Life’s short; there’s no denying it. If, as a consequence, your motto is “eat dessert first,” you’ll want to make a beeline to the Scarsdale Woman’s Club on Sept 11 at 2 p.m. That’s when Tina Zaccardi, winner of the fourth season of ABC’s The Great American Baking Show: Holiday Edition, will be on hand, recounting her TV experiences while giving a free baking demonstration.
“One of the club’s first events of the season is a tea, so I’ll be making miniature scones,” Zaccardi said. “I’m doing kind of a fall flavor — pecan and cranberry.” Asked the secret to baking superior scones, she answered without hesitation. “Everything needs to be very cold,” she said. “Especially on a warm day, you don’t want the butter to start to melt — you want it to be in the batter in little pieces. You could even put your flour in the freezer.”
It’s this kind of know-how that vaulted Zaccardi, 57, of Eastchester, to the top of Great American Baking, the stateside version of the celebrated “Great British Baking Show.” Merely landing a coveted spot on the competition, which features 10 contestants, was trickier than crafting the perfect chocolate soufflé: “There’s a whole process you go through,” Zaccardi said. “First you submit a 75-question application. Then a producer speaks to you. After that there’s a taped interview, plus a live interview in Los Angeles where you bake while people ask you questions. I can’t imagine how many thousands of applicants there were.”
Soon after being cast last spring, Zaccardi — who, like her fellow contestants, was entirely self-taught — found herself in London for the filming. Her early performance, though, was as uneven as lumpy muffin batter. “We had to make a coffee cake, and mine cracked when it was coming out of the pan,” she recalled. Fortunately, she avoided elimination, only to find herself in danger later, when another cake of hers failed to rise. This time, she leapt into action: “I switched gears and made a different cake, and it worked out fine,” she said.
Lest you think Zaccardi’s competitors were rooting for her to fail, she’s quick to debunk that myth. “This is why I chose to audition for this show — there’s a lot of camaraderie,” she said. “We were helping each other out the whole way. You’re in a foreign country living with these people, so they kind of become a family. We still keep in touch with each other.”
Members of her “family” cheered her on when she pulled out all the stops — crafting a three-tiered cake that featured chocolate layers with espresso mousse, plus almond cake with apricot buttercream — to grab the title. Her prize? “A beautiful Waterford crystal platter, plus bragging rights,” she said. There was no money, but, noted Zaccardi, the memories are priceless: “It’s so exciting to see yourself on TV,” she said. “Every once in a while I’ll put it on and I still can’t believe that!’”
These days, in addition to working at the purchasing department at Fordham University and attending to her family (she has a husband, son and daughter), Zaccardi performs small demos and teaches classes through Bronxville’s Adult School. Her students gain the benefit of knowledge Zaccardi gleaned from watching her own mother and grandmother bake during her childhood, plus reading countless cookbooks, and “lots of trial and error.”
Among her golden rules is to read each recipe in its entirety before you bake. “The worst thing to do is to start making a recipe, and you get to Step 5 and you don’t have the next ingredient or you’ve done something wrong,” she explained. Another wise move: “When you’re baking a cake, make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature. It helps the batter to come together,” she said. Smart bakers also install a specially made thermometer in their oven, because you can’t always trust the dial for accuracy.
Last of all, weigh your ingredients instead of using measuring cups, which aren’t standardized. “The internet’s such a great place to get conversion information, such as that 1 cup is equal to 120 grams,” Zaccardi said.
What’s next for Zaccardi? “My win on The Great American Baking Show qualified me for the World Food Championship, a cooking competition run by a different company,” she said excitedly. “It takes place in Dallas next month, and I’ll be there, baking again.” For now, though, she’s all ours.
Find out more at tinazaccardi.com and follow her on Instagram at @theitaliancookie.