The holiday season is in full swing as kitchens everywhere are filled with baked goodness in the form of savory and flavorful meats, fresh and crispy vegetables, mouth-watering side dishes and comforting and decadent breads, pastries and desserts.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in Spokane, a city that boasts not one but two contestants on the new Season 7 of the Food Network’s “Holiday Baking Championship,” an eight-episode competition that premiered on Nov. 2 and continues through Dec. 21.
Kristina Stephenson, pastry chef at Northern Quest Resort & Casino (100 N. Hayford Road), and Eva Roberts, the longtime owner of Just American Desserts (213 S. University Road in Spokane Valley), are baking their toques off for a $25,000 grand prize while sharing the kitchen with host Jesse Palmer, judges Nancy Fuller, Carla Hall and Duff Goldman and their pastry cheftestant competitors.
Stephenson and Roberts answered questions over the phone separately after the premiere of “Holiday Baking Championship,” Stephenson the day after she was eliminated in the first episode.
This interview is a little different in that we cannot talk about the final results of “Holiday Baking Championship,” but let’s start with how the experience was for you in the competition.
Stephenson: It was amazing. I had a lot of fun. There was a lot of high-level stress, but I learned a lot about myself and had a blast doing it.
Roberts: Amazing. It’s an experience that I’ll never forget. It was very intense – extremely intense (laughs).
What was the most challenging aspect of the competition?
Stephenson: I’m a little more hands-on with my decorating than I thought I was, and my need for excess components is part of what I should have done differently. I had about five different components to complete before I could make my cake, and I didn’t leave enough time for that.
And just not being in a familiar kitchen in conjunction with the time restrictions and running around trying to find everything. Fortunately, we were all in the same boat and pretty helpful with each other. It wasn’t cutthroat. We were all very supportive of each other.
Roberts: It is real. What you see is real with the time element, with not knowing what the challenge is going to be, that is the most difficult aspect. You’re standing there waiting for what the challenge will be, what the host tells you.
There is literally no time to think about what you want to do. You don’t have hours to think about your plan because the time starts now. You have to get all the stuff out of your head with the time element.
With baking, you have to allot time for cooling down. On “Holiday Baking Championship,” if the challenge is two hours, it is two hours (laughs). It’s very intense. The perspiration that you see is real (laughs).
Did you know your fellow Spokane contestant, Eva Roberts of Just American Desserts, before the competition?
Stephenson: I had not met her, but she made my wedding cake in 2014. I was going to make my own cake, but I was pregnant with massive morning sickness. My wedding planner and my husband had a backup plan a week before the wedding. I didn’t get to meet her, but she did a great job!
Did you know your fellow Spokane contestant, Kristina Stephenson of Northern Quest, before the competition?
Roberts: I knew of her for sure. She does amazing work. It is amazing that there are two people from Spokane. It says something about Spokane’s food scene. And it’s the biggest form of flattery, very wonderful and humbling, to have created her wedding cake.
Please tell me about your job at Northern Quest, and how long have you been there?
Stephenson: I’ve been with Northern Quest just about six years. It will be six years in December. I started out as a part-time pastry cook, and I am now the pastry chef for the casino. Pre-COVID-19, that’s all the venues, cake orders and banquets.
Right now, I’m the only one back and focusing on Masselow’s Steakhouse and banquets. We’re not quite there yet where I can bring back my team to work on all the venues.
Please tell me about Just American Desserts. How did you come up with the name, and how long has your business been operating?
Roberts: I’ve been in business for almost 35 years. I started in 1986. We originally wanted to be Just Desserts, but it’s already a name in another state. I didn’t want the same name even if it was in another state.
We’re more American-style desserts – carrot cakes. Everything is like what grandma used to make – heavy on dairy, cream and real butter. So, we’re Just American Desserts. We were young, and we thought the name sounded good (laughs).
How long have you lived in Spokane?
Stephenson: I’ve been in Spokane just over six years, and I’ve been in the Inland Northwest since 2012. I was born and raised in Las Vegas and bounced around. Before I moved to Priest Lake, I was in Little Rock, Arkansas. So, Las Vegas, then Arizona, Colorado, Arkansas and now here.
Roberts: My dad is retired Air Force, and I was actually born at Fairchild Air Force Base. This was their first assignment after they were married. My parents are from Massachusetts, but my dad said that when he retired, he wanted to retire here in this beautiful area with the lakes.
They absolutely love this area, so in 1977, my dad retired, and sure enough they came back to Spokane. So, I’ve been here since 1977.
What is your favorite item to bake?
Stephenson: I love to continuously create new things. I don’t like to make the same things over and over again, which is why Northern Quest is so great for me. Right now, it’s Masselow’s, but before there were so many different outlets.
I like to pick a flavor and find a new application or technique to kick in that flavor. In the fall and winter, my favorite flavors to play with are pumpkin and eggnog. Pumpkin doughnut holes are showing up in a lot of my desserts mostly because I like to snack on them (laughs).
Roberts: If I’m at home, I love to do pies. I love pies. During the holiday time, Christmas wreaths and yule logs. They’re something I personally do for the holidays.
What is your favorite dessert to eat?
Stephenson: Pumpkin doughnut holes right now, and I also really like crème brulee. It’s basic, but I really like crème brulee.
Roberts: Coconut cream pie. I love coconut. People either love or don’t like coconut – there is no middle ground.
“Holiday Baking Championship” airs at 9 p.m. Mondays on the Food Network.
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