Excerpt from Seeking Sugar and Spice

“Here we go, everyone,” Gideon said once they were all gathered on set that afternoon. “Remember, you’re all here because you’re good at what you do. You own or work at businesses that people support and want to succeed. Yes, this is a competition, but you are neighbors and colleagues, probably friends. It’s a small island, and no matter what happens here this week, that fact will remain. You may be competing against each other, but don’t let that ruin the quality of life you have here. Just continue to support each other like always, do your best, give it your all, and have fun.”

Holly was a bundle of nerves, and it wasn’t just because she was going to be on national television. She never gave any thought to being in a work area this close to another chef, and she certainly never gave any thought to sharing her space with Lorenzo. It took everything in her to focus on Gideon’s pep talk. She tried a deep-breathing technique that Tori taught her when they came back from their first commercial break. When the red light on the camera was illuminated, she pasted on a smile and listened carefully to their host.

“Your first task will be simple and no nonsense. You’ll be cooking a regular breakfast, but not something I can get at McDonald’s.” The crowd laughed as expected. “I want pancakes, I want breakfast meat, I want eggs, but don’t give me boring buttermilk or crispy pan-fried bacon or scrambled eggs. I want it to be special, with personality and flair. You have a whole pantry full of fours and spices and a refrigerator bursting with flavor. I expect your dishes to reflect that. Everything  will remain available to you throughout the competition, but there are limited quantities of some items, so you need to know your ingredients from the start. You have one hour to get this right. And the clock starts now!”

Holly couldn’t believe it when their task had been revealed that morning after their first cooking lesson. She’d spent hours upon hours learning to bake lofty souffles, grill perfectly temped steak, and sauté vegetables she had never heard of.  She was not expecting to begin the competition with the meal she did best. 

She didn’t waste a minute running to the refrigerator and grabbing milk, eggs, Italian breakfast sausage, and parmesan and ricotta cheese. She almost knelt and thanked Heaven then and there when she spied the ricotta and grabbed it before anyone else. She hurried over to her station and dropped them onto the stone surface before rushing to the pantry and picking out flour, sugar, several different spices, and breadcrumbs. Every station was already equipped with salt and pepper, oil, and fresh maple syrup. If she remembered her recipes, she had everything she needed. 

She put a generous amount of oil in a frying pan then filled a saucepan with cold water and put both on the stove. Meanwhile, she mixed the sausage with some dry mustard, nutmeg, and cayenne pepper. She glanced at the water before forming the sausage mixture into balls. As she worked, she resisted the urge to look around, but she couldn’t help hearing the whir of blenders and clashing of pots and pans mingled with people talking to themselves and an occasional word that she was certain would be bleeped out of the final cut. 

Once the water was boiling, she added four eggs. She only needed three, but she was a lifelong Girl Scout and knew to always be prepared. She set a timer for six minutes and went back to the sausage. She made four, flat oval patties with the sausage balls and left them until the eggs were ready. She moved on to her specialty, something she made regularly at the restaurant to the delight of her customers. She cracked open two eggs and separated them from the yolk. She combined the yolks with the milk and cheeses, whisking them together gently but not over-beating them. The timer went off, and she lifted the saucepan from the stove and set it in the sink letting cold water run over the hard-boiled eggs.

“Fifteen minutes down,” Gideon yelled, and she heard groans from one of the other stations. Suddenly, their host was standing between her and Lorenzo, who she was surprised to realize was still there, cooking beside her, as much in his own world as she had been in hers. She noticed Christina and José talking to some of the other chefs.

“And what are you working on, Lorenzo?”

“I’m making a family favorite, pea, prosciutto and pecorino frittata.”

“Homemade frittatas in an hour?”

“Yes, chef.”

“Gutsy move. I hope it’s completely cooked when it hits that tasting table.”

“Yes, chef.”

Holly listened with interest while not taking her eyes or her mind off the egg whites she was whipping into soft peaks. She wondered if Lorenzo would pull it off. After tasting some of his food, she felt certain that he could, but the pressure was definitely on.

“Holly, I imagine you’re used to cooking breakfast foods under pressure.”

“Yes, chef. Every day.”

“Those peaks look nice. Tell me, what will they be used in?”

“Chef, I’m making ricotta hotcakes with Scotch eggs.” She stopped whipping and turned off the water, reaching in to feel the temperature of the eggs.

“You’re making Scotch eggs for a Scottish chef? Bold move. If they don’t taste like my mother’s eggs, you may be the first one sent home.”

“Yes, chef. I understand.”

Gideon moved on, and Holly carefully peeled the eggs. She sliced each one, emptied the thickened yolk into a bowl, and laid the empty eggs, open side up, onto the sausage ovals, molding the sausage around the eggs. She put some flour in a bowl, beat the eggs, and poured breadcrumbs into a third bowl, creating an assembly line. She gently dipped the egg and sausage creations in each of the bowls—flour, egg yolks, and breadcrumbs—then rested them on a plate.

“Thirty minutes to go!” 

She needed five to six minutes to cook the eggs and about four minutes to cook the hotcakes, and they had to be piping hot when she put them on the plates. However, she still needed to garnish the plates before they could be served. She needed to use these next thirty minutes very carefully, or her food would be cold and unappetizing. 

Holly looked over at Lorenzo’s station. Judging by the aroma of onions, garlic, and other tantalizing scents, she guessed that his main course was in the oven. She watched him cut artisan bread into smaller squares and place it in the oven then whip together some berries, sugar, and cinnamon. She wondered what he was making, but she needed to think about her own dish.

Holly went to the display of herbs and chose several nice pieces of rocket. She washed and broke it into three-inch pieces. She got out three plates and placed them on the counter beside the rocket then glanced at the clock. 

“Fifteen minutes, everyone! Start thinking about plating and getting those garnishes ready.”

Holly breathed a sigh of relief. She was doing great on time. She carefully laid each Scottish egg in the hot, sizzling oil, noting the time. She then prepared another pan, lathering it generously with butter. She watched the clock carefully, adding her hotcakes to the buttered pan at the right time and keeping an eye on the Scottish eggs. 

When the countdown began to the end of the first competition, Holly was carefully plating her breakfast, garnishing it with the rocket. As she set her plate on the counter to be judged, she breathed a sigh of relief. The angels must have been watching over her, giving her the confidence that she needed to get this thing started. Unfortunately, she knew it would all be uphill from here.