Spokane chef Ricky Webster loves cooking competitions. During the holidays last year, Webster was a contestant on two of the Food Network’s one-off, holiday-centric specials, “Holiday Gingerbread Showdown” and “Christmas Cookie Challenge.”
Webster won the “Challenge” and the $10,000 prize. Breaking away from Christmastime sweets, he was among 11 finalists in a national pizza contest, which wasn’t aired, in May and talked about that experience with The Spokesman-Review.
Now Webster returns to the airwaves – and holiday cooking – on Hallmark Drama’s new baking competition “Christmas Cookie Matchup” – “Matchup,” not “Challenge” – a five-episode battle that premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday. (Webster mentioned during this recent interview that he also competed on “Cupcake Wars” about eight years ago and was runner-up.)
“Christmas Cookie Matchup” is Hallmark Drama’s first baking competition, and, in an interesting (pretzel) twist, it features six professional or home bakers paired with a star from the cable network’s popular drama “When Calls the Heart.” Think ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” except that paso dobles are traded for puff pastries. (Editor’s note: Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Drama are different channels.)
Webster is competing on “Christmas Cookie Matchup” with Pascale Hutton, a regular star of Hallmark’s original TV movies. The champion baker wins $25,000. The host of the contest is actor-singer Jack Wagner, widely known for “General Hospital,” and the judges are “The Hutch Oven’s” Emily Hutchinson, a blogger and recipe creator, and Chadwick Boyd, a lifestyle expert.
A sneak peek video on Hallmark’s website features the cast discussing the series, and Webster looks to be a frontrunner. “The biggest competition is definitely Pascale and Ricky,” said actor Kavan Smith. “I think Ricky is the most experienced of everybody, and he and Pascale have a really nice dynamic together.”
Webster, who took a cake decorating class at age 11 – “it’s been a lifelong passion ever since” – and has been in the culinary industry for more than 20 years, chatted in north Spokane about “Christmas Cookie Matchup” ahead of tonight’s premiere.
How did you find out about this competition?
I haven’t ever really submitted myself for the shows that I’ve done. I went on Facebook one day and had messages from friends, as well as texts from friends. They said, “Hey, this is right up your alley!” I was thinking, “What are they talking about?”
Hallmark went big to publicize the fact that they are doing their first cooking competition, and it was all around cookies. People who know me know that I’m a cheesy, sappy fan of everything Hallmark Christmas.
So Christmas is your favorite time of the year?
Absolutely! My boyfriend will come home and say, “Oh, is this the one where the girl blah, blah, blah. She’s probably a small-town girl. She came back home because blah, blah, blah (laughs). Now she’s conflicted about moving back to the big city.”
Hallmark knows that I love the network, and they said, “We’re doing a cooking show!” I filled out the application and didn’t hear anything for about a week. On a Monday morning, they reached out to me, “You’re cast. You got it!” This one is really special to me. This is the first time that I’m competing on something multi-episodic.
I know that we have to be careful because the competition hasn’t aired yet, but what was your overall impression of “Christmas Cookie Matchup”?
“Christmas Cookie Matchup,” the energy and wholesomeness and truth and integrity and heartfelt environment – they wanted us to be authentic. We’re human beings, and, if a fellow contestant needed help, they let us help them. Instead of dramatization and controversy, this was very much a friendly competition.
The actors we were paired up with had more fun razzing each other about how their baker was better than theirs.
Who were you paired with on “Christmas Cookie Matchup”?
I was paired with Pascale Hutton. The entire cast is from “When Calls the Heart,” which is Hallmark’s No. 1 show. It’s very popular. Jack Wagner, from “General Hospital,” is the host. My mom is a huge Jack Wagner fan. When I told him, he looked in the camera and said, “Hi, Ricky’s mom.”
There was a lot of talking and going through recipes. It was all about communication and being strategic.
What was the toughest part of the competition?
Working in those time constraints is always the toughest part. And the first time we found out that we were competing alongside partners. We had no idea. We thought that maybe Hallmark stars would be rotating judges – Lacey Chabert, Candace Cameron Bure, all the classic Hallmark Christmas movie stars – they’ll come on and be a guest judge.
Is there anything else that you can reveal?
The way that we were paired with our partners, we had to create a drop cookie, and my favorite drop cookie is this oatmeal cookie that my mom makes. It’s very traditional except that she changes it up a bit by using chocolate-covered raisins. I call in my Hide and Seek Oatmeal Raisin Cookie because the raisins are hiding in chocolate.
I know this cookie, and my mom’s been making it forever. I thought that we would be judged on flavor and presentation, but then they bring the cast out. They’re looking at the six cookies and talking among themselves – and they picked the cookie that they liked, something that meant something to them, so they essentially picked us as their partners.
That seems very Hallmark.
Yes, it is! She gravitated toward the warming flavors of an oatmeal cookie, and that’s how Pascale and I ended up competing together.
What did you take away from this experience?
Getting to teach somebody and working with them not knowing their skill set or how familiar they are with these tools, techniques and ingredients is very energizing and motivating to me. Working with Pascal really humbled me and grounded me. I couldn’t get stuck in my head too much overthinking things.
Getting feedback from her was really nice because, like I said, I can sometimes overthink things. Pascale was extremely open and energetic and supportive and friendly.
What is your favorite cookie?
I love this chocolate chip cookie that I make with three kinds of chocolate. I worked really hard on that cookie starting maybe 15 years ago with family and friends and revamped it over and over and over until I came up with my perfect chocolate chip cookie. During the holidays, I like to put crushed candy canes and vanilla sea salt on top to elevate it and make it more festive.
I love gingerbread – everything gingerbread all the time – and recently I’ve been playing with this pumpkin snicker doodle recipe. My boyfriend’s favorite cookie is a snicker doodle, and why not “fall-ify” it by making it with pumpkin? It’s really, really good.
You really do love the holidays, don’t you?
Yes, I do!
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