Weekend Life readers join Hottest Home Baker judge Julia Crownshaw and two of the show's finalists in a friendly bake-off. Jenna Morris joins the fun.

Inspired. That's how I felt after spending my Saturday morning with Chelsea New Zealand's Hottest Home Baker judge Julia Crownshaw (also a food scientist and co-founder of award-winning Dollop Puddings) and Hottest Home Baker finalists Alice Arndell and Emily Taylor. We were in our very own baking competition under the guidance of Alice and Emily, at Auckland's Main Course Cooking School with four Weekend Life competition winners - Kate, Bex, Mark and Millie.

Before we got down to business, Julia started things off with a demonstration on how to achieve the perfect creme patissiere. Now I am no Martha Stewart, but when it comes to baking I know my biscotti from my brioche and my crepes from my croissants. But I had no idea what creme patissiere was. Not for long! Julia informed us that this was the perfect filling for all things cakes, desserts and tarts. One thing that surprised us all was rather than turning the heat level up and down as needed, Julia just lifted the saucepan on and off the element instead. I will definitely be trying this next time I attempt custard tarts (watch this space). Once the creme was the perfect thickness, Julia added vanilla paste for a much stronger flavour - as with any baking, including this from scratch destroys the notes and will eventually make your filling not so tasty.

Once we had all marvelled at how delicious the creme patissiere tasted, Julia issued the first challenge of the day: "make a dessert that includes at least three different sugars". Alice's team made two puddings - pear, date and ginger crumbles with roasted hazelnuts, and caramel meringue pies. Emily's group opted for caramel, apple and date upside down puddings - relatively complicated dishes for a young team. Like many of the contestants on the show, we were also under the age of 30. It's not just something for our grandmothers and great aunts any more; baking has become an experience for all ages to enjoy. And it's exciting that males are getting more into baking: contestant Mark made terrific upside down puddings with cooking partner Millie and the pair engineered some pretty spectacular toffee lace to garnish.

An hour into the baking, just as we were starting to relax, Julia turned up the heat with a second challenge. We now had to prepare a sauce or compote to complement the desserts. Alice's team decided on a rich white chocolate sauce for their caramel meringue pies, while butterscotch sauce for the caramel, apple and date puddings was on the menu for Emily's team. I would have been all hot and bothered, but both teams seemed very calm and confident. Julia had obviously read my thoughts at this point, as with just 30 minutes to go she added a third and final challenge: each team had to whip up some petit fours. Both teams chose truffles - pistachio and cranberry for Alice's team, and cocoa and pistachio for Emily's. The pressure was mounting.


After over two hours of baking it was time to hear Julia's verdict. The outcome? No one would be packing up their mixing bowls this week as both teams walked away winners. There were no disasters and I must admit everything tasted delightful. I know how I will be spending the rest of my weekend.

Further information: Recipes and ideas are at chelsea.co.nz. Julia Crownshaw and Dean Brettschneider are appearing in baking master class, the Sugar Club, Sundays 4.30pm on Food TV.