Life

Padma Lakshmi Is Here To Burn Down Our Best Christmas Desserts


Getty / New Line / Uproxx

If you’re a fan of Top Chef, as we are around these parts, you know that the food is by no means the most fun element. Neither are the risotto-fumbling cheftestants themselves (though they’re often great). Or the weird challenges. Or the setting.

The best part of Top Chef is the shade coming from the judges’ table. It’s Tom making a face that seems to equate a loose bearnaise with patricide. It’s Gail Simmons longing desperately for everyone to do well and looking almost pained to reveal that they didn’t. It’s Graham Elliot wearing white glasses, a polka-dotted bowtie, and a vest with 73 buttons while chiding a chef about adding too many elements. And, most of all, it’s Padma.

Padma Lakshmi has plenty of talents. She’s charming, funny, accomplished, and can add layers of intrigue to a common bit of food phrasing like it’s nobody’s business. She’s a truth teller in a lie-filled age. But her ability to decimate a dish with a simple eyebrow raise or lip pucker is *kisses fingertips* pure gold. With the subtlest of gestures, she lays waste to chefs. And her words, when biting, are almost poetic in their directness.

So obviously we had to ask Padma to judge us. That’s right, after 18 cooking challenges we’re introducing a guest judge for the first time. And we’ve made the terms very clear: Hold nothing back. We can handle it. Cut us to the bone.

“Tell your fans that you encouraged me to be negative,” she said during a recent press day for a brand collaboration with Kellogg’s. “Please put like a giant red flag on the post, saying ‘she was told to be ruthless.'”

She was. Which should make for a very merry Christmas Desserts challenge. Someone get the chestnuts because it’s time for roasting.

— Steve Bramucci, Editorial Director, Uproxx Life

PAST RESULTS:

BLT Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Mac & Cheese Showdown — 1) Vince 2) (tie) Zach, Steve
Taco Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Winter Stew Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Steve 3) Vince
Date Night Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Pasta Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Hot Beef Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Shellfish Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
BBQ Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Pumpkin Spice Showdown — 1) (tie) Vince, Zach 2) Steve
Thanksgiving Side Dish Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Steve 3) Zach
Christmas Dessert Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Vince 3) Zach
Chili Cook-off Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Steve 3) Vince
Nacho Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Steve 3) Zach
Burger Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Breakfast Burrito Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Fried Noodle Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Fried Chicken Sandwich Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Steve 3) Zach

CURRENT SCORE:

We’re giving three points to the winner and one to second place for each round. As it stands, the score is:

VINCE: 28
ZACH: 26
STEVE: 22


VINCE’S APPLE CRUMB PIE WITH SALTED BOURBON CARAMEL

Via wp-image-401644439

I think I started with a caveat last time too, which I realize is weak as hell, but the truth is that I’m a not a big sweet eater and when I actually do eat dessert I’m a pretty basic bitch. I have to rack my brain to think of anything besides apple pie. Apple is one of the only fruits I actually enjoy in desserts. In fact, if you serve me a dessert with raisins in it we aren’t friends anymore.

But the thing about food is, your first instinct is usually correct. As a fishmonger once told me when I was asking him how he grades tuna, “Don’t overthink it, you’re already hardwired for this.”

So, I made apple pie. And I usually like the gooey buttery crust at least as much as the filling, so I went with apple crumb, to maximize starch/butter/crunch. And again, I’m a dessert novice. Of course, I didn’t freestyle this. I relied heavily on an apple crumb pie recipe in my book of New York Times recipes — according to the book, it comes from The Chef, by Michael Romano with Amanda Hesser, adapted from Stacie Pierce, pastry chef at Union Square Cafe, from 1997.

I basically used that and added salted bourbon caramel.

Via wp-image-401644455

The beauty of this is that there aren’t too many ingredients to screw up.

  • Bourbon (for the caramel)
  • Butter
  • Flour (for the crust and crumble)
  • Apples (I used McIntosh)
  • Sugar
  • Brown Sugar (not pictured)
  • Cinnamon
  • Vanilla Bean (for the caramel and ice cream)

The Crust

Via wp-image-401644486

1 1/4 Cup Flour (recipe said one, I found I needed more)
8 Tablespoons Butter
1/3 cup (ish) water
1/4th tsp (ish) salt
1/4th tsp (ish) sugar

As experienced a pasta maker as I am, I’m still a beginner when it comes to crust. I relied heavily on my copy of Jacques Pepin’s La Technique (with helpful photos) for this one. Basically, I learned more fat = flakier, harder to shape; more water = less flaky, easier to shape. I used about 1 and 1/4th cup of flour — I used Einkorn flour which I still don’t know much about, but it does give it a nice golden color. Obviously, my version doesn’t look as pretty as Jacques’, but what’s new.

I also pre-baked the pie shell so it wouldn’t be gummy. That involved about 15 minutes at 350, weighted down with wax paper and rice; then removing the weights and brushing with egg wash and baking for 15 more.

The Crumb

Via wp-image-401644536

Pretty damn simple. Just sugar, flour, cinnamon, butter

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 8 tablespoons butter

Literally, just those ingredients, mushed up with your hands. If I had it to do over again, I’d probably use more and coarser flour for more crunch, but there you go.

The Filling

Via wp-image-401644625
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • About 8 apples
  • 1 vanilla bean (halved, scrape the inside out with a knife, discard husk)
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • Lemon juice (to keep the apples from browning)

Melt the butter. Throw the rest of the shit in, except for the flour. Sautee until a little soft. Add the flour. Sautee a little bit more.

The Rest

Via wp-image-401644643

Dump the filling into the crust, pile the crumb on top of the filling, bake for 35-40 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Via wp-image-401644673
Via wp-image-401644674
Via wp-image-401644672

The top didn’t get as crunchy as I was expecting, but it did turn into this gooey cookie-like topping, which might be even better. I finished with bourbon caramel (bourbon, sugar, cream, vanilla) and served a la mode. No, I did not make my own ice cream, though I did fancy it up with some vanilla bean.

Look, I know I’m not winning any points for creativity here, and salted caramel is painfully trendy. But it’s bourbon, apples, caramel, and salt. How can you go wrong? I’m not sure I want much creativity in a dessert. Apple pie is the only “American” dish that I’d put up against any European dish. It’s probably the best thing that we do (with all due respect to Buffalo wings).

It was flaky, butter crust, gooey apples and cinnamon, chewy cookie crumb topping, and creamy bourbon caramel with a little salt. I know Zach is going to say it’s too sweet, and that was my worry too, but I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it as someone who doesn’t really have a sweet tooth: this actually wasn’t that sweet. Much more butter forward than even I was expecting.

My podcasting/life partner Matt Lieb said it was the best pie he’d ever eaten. True story.

Steve on Vince’s dessert:

You did a lot that I like here. #1 is sauteeing the apples rather than cooking them completely in the pie. I hate that tart flavor in a pie. I want the apples to taste brown and buttery and basically like apple jam. #2 is adding the crumble. Crumbles are better than pies 9/10 times. #3 is going big on vanilla. Vanilla is the best spice the planet has ever known and do @ me on that.

But not making the ice cream for a dessert with three freaking elements feels like a very big, “I have my own podcast and I can count on listeners to save me while you two nerds harvest salt from the ocean and churn butter by hand” move. We get it, Mancini, our readers like you best. Don’t rub it in.

I’m not worried about it being too sweet, but I definitely feel like you made 24-hour diner dessert that I could probably get with homemade ice cream at quite a few 24-hour diners. Would they have made the crumble, though? That is the ultimate question. I think it’s unlikely. So fine, you beat diner food. But just barely. Also, I talked to Lieb and he said “I mean… I’ve only had apple pies at McDonald’s and Marie Calendar’s, but still…”

*The caramel has a completely neutral value. There’s no picture of it and it looks… normal? Uninspiring and unvanilla’d.

Zach on Vince’s dessert:

Didn’t you basically make apple pie last year? Also, didn’t Steve give you shit for not pre-cooking your apples because he has a bizarre aversion to tartness? This sounds like you covered your ass and bases by remaking last year’s dish and adjusting it specifically so that Steve-O wouldn’t bitch about tart apples. Apples are supposed to be tart, Steve! It’s called complexity!

Okay, this isn’t about Steve’s lack of palate. It’s about your pie. I’d like to eat your pie, Vince. It’s not perfect. The crumbs should hold their crumble and not turn into a cookie. So I have to ding you there. The good part is that it’s still tasty even if it does turn to cookie. I agree with Steve, though, for someone who kills the pasta game, your dough handling needs some work.

I say this with love but this looks like a mid-level diner pie. It’ll fill me up with its apple goodness and store-bought ice cream. But it’s not something I’d be clamoring to go back to the diner for. The elements are there but they’re just not quite executed well enough. This feels like home fries when all I want is hash browns.

Padma on Vince’s dessert:

Rule #1: Never start your recipe with “screw” unless it’s a jar. That crust looks shiny and greasy, like this pie has been sitting out. The butter is melted and it’s too wet looking. (Pauses) Whoever made that pie crust has some work to do.

There are no sizes or measurements or weights on anything. Not the butter, not the apple, not the sugar. Nothing. And be more articulate when it comes to describing what the crumb should feel like. What it should taste like. I see you’ve got the apples over a flame — they look really mushy and liquidy. I like my apple pie, or the apples in my pie, to have a little bit of bite. So if they’re already cut this thin, what’s all this liquid for? Either get rid of it, or add corn starch, or something. I suggest you cut your apples a little thicker, take them off the heat, and be a little more judicious in whatever liquid, lemon juice, etc you’re adding.

Also, this guy can’t come up with any new way to use bourbon? I mean, we’ve all seen bourbon caramel in every sauce imaginable. I would have loved to see it in my apple crumb pie instead.

The plating looks… fine. This is your classic, what I would call, “truck stop diner plating.” I think it’s okay. I have nothing to say about it good bad or indifferent. I think the proof will be in the taste. But I would suggest you put some actual real apple slices around the plate that are fresh — because no doubt the apples in your million layer apple pie will be as soft as mush.


STEVE’S “New Ratio” Pumpkin/ Sweet Potato Pie with Pine Nut and Rosemary Crust, Salted-Malted Vanilla Ice Cream, and Stout Caramel

Steve Bramucci

There’s no food cliché I find more insufferable than people saying, “I don’t really like sweet desserts.” The dessert course is, by its nature, sweet. I think what people really mean to say is “I don’t like cloying desserts” or, better yet, “I like balanced desserts.”

So that’s what I’m trying to bring. Balance. Balance to the plate and balance to a contest where I am inexplicably behind. To do that, I’m going with the first dessert I ever learned how to make, at the historic Praline Connection, in the French Quarter. Sweet potato pie.

I’d eaten sweet potato pie dozens of times before landing in NOLA, where I rented space on the floor of a barbershop — paying $12 per night for the right to sweep the linoleum floor and then lay my bedroll on it. But learning to make the dish from scratch, in that city, felt special. Me being me, I have to Rube Goldberg the shit out of things, so I’m making a half pumpkin, half sweet potato hybrid.

This dish is perfect for me because it’s not particularly scientific baking. It’s done by feel. Here’s what I added:

  • The flesh of a roasted sugar pumpkin.
  • The flesh of two boiled sweet potatoes (roasting them would dry them out).
  • Five eggs and one extra yolk.
  • A half cup of brown sugar (with more to taste).
  • An excessive, grandma-pouring-bourbon-in-her-coffee pour of vanilla.
  • Cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger — to taste.
  • A half cup of cream.
  • Two tablespoons of browned butter.

I know that’s vague. I used to make pumpkin pies for all my local friends each Thanksgiving — sometimes 50 at a time — so I am pretty well versed here. But that Praline Connection master recipe is all in place.

Steve Bramucci

So the big idea here was to make these little pies crustless. Because I wanted to make the crust separately and really have it be a nutty, buttery cookie. I also wanted the crust to pie ratio to be “just right” — which is absurd and Vince will have some shit to say about, but also just seems to be an essential part of who I am.

I blended my pies, strained them, and poured them into a silicone mold. They came out of the oven (45 at 425) like this:

Steve Bramucci

Like any good pumpkin or sweet potato pie, they needed lots of time to set up perfectly. This is not a pie that’s best straight out of the heat. It’s perfect about six hours old and reheated before serving.

Meanwhile, I made ice cream. I call it salted-malted vanilla and it’s delicious. My personal favorite flavor. But it’s also a vital part of my whole balance initiative. If it was tasted alone, it would seem very salt and malt forward.

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • ⅔ cup toasted brown sugar
  • ⅛ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 1/4 cup malted milk powder
  • Vanilla in liquid form

Here it is before mixing.

Steve Bramucci

And here it is after being mixed, heated (heat half the cream first and pour it slowly into your mixing bowl so that the egg yolks don’t scramble, then pour the whole mix back into a pan and heat until the mixture can coat the backside of a spatula MIXING CONSTANTLY).

Steve Bramucci

I then put it back in the freezer in a Pyrex. It’s so salty that it needs a fair bit of time. 2-3 hours to firm up.

Okay, the clock is ticking here and Padma has to read through the three novellas we each wrote, so I’m going to speed through the final two elements just a little.

Crust:

  • 2 cups flour.
  • 3/8 cup vegetable lard.
  • 1/8 cup pork lard.
  • 1 capful of almond oil
  • 1 cup ice water
  • Pine nuts
  • Rosemary

Chilled, rolled, baked, brushed with browned butter, and quickly broiled (on both sides) for max crunch.

Steve Bramucci

Stout beer caramel:

  • One cup cool hipster oatmeal stout.
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar.
  • 1 full vanilla bean (leave the pod in the mix until the end).
  • Two tablespoons browned butter.

Cook over medium heat. As the caramel begins to reduce and boil and you can feel — sense — it getting to the candy/ hard crack stage (at which point it will seize and lock in), you turn the burner off completely and immediately pour in a half cup of heavy cream. This is where the only real sweetness of the dish comes from and you’re in control of how much you sop up.

Steve Bramucci

In the end, I plated the ice cream on the cookie/ crust — which seems to undo my efforts to keep the crust from getting soggy, but there’s a difference between “cooked together” sogginess and “plated together” sogginess. This was like a pizookie with pie on the side.

Did I zest some tangerine over the top? Steve is gonna Steve, friends. And you know I like that hit of brightness to finish an earthy, rich, unctuous dish.

Here’s your flavor profile:

  • Cookie/ crust: Nutty (browned butter, almond oil, pine nuts), earthy (rosemary, pork lard).
  • Ice cream: Salty (salt and malt), molasses-sweet (vanilla and toasted brown sugar).
  • Pie: Earthy (pumpkin, sweet potato), winter spice (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, vanilla).
  • Caramel: Sweet (sugar, vanilla bean), rich (oatmeal stout, cream).
  • Plating: Bright (tangerine, rasped over the dish).

If someone served you this at Christmas you would vow to spend all future holidays together. It’s a wrap.

Steve Bramucci

Zach on Steve’s dessert:

Hum. There’s a lot going on here. So this is very on-brand for Steve. I think there are tasty elements at play. But it feels very rushed and looks it too. I mean, come on, that plating looks like a white volcano blew up in a South Pacific atoll and left behind shit-colored beaches of — looks closely — grainy and undercooked caramel. If your caramel is pooling like that, it’s not caramel yet, bro.

Look, man, I used birch sap that was cut with water as a binding in masa. I used maple syrup cut with chile. I used a cedar branch in boiling water to add a dimension to steam. I didn’t put cedar in the tamale. That rosemary in the pie crust/cookie feels way too over-the-top. We all know how powerful fresh rosemary is and in that final plating, I see huge chunks of that shit everywhere in your crust. There’s no possible way that that rosemary didn’t blow out all your flavors. You already had earthiness there with the pine nuts. You were so close.

Ice cream sounds dope though.

Vince on Steve’s dessert:

Hey, I’m just spitballing here but I feel like “flavor profile” should not come with a five bullet-point list. Mmm, nothing says delicious like a 45-minute PowerPoint. Pair with fluorescent lighting and a popcorn ceiling. Once again you’ve done something that I suspect (?) is probably pretty good but mostly I’m confused by. It’s an… Italian spice-nut cookie wearing an ice cream Klan hat next to a baked squash cube. Was it raining caramel there?

Sorry, I’ll say a good thing: the ice cream sounds really good. I love malt flavor. The pumpkin/sweet potato cube sounds… good? I have to plead ignorance here, I don’t really have a frame of reference. It looks kind of like banana bread, which I do love. For me the deal breaker is rosemary. It’s such a pungent, piny spice. I use it on roasted pork and the conditioning spray I have for my dog. I don’t want it in my dessert. But I guess if I want a dessert that looks like an elf shit and smells like my dog I know who to call.

Padma on Steve’s dessert:

The title itself is a mouthful, let’s start there. This guy needs some editing. I can highly recommend a book by Strunk and White called The Elements of Style. Pine nuts and rosemary crust and salted malted vanilla ice cream and stout caramel? I’ve already lost my appetite, it took so long to say this. If this were on a menu nobody would order it because they couldn’t say it without stopping to take four breaths.

What size of pumpkin? What weight? Do you say to de-seed it? You don’t, do you? Because a lot of people like the pumpkin seeds to be roasted, and you could have used them as a topping. Come to think of it, there’s a lot of waste in this dish already.

Two tablespoons of brown butter in the caramel and the pie filling? That’s too much browned butter. It seems excessive to me.

The plating looks beautiful… if the person plating it was having a seizure. I’m not into the Jackson Pollak-esque drizzle of caramel. I think there’s lack of balance, too, with how everything is offset. I would really like some contrast, something to break up the pumkpin, sweet potato, and brown sugar.

I think this has the potential to be a great dessert — but it needs a lot of editing, from the title of the recipe on down.


ZACH’S JUNIPER BLUEBERRY AND CHILE-MAPLE BLUE CORN TAMALES

Zach Johnston

It’s tamale season! Indigenous American cultures from Oaxaca to Massachusetts celebrate the end of the calendar year by making tamales and I’m continuing that trend. My favorite desserts are those that aren’t too sweet. I don’t need sweet pies and cakes with sweeter ice creams and more sugar on top. It makes me dizzy and ill. I like subtle sweetness derived from cereals and fruits where the sweet edge comes naturally.

Okay fine, a little high-factor sugar bump isn’t so bad. But the tamale is the perfect vessel for sweetness too.

To make my holiday dessert tamales, I’m diving deep into my Indigenous roots and pulling in berries from my people up in the Pacific Northwest, blue corn from Navajo Country, some duck fat for good measure, guajillo chile and hibiscus from Oaxaca, juniper from the Oregon High Desert, and plenty of birch, maple, and cedar. This tamale is American to its core. I have to give thanks to chefs Sean Sherman (Oglala Lakota), Brian Yazzie (Dine), and Neftalí Durán (Oaxaca) for inspiring this dish.

Ingredients

Zach Johnston

You’ll need the following to repeat this one at home this year.

Masa:

  • Two cups Blue Cornmeal
  • One cup melted Duck Fat
  • One teaspoon Mountain Salt
  • One-half cup Birch Water

Fruit Filling:

  • Eight ounces of fresh Blueberries
  • One cup Birch Water
  • One large pinch of Salt
  • Ten Juniper Berries

Accouterments:

  • One dried Guajillo Chile
  • A small handful of dried Hibiscus
  • One cup Grade-A Maple Syrup
  • Popcorn
  • Birch-Smoked Salt
  • Corn Husks
  • Cedar Branch

You’ll also need a couple pots and a steamer to execute this one, folks.

Prep

Zach Johnston

The first thing I do is get my blueberries, juniper, and birch water on the stove. Chef Sean Sherman gave me a few pointers on Lakota drinks a while back and noted that using birch and other tree saps was a pretty integral way to make water a little more desirable and add subtle flavors to Indigenous dishes. So, I’m using that here. Basically, you put all the ingredients in a small pot and bring to a rolling boil and reduce until it’s nice and jammy.

Zach Johnston

Next, I make my masa. I melt the duck fat on low heat and let it cool a bit. I then measure out my two cups of blue corn flour and mix in some salt. I add the fat while mixing with a rice paddle. I then slowly start adding in birch water in lieu of broth. Remember, these are sweet dessert tamales and not savory ones — so I’m not using a broth or stock to firm up the dough here. Once the dough is no longer sticky and forms a nice ball, I set aside.

Zach Johnston

Next, I boil a kettle of water and get my corn husks soaking. This is crucial as you need those brittle husks to me as malleable as possible. I also fire up my sous vide to 190f. I combine my cup of maple syrup, guajillo, and hibiscus into a small bottle and drop it in the water bath for an hour. This will allow the chile and flower to steep into the maple syrup, sanding away the overly sweet edges and replacing them with hints of spicy heat and echoes of earthiness.

Lastly, I use a small pot and a little extra duck fat to pop a handful of popcorn.

Zach Johnston

Cook

Zach Johnston

Now the fun part begins. I lay out my soaked corn husks on a cutting board and gently pat off any excess water. I also line the bottom of my steamer with one layer of corn husks.

Zach Johnston

I take a large pinch, maybe one ounce, and form a small masa patty on the corn husk that’s about one-third of an inch thick. I make a small indentation down the middle of the blue masa to accommodate the blueberry jam.

After all my corn husks are filled with masa and blueberry, I use the husk to roll the filling into a tube and then wrap the husk around the filling and fold over both ends to create a little pouch. I then line the tamales up in my steamer. I have a small dumpling steamer that ends up just fitting the seven tamales two cups of blue corn flour yields.

Zach Johnston

I get a pot of water with a large cedar branch up to a boil and pop the steamer on top. I set a timer for an hour and walk away. Tamales really are easy to make and we all should be making them so much more.

Zach Johnston
Zach Johnston

Serve

Zach Johnston

After an hour, I remove the infused maple syrup from the sous vide bath and the tamales from the steam.

I douse my popcorn in the maple and toss it around with a little birch salt. I burn the edges of a corn husk to add a little character and get ready to plate.

You’ll know the tamales are done if the husk peels off without leaving any residue from the masa behind. That’s what happens here. I peel one tamale and cut it into one-inch pieces and place in my burnt husk. I place some of the maple-chile-hibiscus popcorn around the plate. Lastly, I drizzle the maple-chile-hibiscus syrup over the tamales and around the plate to soak up as you eat. Done!

What’s wonderful about this dish is the subtle sweetness from the blueberry and blue corn shining through with earthen undertones. The actual tamale is amazingly soft and moist thanks to all that duck fat, maple syrup, and steam. There’s not a dry moment here. The juniper pops in every-now-and-then to add a herbaceous balance. The chile spice is like an echo at the end that slowly builds to a subtle heat by the time you finish the dish. Lastly, the popcorn adds a nice textural counterpoint while maintaining the flavor profile.

This is balance and deliciousness all rolled into one humble corn husk. I ended up eating three of these.

Vince on Zach’s dessert:

Of course, blueberries (*slaps forehead*)! That’s the fruit I was forgetting that I actually enjoy in desserts! Thanks for the reminder. This is obviously the diametrical opposite of mine, super creative and fairly unfamiliar to the honkies among us (not pointing any fingers). Also, you son of a bitch, this is going to be really hard to roast. Nonetheless, I considered it my sworn duty to try, I didn’t choose this life this life chose me, etc., so here goes.

Did we really need juniper, birch, cedar, and hibiscus? I want to smoke trees, not eat ’em. I feel like two bites of this and my farts would repel moths. And I know this is probably a personal issue, but I’ve never once tasted something and thought to myself “Mmm, hibiscus!”

Seems like the word shouldn’t rhyme with “viscous.” That’s just me.

And respect to the duck fat (nothing worse than dry tamales, and sadly too common — shout out to Los Panchos in San Francisco, who have the best, most moist tamales I’ve ever tasted), but I feel like maybe your masa-to-filling ratio was still slightly high?

Okay, but that’s about all I’ve got. This was a visually stunning and creatively wrought addition to the pantheon of turd-shaped foods.

Steve on Zach’s dessert:

Zach has sort of broken this game open. One one hand, he’s done incredible work to support chefs like Brian Yazzie and Sean Sherman, who are helping restore the Native American foodway that (ONLY HALF OF!!!) my ancestors absolutely fucking decimated. On the other hand, he’s my friend and I will shred him remorselessly.

So will I ask him about how the hell this dish came to find itself with four trees inside? You bet your ass. Because I am struggling to fathom the flavor combo of juniper berry and hibiscus not tasting like a hipster mouthwash. And then you have birch, which is in natural toothpaste, and… am I even gonna get a sense of the tamale at this point?

I think the syrup is overwrought, but dammit, Zach, those tamales look delicious. Moist and sweet and — you made the Indigenous McDonald’s blueberry pie in many ways and that’s pretty damn brilliant. So if the worst I can say about your dish is that it’s single-handedly responsible for decimating the remaining old growth forests of the PNW, then I guess you’ll come out okay. Good enough for second place, at least.

Padma on Zach’s dessert:

“Zach’s Juniper Blueberry and Chili Maple Blue Corn Tamales.” Which needs… blue corn meal, melted duck fat, and birch water? Where the hell am I supposed to get birch water? I think any judicious cookbook writer will always give you places or sources to buy ingredients, either online or in person. And I highly suggest you do that because not very many people have duck fat in their larders, let alone juniper berries.

He says 10 juniper berries. There are 40 varieties of juniper berries. Some are used to extract the essential oils which can only be used topically and others can be, you know, ingested or used as spices in something like a French cassoulet. Some are poisonous. But here it just says 10 juniper berries, so I guess I can take my pick?

I highly suggest you buy my book, the Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs. Because if you have too much juniper or juniper oil in your dish, you will dehydrate yourself and go pee all the time and you’ll feel like you have a hangover. Trust me, it’s happened to me and you don’t want it to happen to you or your guests, especially when they think they’re getting to eat that black line of blueberry poop you have in your tamales.

Cedar branch? Really? Now I have to go into Central Park and find a cedar tree and climb up to get a branch. Who are you writing this recipe for? Because I can’t tell what’s a fir branch and what’s a cedar branch. Very sorry, my arboreal horticulturist is off today. All it looks like to me is that my Christmas decorations dropped from my hearth into my boiling water. What am I doing with this and how do I know that the branch hasn’t been treated with pesticides that are going to kill me and my daughter? Please help.

The final product looks like the leftover towels in the locker room after a Knicks game. (Pauses) Oh, this was fun! Thanks for asking me.

×