Jen Clifford

Jennifer Clifford of Moultonborough is one of four finalists – out of 10 who started – in The Food Network's Holiday Baking Championship. (Courtesy photo)

MOULTONBOROUGH — Another week, another top finish for local baker Jennifer Clifford on The Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship. This time, judges declared her entry her favorite of the show, the third such honor Clifford has had over six episodes so far.

The win also secured her a position among the four remaining bakers in this elimination-style cookoff, which puts her just one win away from the final challenge and the chance to take home a $25,000 grand prize.

The sixth episode, which was recorded at an earlier date, aired on Monday night. Clifford was watching at home with her family – husband Kyle, and kids Maddison and Emmitt – and re-living the intense emotions that she experienced while on set.

“I can’t even describe the feeling,” of making her way into the final four, she said on Tuesday morning. “I’m shocked, even though I know I did well, just looking back to the first day, thinking that I was unprepared and unqualified. I shocked myself, I didn’t think I had it in me, but, I guess, I did.”

Clifford, a New Hampshire native who grew up in Moultonborough and learned how to bake while working in local businesses, said she never thought she had the skill or training to compete on national television. But she always thought it would be a fun experience, she said, so she couldn’t say no when Food Network called her out of the blue.

She was intimidated, she said, when the competition began, especially when she sized up competitors that included big-city pastry chefs and culinary instructors. Meanwhile, Clifford had never worked outside of her small hometown.

It didn’t take long for Clifford to prove that she could hold her own, though. Through the first five episodes, she won twice and was twice the runner-up. But, things didn’t start out so strong for the local girl during the sixth episode, which started with the five remaining of the original ten contestants. The first challenge of the episode, which offers an advantage in the upcoming elimination episode, tasked the bakers with making a pastry in the image of Santa Claus. Each baker was given a different baked good to work with, and Clifford got the cream puff.

On Tuesday morning, Clifford said that she wasn’t too excited about her assignment, especially after seeing what her competition was assigned.

“I so wanted the whoopie pies! That or the mini cake, that was my comfort zone,” she said. It wasn’t for lack of experience, though. She regularly makes eclairs at Cup and Crumb, where she’s head baker, and it’s the same pâte à choux dough recipe for cream puffs. The challenge for her was how to make the puff look like ol’ Saint Nick.

Clifford devised a decorating plan, which fell apart quickly. Her Plan B wasn’t much more successful, so she said she was cringing while watching the first half of Monday night’s episode.

“This was fairly mortifying, anticipating this airing. I knew it wasn’t going to be even close to my best work, knowing that they weren’t turning out how I wanted them to,” she said.

Judges liked how hers tasted, but acknowledged that the cream puffs were, in Clifford’s words, “a hot mess.” They gave the win, and some special ingredients and tools, to another contestant.

Thankfully for Clifford, the cream puff was not the elimination challenge. For the episode’s final contest, producers of the show challenged the five remaining baker to create an igloo-shaped cake with meringue frosting.

It was a challenge right in Clifford’s wheelhouse, and she picked a cake close to her heart. She went with her signature chocolate cake recipe, which uses a little bit of sour cream, and she filled the layers of the cake with alternating chocolate and peanut butter mousse.

“My husband and kids love the chocolate cake in any form. And if you don’t like chocolate and peanut butter, I don’t know what to give you,” she said. Although she said she was anxious whenever she was on set, and said she had never made an igloo cake before, she said she felt as confident as possible to take on this two-hour challenge.

“I had made so many sculpted cakes, a dome is not too difficult to make. I wasn’t really nervous about it, I was actually pretty excited about it,” she said.

It was easier said than done, though. Each baker had access to just one stand mixer, and Clifford had committed herself to make two mousses in the two-hour window. That meant that she had to whip her meringue by hand, with a whisk.

Then, when producers threw bakers a curveball halfway through the bake, Clifford swung and sent the ball flying. They challenged bakers to make an ice cream, and Clifford whipped up a simple ice cream with raspberries, the jam to the peanut butter in her mousse.

“I never would have though that they would have chosen ice cream for an igloo cake, but I used to make ice cream all the time, so I was ready for it. I just thought of the classic flavors, and that’s what came to mind,” she said.

It was her children who came to mind when it came time to decorate. She decided to make a couple of fondant penguins. One, representing her playful son, Emmitt, was sliding down the side of the snowy igloo. The other, inspired by her organized daughter, Maddison, was stringing Christmas lights.

In addition to her nerves, Clifford said that by this point in the championship, she was also struggling with homesicknesss. She was torn by opposing urges, to continue competing and win the final, and to run home to her family.

“It never got easier, even the flight home was the longest flight on the planet. It was tough. I’m not sure if I could leave them that long again.” She said her children, in daily phone calls, told her they wanted her to stay and compete. “They were troopers, they stayed strong for me.”

They were “100 percent my inspiration,” she said, and she’s wise to keep it that way. Judges picked her igloo as the winner of the episode, while showering her with praise. Judge Nancy Fuller said the decorations were “precious, happy, festive;” Duff Goldman said, “I wish that my peanut butter and jellies tasted like this when I was a kid,” and Lorraine Pascale gushed over her ice cream.

The next episode of the Holiday Baking Championship will air on Monday night at 9 p.m. on The Food Network.

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