Tricks and treats for the Food Network

For the Towson Times
For the show, Hisley turned out Mama Monster and her Monster Babies, Bloody Butterscotch Handprints and Pirate

Jason Hisley is talking scary but yummy. There's also disgusting but delicious and spooky but scrumptious. When you're on a Halloween-themed cooking show competing to be the top baker in the country, your thoughts can turn to the outrageous.

On a vibrant fall day, though, the Food Network's Halloween Baking Championship is behind him. Instead of having a time limit to turn out treats in the elimination-style contest, Hisley can relax at La Cakerie, the Towson bakery and café he founded in 2013. In 2014, he opened another La Cakerie, in Mount Vernon. He is executive chef at both.

"The show pushed my creative envelope, not only for flavor but for aesthetics and design," said Hisley, a certified pastry chef.

For the show, he turned out Mama Monster and her Monster Babies (chocolate cupcakes with green-colored chocolate ganache filling), Bloody Butterscotch Handprints (atop chocolate pots de crème) and Pirate Face Cake (chocolate-coconut-rum flavored), among others.

"I was going for nasty-gross," Hisley said of his creations.

Episodes of the Halloween Baking Championship aired from Oct. 5 to Oct. 26. On the final night, four contestants remained and Hisley made it to the final three after delivering a haunted cake — a tier chocolate cake with three different fillings. The $25,000 first prize, however, eluded him.

The show started with seven competitors. By the halfway mark, five were left, including Hisley. Among them: a female baker-blogger, a female owner of a home baking company, a male sous chef for the Detroit Lions and a male owner of a New York City cake company.

Hisley, a Parkville resident, 27 and single, is no stranger to the Food Network. He has appeared on three previous shows — 2011's Cupcake Wars, 2012's Sweet Genius and 2013's Cutthroat Kitchen.

Different production companies make and sell shows to the Food Network. By now, Hisley has a good idea what producers are looking for when they choose contestants.

"They want to see your personality," said Hisley, a colorful presence with a full sleeve of tattoos on his right arm. Tall and boyish, he is amiable and friendly.

Appearances on the Food Network shows have made him a celebrity, although he is not comfortable with that word. Still, he said, "It's crazy. I get stopped in public all the time. I was shopping in a clothing store and someone came up to me who saw me in Cutthroat Kitchen. People tell me, 'You're the reason I go to the gym.' It's a joke because I make cupcakes."

For the Halloween show, Hisley saw a notice online, sent in an application and audition video, and subsequently did a Skype interview. Last May, he got a call from the producers. He was flown to Los Angeles and put up at a hotel while the show was filmed over the course of a few days.

Hisley called the Halloween show a genuine challenge, even for a baker as experienced as he is.

"You may be asked to make any kind of baked goods — doughnuts, cakes, cupcakes. You have to adapt and make something that is cool to look at but also edible," he said.

The show was recorded in a big, empty studio whose space had been divided into individual baking stations. The three expert judges sat at a table, their decisions based on a balance of flavor and design.

Each station had ample supplies, from bowls and baking sheets to electric mixers and ovens. Likewise, the ingredients were supplied.

"You had to use what they had on hand," Hisley said.

To prepare for the show, Hisley reviewed basic cake and dessert recipes. Otherwise, he said, "Everything was a surprise," from the announcement on the episode of what the contestants would be making — "disgusting doughnuts" and "graveyard pumpkin dessert," to name two — to the execution.

"You have to think on your feet. You have to pull the recipe from your mind," he said. "And everything has to be done, including baking, within the time limit."

Eric Yeager is culinary and hospitality program director of Stratford University, in Baltimore, which offers accredited culinary arts training. According to Yeager, the television food shows have a tremendous influence on current cooking trends and career choices.

"A lot of students come to our school based on watching the Food Network," he said, even though they may not realize that training to be a professional chef is not the same as being a chef on television.

"It's a different perspective, different skill sets. The restaurant chef works long hours back in a kitchen. There's not a lot of glitz and glamour," Yeager said.

Hisley said that even as a child he wanted to be a baker. He said his grandmother, a home baker from Czechoslovakia, was his inspiration.

A graduate of Bel Air High School in 2006, Hisley has a bachelor's degree in baking and pastry arts from Johnson & Wales University, in Rhode Island, and a pastry arts program completion degree from the Restaurant School in Vitznau, Switzerland.

Before opening La Cakerie in Towson, he was the lead pastry chef and cake designer of Flavor Cupcakery, in Bel Air, when it won first prize in the 2011 Cupcake Wars Season 4 Episode 1: The Nutcracker.

La Cakerie, 11 West Allegheny Ave., is a 4,000-square-foot shop, a former grocery store-delicatessen, with tables and chairs for patrons. It offers a variety of sandwiches, salads and soups along with breads, baked good and special-order items like cakes.

Hisley operates the on-premises bakery with a bake staff of 12. Located in the rear of the shop, the bakery is filled with work tables and racks of shelves as well as commercial mixers, refrigerator and oven. A separate cake design room is temperature- and humidity-controlled.

Jenny Reilly, a Parkville resident and regular customer of La Cakerie, said she likes the shop for its comfortable atmosphere and its baked goods.

"I'm a vegan so it's hard to find a place where I can get food," said Reilly, who works in financial services. "La Cakerie has an array of vegan items like soft pretzels, macaroons and cupcakes."

Halloween is not a major selling holiday, especially compared to Thanksgiving and Christmas, said Shelley Stannard, owner of Flavor Cupcakery with locations in Cockeysville and Bel Air.

"Some people do put in orders — for example, cupcakes for a party. But mostly it's drop-ins looking for a fun Halloween item," she said.

Hisley agreed. He is seeing a bump in bakery sales, "but not because of Halloween," he said. "Because it's fall. The weather is cooler and people eat more."

Like other bakeries, La Cakerie is putting out Halloween-themed items, featuring some he made for the Halloween Baking Championship. They range from "Spooky" red velvet cupcakes to decorated cookies and cakes.

"Baking is early morning and high volume. It is a creative effort that lets you work with your hands," he said. "I love baking."

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