Padma Lakshmi on Cereal Nostalgia and Pantry 'MacGyvering'
Padma Lakshmi is no stranger to judging food. As the Emmy-nominated host of Top Chef (currently airing its 16th season), Lakshmi is the one person on set who has tasted every single Quickfire and Elimination Challenge dish on the Bravo reality competition. This week, Lakshmi plied her expert palate to another kind of cooking contest which involved cooks from around the country mashing up delectable desserts and Kellogg’s cereal.
Earlier this year, the cereal company put out a call for entries into the Kellogg’s Holiday Baking Challenge, tasking home bakers with creating a holiday dessert that incorporated breakfast cereal in a unique way. Four finalists were brought to the Kellogg’s NYC cafe in Union Square to prepare their dishes and serve them up to none other than Lakshmi herself in hopes of being crowned the winner, with a trophy, a NYC dining experience, and glory on the line.
But before Lakshmi got to the task of judging the four cooks’ desserts, she sat down with me to talk about her own connection to cereal and its multitude of culinary uses.
“What I’m looking for is creativity, but creativity that feels like it fits,” Lakshmi told me. “I use a lot of weird, funky ingredients that you wouldn’t think of in my dishes because I think that’s fun. That’s how I cook in my real life, even when I’m not writing a book. I think that repurposing things that you find in your pantry is great. I call it ‘MacGyvering.’” But MacGyvering for MacGyvering’s sake isn’t the extent of the challenge. “I want it to feel organic, I don't want it to be a novelty. So regardless of whether it’s supposed to be in there, it should still make the dessert taste good. If it's there for texture, there should be a lot of texture. But you shouldn’t add an ingredient unless it works.”
Lakshmi offered up some examples of her best MacGyvering moments. “I use Rice Krispies in my fried chicken crust, or I’ll crush up Saltines in there, or you can use Corn Flakes. I’ll add Frosted Flakes to desserts for a crumble topping which is really great,” she said. And for Lakshmi, remixing pantry items isn’t just a creative outlet, but a cathartic one as well. “It’s the same rush I feel when I buy something that’s on sale.”
One specific instance Lakshmi recalled brought together a well-known Kellogg’s product and a savory dish from her childhood. “When I was growing up in India I loved street food — chaat — and the whole principle of chaat is to have a mixture of textures and temperatures and tastes; it’s always salty, it’s always spicy, it’s always tart, it must have all those components in one bite. There’s an Indian street food called Bhel Puri and it traditionally came from Juhu Beach in Bombay but now you can get it everywhere. It’s one of my favorites, but you have to eat it right away. It’s like a salad, you have to toss it and eat it, you never get it for takeout. So I was trying to recreate it in my home with the tamarind and date chutney, with the hot, spicy mint and green chili chutney, and all the other things, and I didn’t have an Indian store to go to so I used Rice Krispies instead of the puffed rice that’s usually used. I just doctored it up with cumin powder, chaat masala, salt, and cayenne, and tossed it in a warm dry wok together. So I used Rice Krispies to make what is, to me, a very non-American, Indian thing.”
I also asked Lakshmi if she’d be bringing the same no-holds-barred approach from Top Chef to the Kellogg’s Holiday Baking Challenge. “It’s all relative. I’m only judging the best out of the group, whether it’s a Top Chef finale or a home cook bake-off,” she explained. “When I kicked it off, I said ‘I want you to cook this recipe like you’re making it for somebody you love. I’m not looking for perfection, I’m looking for something I would want to bake at home for buy daughter.’ I think that should be the spirit of any holiday treat.”
As for those treats, meringues, cream puffs, and cake were all in the mix, however it was a Frosted Flakes Pear Berry Tart that won Lakshmi over yesterday. The dessert, inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, was created by Sara Mellas of Oakland, CA who incorporated Frosted Flakes into the flour for her tart crust, infused the cereal into her heavy cream and cream cheese filling, and also worked it into the dough for her decorative sugar cookies.
"I like to describe my baking as whimsical – making dishes look beautiful in a fun and inventive way, but most importantly, they have to be tasty,” Mellas said in a statement. “Frosted Flakes were the ideal cereal choice to incorporate into the tart as they add the perfect texture to crusts and a subtle flavor to the filling that complemented the pear and berry flavors."
Mellas’ winning tart will be on the menu at Kellogg’s NYC (31 E. 17th Street) for a limited time, or you can try your hand at making one yourself with the recipe available on Kellogg’s Pinterest or the Kellogg’s NYC website. And, as Lakshmi points out, doing so can be one of those heartwarming moments that define the holidays.
“I think for a lot of Americans, cereal takes them back to childhood. We all have a very strong nostalgic connection to cereal, so I think there’s an emotional layer to why people work with cereal as an ingredient,” Lakshmi said. “I made Rice Krispies Treats with my daughter and posted it on my Instagram and people were going crazy commenting and sharing all of these beautiful stories and memories. Food is so emotional, but, in many ways, we’ve gotten too deep into the analysis of deconstruction of food. In the end, it’s is really about nurturing others and bringing pleasure to the ones we love.”