Food, Wine & Spirits in St. Louis

Monday, January 16, 2012 / 10:05 AM

Casey Shiller of Jilly's Exits Food Network's "Cupcake Wars" Early -- And Pappy's Returns to Travel Channel

He gave them a symphony, but all they wanted was a rock 'n roll song.

The prizes were real -- the chance to have your cupcakes served to the "beautiful people" at the American Music Awards after-party in L.A., and $10,000. The contest -- maybe not so much. Tonight's episode of "Cupcake Wars," which pitted local fave Jilly's Cupcake Bar & Cafe against three other past winners from the show, smacked of the sort of questionable judging that makes "Dancing With the Stars" so infuriating.  

The returning champs from Jilly's, Pastry Chef (and Coordinator of Baking and Pastry Arts at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park) Casey Shiller and Chef Dana Holland (who's responsible for Jilly's delightful Sunday buffet brunches) took on three teams of ladies from other winning bakeries. The brunette hotties (well, it just so happened that they all were) who were pitted against our hometown guys included the heavily tattooed rockabilly gals of Washington, D.C.'s vegan bakery Sticky Fingers; women from Valencia, CA's Bake You Happy; and a mother/daughter team from Sugar Cupcakery & Cakery in East Haven, CT. 

Jilly's recently made a splash by announcing their plans to open a second location called Jilly's Cupcake Bar A-Go-Go in Des Peres. The spot is slated to offer "all our cupcakes and grab-n-go lunch items... and a Brisket Bar!!!!!," according to a post on the cafe's Facebook page.

In fact, Jilly's recent growth has been something to behold, with the acquisition of a liquor license, the repeated expansion of the Ladue space, and of course, last June's victory in an outer-space-themed episode of "Cupcake Wars."

This time, the show's winner won the right to serve their sinful sweets at an elaborate dessert table at the reception after the 2011 American Music Awards. The theme was music, and Shiller and Holland, heads wrapped in black bandanas à la Bret Michaels, answered the first improvisational challenge with a cupcake made with a brown-sugar (as in the Rolling Stones song) theme. It had brown-sugar flavored cake with a brown sugar and peach filling, topped with white peach buttercream, a brown-sugar crispy streusel, a brüléed slice of apricot with turbinado sugar, and a tiny, edible red electric guitar. Basically, it was the sort of elaborate, over-the-top, beautiful-to-behold creation we've come to expect from Jilly's -- how could it not wow the judges? 

Answer: The judges felt that for all its bells and whistles, it did not taste sufficiently "brown-sugarey." Fair enough. 

Luckily for Jilly's, the judges chose to eliminate the gals from Sugar Cupcakery, and our guys advanced to the next round. 

The pressure in Round Two is palpable -- the teams have 75 minutes to make batches of three different showstopping cupcakes, from start to finish. 

Shiller's creations for this round were so elaborately creative they could be called rococo. His "Country" cupcake consisted of sweet corn/vanilla cake filled with berries marinated in a "Southern" cream soda gel, topped with a "Tupelo honey" meringue and a corn/strawberry bubble sugar. His "Soul/R&B" sweet potato/pecan cupcake was filled with a bourbon/sweet potato caramel and topped with a maple/cinnamon cream cheese icing and a sweet-potato chip (actually fried at the competition) and an edible, hollow bronze-colored sphere full of bourbon. Finally, his pièce de résistance was a "Rap/Hip-Hop" chocolate/orange cupcake filled with an orange liqueur-infused whipped cream and topped by passion fruit ganache, a champagne gold gelée, and a chocolate "cigarette." 

(And incidentally, one of the cupcakes engineered by the Sticky Fingers team was the "Chuck Berry" -- an orange cake filled with blueberry port and cinnamon filling, topped by fresh raspberry frosting and a red, glittery guitar.) 

So, again, what could go wrong? 

The French judge said Shiller may have "made a mistake" -- that his fanciful cupcakes wound up looking "like Cirque du Soleil," with insufficient reference to music. The other qualified judge, an American baker, actually called them "self-indulgent" and not "crowd-pleasing." The third judge, a bigwig with the American Music Awards, was similarly nonplussed. 

It was obvious that Jilly's would not make into the final round, and after the commercial break, that was confirmed. 

What we have here, Food Network, is failure to communicate. What the judges apparently wanted was simplicity. Shiller did what he always does -- he gilded the lily, and made the other competitors look like amateurs. Then he paid for it, when the judges callously said, in so many words, they were looking to line the feeding trough at the AMAs with cupcakes simple enough to satisfy the simple-minded. Jilly's cupcakes, quite simply, were too exciting for middlebrow judges. 

As to the charge that they did not adequately address the theme of music, the other competitors put little staff notes and mini-headphones on some of their cupcakes. The Jilly's team did something more subtle -- their country cupcake utilized cream soda and corn, their R&B cupcake involved sweet potatoes, and, ingeniously, their rap cupcake used champagne and a facsimile of a cigarette/joint. They mixed the savory and the sweet with aplomb, which, in itself, is a much harder feat that any of the other competitors attempted. 

It had no effect. Clearly, Shiller was punished for being clever. Welcome to the world of television, champion of the mediocre and the mundane.

SPOILER ALERT: the rockabilly vegan team, after the chef verbally abused her assistant in the heat of battle, won the show. Cut to B-roll footage of the pop stars of the moment clogging their pieholes with cupcakes after the 2011 AMAs.


We should have known things would not go well when the emcee of “Cupcake Wars,” in introducing the judges, pronounced "macaron" instead as "macaroon," a classic American mistake. These cookies have nothing to do with one another, not unlike, oh, I don't know... cleverness and simplicity? 

THE GOOD NEWS: The cupcakes featured on last night's "Cupcake Wars" will be available at Jilly's, starting this morning.

In other "Hey-that's-us-on-the-TV!"-news, Pappy's Smokehouse, a favorite of "Man v. Food" host Adam Richman, is slated to appear on a new program. "Amazing Eats," a show debuting this quarter -- again, hosted by Richman -- will feature a "BBQ Bliss" episode that compiles segments shot at various smokehouse-restaurants throughout the land. The show utilizes footage shot on the same trip that originally brought Richman here for "Man v. Food," and spotlights Pappy's "Big Ben BBQ Platter," a family feast that includes a full slab of ribs, a honkin' hunk of brisket, a pork sandwich, one quarter chicken, and four sides (for $39.99). You may recall that while here, the gregarious TV host bonded with Pappy's owner Mike Emerson, and the latter graciously named a dish after him. The "Adam Bomb," a Big Ben with the addition of a Frito Pie made with hot links instead of pork or chicken, is still on the menu.

BBQ Bliss is scheduled to air on Travel Channel on the evening of Leap Day, February 29, at 8 p.m. CST.  

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