When Alma published my article imagining what a Jewish week on The Great British Baking Show would look like, I found myself plunged into stardom among Jewish GBBO lovers.
“This is what I pay internet for,” someone wrote on Instagram.
“This article is a TREASURE,” Rachel Levin wrote on Twitter.
“I never knew I could want something so badly,” one Jewish woman posted on Facebook.
But the most exciting response I got came in the form of a surprising email: Lauren Katz, winner of the first season of NBC’s The Great American Baking Show, formerly titled The Great Holiday Baking Show, emailed me to say hello.
Katz, 41, is a mother of three and teaches 5th grade Judaics and Hebrew at her synagogue in Virginia. She’s also the pastry chef at The Difference Baker, a gluten-free and allergen-free bakery in Ashburn, Virginia.
Katz competed on The Great Holiday Baking Show in 2015, with hosts Nia Vardalos and Ian Gomez and judges Mary Berry (an OG GBBO judge!) and Johnny Iuzzini.
What’s a Jewish woman to do when she’s plunged into a Christmas baking competition? Win it with Jewish recipes, obviously.
I jumped at the opportunity to chat with Katz about her experience. While she rolled out cinnamon roll dough at her bakery, we talked over the phone about The Great Holiday Baking Show, Hanukkah baking, and how she brings Jewish flair into her recipes.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
When you emailed me, you wrote that you “won a Christmas baking show with Jewish recipes,” which is basically the best thing I’ve ever heard. Can you describe your experience on The Great Holiday Baking Show?
We filmed everything with the same director [as GBBO]; we were in England, we were in the same tent, we had Mary Berry as our judge. It was all the same. The difference is on the British one, they’re allowed to go home in between and practice, whereas we were in England in a hotel so we couldn’t really practice.
The first challenge was a cookie challenge, and we had to do two different types of cookies, and for one of them I made rugelach. We had to do a big gingerbread structure and they said to do a place that has meaning to you, and I was thinking about what I do on Christmas, which is go out to Chinese food. I made a big pagoda out of gingerbread.
At a certain point they were like, “Yes, it’s a holiday baking show but really it’s a Christmas baking show, so you kind of have to do some Christmas stuff.” It was funny, and I did end up winning. I tried to get as much Hanukkah stuff or Jewish recipes in there as I could. I was the only Jewish baker. [All of the other bakers] had backgrounds with family Christmas and all that stuff.
At the beginning when I won the first episode, they had a Christmas tree and these ornaments with our names on them, and they wanted me to place my ornament on the tree. We kept trying to film it and every time I’d walk up to the tree I’d start laughing. I was supposed to look happy and smile at the tree and I just could not do it. We tried it four of five times before they decided to just cut it. It was so funny.
What’s your favorite thing about baking?
For me, it’s a very therapeutic thing. I can get my hands dirty and really play around. I love looking at recipes and being creative with it. I started baking when I went off on my own in college and started watching Food Network. I remember being snowed in one weekend and baking a tart and just loving it so much and thinking, “Hey, this is something I might want to do more of.” I like being in charge of what goes into food and knowing what’s in it.
How do you bring Jewish flair into your baking?
I love researching what different Jews from around the world are doing. I’ve taught a couple of classes at my synagogue and I’ve gone to other synagogues to do baking workshops. Whenever I do a class, I have a great time researching. It’s very interesting what Sephardic Jews do and what Ashkenazi Jews do. There are some older recipes that have gone out of fashion and nobody makes them anymore. I love the idea of not losing those and bringing them back.
I’ll [also] bring Jewish flavors into other things, like I’ll put tahini in a frosting. It’s just something that’s part of who I am, so it comes out in my recipes. It’s not always a conscious thing.
What are your Hanukkah baking plans?
I try to do something different every year. I always do latkes, just like everybody else, and I make sufganiyot [jelly doughnuts]. Sometimes I make Hanukkah cookies, like cute, decorated ones. I don’t usually plan ahead, I just go with whatever I feel like eating at the time. I’m very mood-driven with my baking. Sometimes I’ll see something and I’ll be like, “Oh, that sounds really good. Let me try that.” When it was Thanksgivukkah [in 2013], I made apple latkes with a cranberry-orange chutney and it was so good. I kind of miss the apple latkes, so maybe I’ll bring those back this year. I shredded the apples and it almost tasted like an apple pie. I like doing mashups, mashing up two things that don’t really go together.
What new recipe have you been trying out lately?
I came up with a gluten-free, dairy-free cinnamon roll that tastes like a regular cinnamon roll. It’s out of this world. People have gone crazy for them. We’ve been selling them at the bakery and they’ve been selling out so fast. I’m really proud of this recipe because it’s a traditional cinnamon roll but it’s gluten-free and dairy-free and it’s pareve. I’m really proud of that right now.
What’s your favorite thing to bake?
I love making cookies and breads and things like that. I do make fancy cakes and I make tarts and pies but they’re less my thing. I like to make candy sometimes, too.
What’s next for you?
I don’t have a competition in the books right now. I’m focusing on working at the bakery and seeing where that takes me. I’m hoping that eventually we’ll do a cookbook through the bakery that I can work on. We’re also looking to maybe franchise at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later.
Images courtesy of Lauren Katz