, and had to settle for crescent roll dough. But Clifford, who normally doesn’t have access to a deep fryer at Cup and Crumb in Moultonborough, where she works, took advantage of the fryers on the Food Network set.
Clifford used the fried dough to make the pastry version of a sandwich known as a Napoleon, which she filled with cheesecake.
That ended up being a fortuitous decision because, as bakers were working on their concoctions, producers threw them a curveball: They had to find a way to use canned cranberry sauce in their dessert. For some bakers, such as one who was making a chocolate cupcake, the cranberry was particularly unwelcome. It was an easier hurdle for Clifford, though.
“Every Thanksgiving, I have to have cranberry sauce, and it has to be jellied, with the rings on the side, but I don’t work with it. I have it one day a year,” she said during an interview after the episode aired. When she has cheesecake, though, she likes to have strawberry sauce drizzled over it, so she warmed the cranberry sauce in a pan, added some fresh strawberries and raspberries, and the judges declared her dessert faultless.
Clifford watched the episode on Monday night with her family, and said everyone was surprised by her win — the second in two weeks.
“I forgot that I won,” she said. “I was as surprised as my family was.”
Though she seems calm and cheerful on the show, Clifford said she was “so nervous the entire time” of the competition, and she cringes when she watches herself on television — especially at her exclamation when the judges declared their decision.
“Who says, ‘Hot dog!’ when they win? It’s uncomfortable, but it’s fun as well.”
Performing despite nervousness is something that Clifford learned early on. Her baking education came at the elbow of Donna Love, who owned a bakery where Clifford worked as a teenager. She said Love had Clifford make tiramisu on her first day at work. Clifford said she was terrified, but her mentor encouraged her to proceed, anyway.
“Just do it; go for it,” Clifford remembers Love telling her. She still hears those words when she bakes today.
“Just having that positivity; she always looked at the bright side.”
She also remembers the words of Mike Prause, who helps wash dishes at Cup and Crumb, and who helps put things in perspective. “We’re only making cakes here, not saving lives.”
The Holiday Baking Championship has changed Clifford’s daily life a bit. Business is brisk at Cup and Crumb during a time of year that is usually slack. The normally reserved Clifford is finding herself something of a local celebrity, such as last week when she arrived at her fifth-grader’s school to drop off desserts for a Thanksgiving meal the class was sharing. “They all ran up and gave me hugs,” she said.
The Holiday Baking Championship airs on Monday nights, 9 p.m., on The Food Network.