She won ‘The Great Australian Bake Off’ – and with all kosher bakes – The Forward

Ella Rossanis had no intention of appearing on television. She only applied to ‘The Great Australian Bake Off’ after her husband applied to ‘Survivor’ and asked if she would care for their three children – all under 5 – without him for 12 weeks if he was chosen.

“A bit out of spite for him, I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to apply to a TV show,'” she told me.

In the end, her husband wasn’t cast in “Survivor,” but Rossanis was cast in “Bake Off.” And then she won.

The 36-year-old’s pastries are creative and playful, often referencing her children – her star pastry in the first episode, which she won, featured a pair of cupcake-clad breasts that revealed a milky filling liquid when you cut into it; a little plastic toddler crawled sideways towards the nipple. Her winning pastry in the season finale was a towering cake princess castle she made for her daughter, complete with a cookie fountain drizzled with caramel and a pumpkin-shaped cake cart filled with raspberry coulis.

But beyond the creativity, there was something else special about Rossanis’ pastries – they were all kosher. ‘The Great British Bake Off’ has a long history of doing poorly with traditional Jewish foods, but, in the Australian version, Rossanis put his Judaism front and center in many of his baked goods, such as a platter of black sesame rugelach tahini and mini babkas.

And while she didn’t talk about keeping kosher on the show, she did talk about the importance of Shabbat dinner in her family during an episode in which she made a za’atar challah. (The judges were so enamored with her bread that one of them even invited herself for Shabbat.)

Zooming in from Sydney after her kids went to bed, Rossanis told me about how she managed to cook kosher food on set, how her kids inspired her to bake, and how the show changed her life.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Your pastries are all so neat and professional looking. How did you become a pastry chef and how did you get so good at it?

This show really made me realize what a crazy perfectionist I am – too much I would say; I spend too much time trying to get those perfect lines.

I think I was 10 or 11 or something, and my parents are both doctors, and we always had family Shabbat dinner on Friday nights. But my mom worked on Fridays, so she ended up leaving me food in the fridge that I just put in the oven.

Over time, it turned into me preparing the food, and then I started experimenting. I think when I was 10 the first thing I made was these little shortbread cookies. From there I just started adding different things in the shortbread cookies, then other cookies, then different cakes. And that’s how I grew up – every Shabbat I would try something new and my family was the guinea pigs and that’s how I fell in love with it.

Were you able to observe Shabbat in the hotel where you were sequestered for the show?

It was amazing because I was the only one who could come home on weekends because I was breastfeeding. Filming wasn’t on weekends, which was great because a lot of other shows do. But we filmed from Monday to Thursday so I would go home on Friday morning and come back on Monday.

So the weekends were just normal which was good for being with my family and having Shabbat at home but not great because everyone was training all weekend and I didn’t been able to train and stressed all weekend.

I saw in the finale that your kids came to watch and were by your side as you put the finishing touches on your showstopper!

Yeah, oh my god. In fact, they don’t show you the stress we were all under. And I was definitely more stressed because my kids kept coming over just to taste and touch things, and it was so hot and everything was already oozing everywhere. I was like “I love that you’re here, I haven’t seen you in such a long time, but please go away!”

Your kids have inspired a lot of your baking, but you’ve also spoken on the show about the importance of stepping away from them to rediscover yourself outside of being a “mom.”

When I found out I was on the show, we took a whole weekend to decide, ‘Can I do this? Mainly because I was breastfeeding – like how could I leave my breastfed child and my three grandchildren?

In the end, all of those reasons I couldn’t do it were the reasons I had to. Because I put them first since the second they were all born. What, you know, I chose to be a mom, I love being a mom. But you know, there’s this creative person that was deep inside of me that I didn’t realize was kind of hidden — more with each child, with more diapers, more laundry, and more lunches.

Even just applying for the show, when I was doing the writing — I’m a writer and I love the craft of writing — and thinking about all this baking I could do, made me more passionate.

At the end of the day – and my husband was pushing it too, more than me – it’s that we want our kids to do awesome stuff. How could we tell them to follow their dreams and take risks and chances if I didn’t?

But it’s so weird because the whole time it was this “I’m here for me” thing, but in the end, it’s always about them. You can’t escape doing it all for your kids – even if it’s for you on some level, it’s all about them.

Have you been able to keep in touch with your creative side since the end of the show? I know you post funny pastries on your Instagram.

Yes, it is here to stay. When it comes to cooking, I’m constantly thinking about the next thing I’m going to cook. But it’s more than that – I thought I was just going to be on this baking show and bake cakes and it would be so fun and awesome.

It was rightfully life changing in that way in that it showed me that I could do things on my own. There’s the mommy me, but there’s also this creative me, and that’s what’s lagging behind.

I’ve been approached by quite a few brands for partnerships, working together to write recipes. And I am now writing a column in the Kitchen Confidential section of the Sydney newspaper.

I also baked my first cake for a paying customer the other day, which was great but also made me realize that’s not what I want to do. I want to cook creatively – I don’t want anyone telling me they have a brief.

“The Great British Bake Off” isn’t great for Jewish food, so it was really refreshing to see how much traditional Jewish food you made – rugelach, babka, challah.

The only thing I wanted to do and couldn’t do was hamantaschen; it just didn’t fit the themes of the week. I cook this stuff all the time, I make challah with my daughter every week. I wanted to bring that side to the series.

It’s funny because the hosts have been chefs for 40 years and Maggie had never tried challah before, which I thought was crazy. In New York and America everyone would know what a challah is, but here less so. They had never tried any of the Jewish things I cooked. But it was also strategic—they wouldn’t know how it must taste!

How is the Jewish community in Australia?

I lived in New York for five years, and I really felt like everyone knew Jews in New York and it was more mainstream – all the food and delis, it was just a part of life, something that people who weren’t Jewish would do.

It’s not like that here — it’s not common. It’s a much smaller community, everyone knows each other, and it’s warm like that. But we are less assimilated.

It’s especially fun to be able to portray Jews on television with all these foods that are actually unfamiliar to the public.

Yes, they have never heard of it before. It was a whole behind-the-scenes thing like, “How do you pronounce it?” “What is the plural? They were all practicing saying the “ch”. It was nice to bring it all to this group of real Aussies.

We obviously eat this stuff all the time, but it was good for me – I got so close to all these people and getting them all to try and taste it, it was fun.

I know all of your baked goods, at least at home, are kosher – did you manage that in the shed as well?

Yeah, and actually in the shed they were all kosher because we were allowed to specify brands, and I obviously specified all kosher brands. And because they haven’t run the show for a few years, I think three years, they had to buy all new equipment and cooking appliances. And they were sponsored by all new sponsors, so there were new refrigerators, ovens, blenders – so it was properly kosher.

At one point I made a Cabernet Sauvignon pavlova, and obviously I needed to use a kosher wine. I could have brought a wine because they are so available in Sydney’s Jewish Quarter, but I didn’t think of that. And they ended up driving about an hour and a half down a valley to get me this kosher wine – I felt really guilty about that.

Was this special need for kashrut foreign or strange to any of your fellow participants or producers?

Foreign yes, but they have always been very supportive. Many candidates would say, “No, at home I use this brand of flour.” So it wasn’t weird when I said, “Well, actually, I need to use it.” They didn’t seem to care that it was a kashrut affair.

Also, one of the other guys [on the show], Nav, is halal. And everyone knows halal. So they were fully aware of him and his needs, so I guess that made it easier when I jumped in there as well.

There were, however, a few pastries where gelatin was involved in the technical details. And me and Nav were looking at each other all the time like, “What are we doing?”

Yeah, similarly, in previous seasons of the UK version, they’ve had vegans on the show and they still have to cook with butter and eggs for technical challenges. How do you deal when you can’t taste what you’re cooking?

For one of the technical aspects, mine looked the best, perfect lines, everything looked great. But the top layer of this trifle was a jelly containing gelatin. And mine took too quickly, so I put it in the microwave or zhuzh it, and it worked; he defined how I needed it. But then it was cloudy. And no one else was troubled.

I was so disappointed because if I had worked with gelatin before and knew how to use it, I would have known not to and I would have won this technique! And instead, I ended up nearing the end.

Well, you have gained five techniques.

It’s true. Guess I can leave that one to them.

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