Competitive cooking with Lauren Katz

Lauren Katz
Lauren Katz (Photo courtesy of Lauren Katz)

Cooking can be hard. Cooking in front of a televised national audience, even harder.

“At home you might break an egg and it might get all over your counter or something. But you don’t want to do that on TV, right?” Lauren Katz says.

Katz, 42, is the head pastry chef at The Difference Baker, a gluten- and allergen-free bakery in Ashburn. Back in 2015, she won ABC’s “The Great Holiday Baking Show.” The online publication Alma gave their story about Katz’s victory the headline: “This Jewish Baker Won a Christmas Baking Competition.”

Two years later, she won the “Best Recipe Using Soy Ingredient Special Award” at the National Festival of Breads. That same year, she took grand prize in the Sutter Home Build a Better Burger® Recipe Contest.

“And that was great, because I won $25,000 for a burger.”

Katz has always loved cooking, but early in life she saw it more as a hobby. She grew up watching the Pillsbury Bake-Off on TV and dreamed of how fun it would be to compete in it. But she saw this as a fantasy on par with competing in Miss America.

As a mother of three, she enjoyed making decorative birthday cakes and creating her own recipes.

“Food is definitely an obsession for me,” Katz says. “I think about it all day long. At breakfast, I’m thinking about what am I going to make for lunch. At lunch, I’m thinking what am I going to make for dinner. I’m just always thinking about food.”

Over the years Katz said she submitted her recipes to the Pillsbury Bake-Off, which she calls “the big leagues of the cooking competition world.” In 2013, Pillsbury accepted her submission. And again in 2014.

“I was like, oh, wow, I guess it wasn’t just a fluke.”

In 2015 came “The Great Holiday Baking Show.” Several of the show’s challenges involved dishes commonly associated with Christmas, such as fruit cake and candy cane-shaped bread. After winning a challenge, contestants were directed to hang an ornament on a tree.

“And I tried to do it one time, and I burst out laughing because I was saying, ‘This is not what I would do. I don’t do this. I’ve never done this.’ And I couldn’t do it with a straight face.”

Katz tried and failed six times to hang her ornament, the producers decided to ax the tree bit from the show. She says she was much more comfortable with making a Yule log cake.

“There’s some really beautiful baked goods that go along with Christmas. And I got to try my hand at it without having to celebrate it,” she says. “Like, I got to kind of be a guest at Christmas, if that makes sense.”

Katz has no formal culinary training, but she sees that as an advantage in competitions. She says professionally trained chefs have a lot of knowledge in a multitude of subjects. Home-taught chefs tend to specialize in a particular dish.

“As a home cook who’s self-taught, you really explored an item. You know how to make this thing because you’ve done it wrong a few times. You’ve done it right many times, and you can really hone your craft at home without any pressure.”

She also said home cooks are not afraid to break the rules, which can be an advantage in competitions like “The Great Holiday Baking Show.” She ended up winning three out of the four episodes. One of her victories was in the gingerbread house competition.

“On Christmas, my family goes out to Chinese food. That’s what I think of when I think of Christmas. So I made this big gingerbread pagoda,” Katz says. “That was one of the symbols that the Jewish community took and ran with.”

Since the pandemic began, most in-person competitions have been postponed. In the meantime, Katz is focusing on leading Zoom cooking classes for community groups, including her synagogue, Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Leesburg.

She says another of her passions is connecting Jews to their culture.

“A lot of people who can’t always connect to Judaism religiously can connect to Judaism through the food, and I enjoy facilitating that,” Katz says. “It’s important to me, as a minority group in this area, especially, to really cling to the traditions, and to try to teach them to the kids. And I think that’s the important thing.”

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