If you didn’t see Ella Gannis compete on Food Network’s Cupcake Championship a few weeks back, spoiler alert: The 24-year-old Waynesburg native beat out three other bakers to win the $10,000 prize.
You may recall reading about Ella and her mom, Ellan Toothman-Gannis, of Chatty Cupcakes fame, a couple years ago, when they rolled out their refrigerated “ACM” – automated cupcake machine – the first of its kind in the country, at The Galleria in Mt. Lebanon.
Since then, they’ve been baking gourmet cakes and restocking the ACM daily to meet the demand for their scratch-made cupcakes created in small batches from premium ingredients – real butter, sugar, cake flour, high-end chocolate, pure extracts and eggs – and topped with their signature European buttercream. The only thing that could possibly surpass the flavor of these orbs of baked deliciousness is their beauty. Whether topped with colorful flower petals, whimsical gnomes or delicate swans sporting tiny gold crowns, Chatty Cupcakes are nothing short of edible works of art that are almost too pretty to eat.
The producers at Food Network apparently thought so, too. They found Chatty Cupcakes’ Instagram account in early December and contacted Ella about competing on a new competition series. Initially thinking she had been pranked – and following a lengthy interview process – she was selected from among bakers across the United States and Canada to appear on the show.
I caught up with Ella and Ellan at their ACM, located just inside The Galleria’s front entrance near Starbucks on the ground level. A vase of pink roses sat on top of the machine, a reminder of Ella’s victory that aired a week earlier.
Breathless with excitement – as well as the prospect of filling a huge cake order for Monongahela’s 250th anniversary celebration at the conclusion of our interview – Ella talked about the week in February she spent in Los Angeles taping the show. She recalled being picked up at the airport in a van with two of her competitors, both of whom were talking shop, and started to feel intimidated.
“When I got there, I thought, ‘I just don’t want to be the first one who goes home,” she said.
Each episode of Cupcake Championship starts with four competitors and includes two rounds of baking challenges. The first round is the Designer Challenge, where bakers are given 90 minutes to create a cupcake to celebrate an event or theme. The least successful baker is eliminated. The remaining three have four hours to complete the Imagination Challenge, which entails making a three-dimensional cupcake tableau containing bigger displays and multiple flavors.
Ella appeared in the episode, “From Science Fiction to Just Plain Science.” Among the judges was Maureen McCormick, from the ’70s sitcom, “The Brady Bunch.” Her celebrity was lost on Ella, though.
“Is she the mom?” she stopped to ask during our interview.
Three minutes prior to taping, the bakers were given their first glimpse of the kitchens and available ingredients.
“You got to walk past the pantry once to see what the ingredients were that they had,” Ella said.
Their first assignment was to create a “mythical mashup cupcake,” which called for combining two mythical beings to create a new one. Ella selected a dragon-phoenix combo, which she called “Draconix.”
“It has the face of a dragon, the beak of a phoenix, the body of a dragon, and the wings of a phoenix,” Ella explains on the show, “and I think the phoenix pairs well with a dragon because they are both fiery creatures.”
Ella remembered seeing Fireball Whiskey in the pantry, and decided to make a vanilla cupcake with cinnamon whiskey pastry filling. She placed her red fondant Draconix on top of gray buttercream, to give the illusion of the creature “rising from the ashes.”
While it didn’t make it into the show, Ella admitted that she failed at her first attempt to make the cream filling.
“I’d only made that once before,” she said. “I scrambled the eggs the first time because I didn’t temper them. It worked out in the end, but I had to restart in the middle of the 90 minutes.”
Draconix was a hit with the judges. “I’m loving the colors – the reds, golds and grays,” gushed McCormick. “The pastry cream is dreamlike!”
One of the other four bakers was eliminated, and Ella returned the next day for the final challenge, which was to create a planet where the fictional creature would live. Using a Styrofoam sphere attached to a post for the base of the planet, she was tasked with replicating Jupiter – four moons and all.
To capture the planet’s “dark and stormy” appearance, Ella made a London fog cupcake, featuring Earl Grey Swiss meringue buttercream. Two hours in and unsure of her next move, she started repeating, ”Jupiter, juice,” which inspired her orange cupcakes with orange buttercream, representing Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. She covered the cupcakes with a mirror glaze made from chocolate, gelatin and water. For the moons, she shaped rice cereal treats into balls. For a final touch, she made a cupcake alien holding a sign that read, “Cupcake me to your leader.”
The judges loved it, especially McCormick.
“I knew immediately this was Jupiter ...” she said. “I’m being blown away by your hurricane planet,” calling her orange vanilla cupcake “creamy, dreamy.”
Keeping the outcome of the competition secret for nearly six months was nearly as challenging as the competition itself.
“So much time passed, it didn’t feel like it was real,” Ella said. “Then when it aired, people were so enthusiastic and supportive. It aired at 1 p.m., and I started getting text messages. I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness! People know who I am!’”
In addition to the outpouring from her loyal customers, Waynesburg Mayor Brian Tanner declared Aug. 3 as “Ella Gannis Day” in the borough, and state Rep. Pam Snyder gave her a citation from the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
So what’s she going to do with the prize money?
“There are so many beautiful things to do with cake, and I just want to do that,” she said, adding that she’d like to travel abroad to take classes from world-renowned bakers.
Can you guess the significance of this object? Hint: It is part of the collection of artifacts housed by the Washington County Historical Society. Check back next Monday for an explanation as well as a new object to ponder. Turn to Page A2 to learn about last week’s object.
Joe Walsh, a former Illinois congressman and tea party favorite turned radio talk show host, announced a challenge Sunday to President Donald Trump for the Republican nomination in 2020, saying the incumbent is unfit for office and must be denied a second term.
“He’s nuts. He’s erratic. He’s cruel. He stokes bigotry. He’s incompetent. He doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Walsh told ABC’s “This Week.” The longshot portrayed himself as a legitimate alternative in party where he said many are opposed to Trump but are “scared to death” of saying so publicly.
His campaign slogan: “Be brave.”
Polls shows Trump is backed by most Republican voters, and the lone rival already in the race is former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, the 2016 Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee who is regarded as fiscally conservative but socially liberal.
Undeterred from pressing ahead with his candidacy, Walsh said, “I think this thing ... will catch on like wildfire.” The former Trump booster added: “I’m a conservative. And I think there’s a decent chance to present to Republican voters a conservative without all the baggage.”
The one-word response from Trump’s campaign to Walsh’s entry: “Whatever.”
Walsh narrowly won a House seat from suburban Chicago in the 2010 tea party wave but lost a 2012 reelection bid and has since hosted a radio talk show. He has a history of inflammatory statements regarding Muslims and others and declared just before the 2016 election that if Trump lost, “I’m grabbing my musket.”
But he has since soured on Trump, criticizing the president over growth of the federal deficit and writing in a New York Times column that the president was “a racial arsonist who encourages bigotry and xenophobia to rouse his base.”
The road ahead for any Republican primary challenger will be difficult.
In recent months, Trump’s allies have taken over state parties that control primary elections in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and elsewhere. State party leaders sometimes pay lip service to the notion that they would welcome a primary challenger, as their state party rules usually require, but they are already working to ensure Trump’s reelection.
South Carolina Republicans have gone so far as to discuss canceling their state’s GOP primary altogether if a legitimate primary challenge emerges to eliminate the threat.
At the same time, polling consistently shows that Trump has the solid backing of an overwhelming majority of Republican voters. An Associated Press-NORC poll conducted this month found that 78% of Republicans approve of Trump’s job performance. That number has been hovering around 80% even as repeated scandals have rocked his presidency.
“Look, this isn’t easy to do. ... I’m opening up my life to tweets and attacks. Everything I’ve said and tweeted now, Trump’s going to go after, and his bullies are going to go after,” Walsh said.
Asked whether he was prepared for that, Walsh replied: “Yes, I’m ready for it.”
Weld, in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said he was “thrilled” that Walsh was in the race and that Mark Sanford, a former South Carolina governor and congressman, was considering joining them, leading to a “more robust conversation.”
“Who knows? The networks might even cover Republican primary debates,” Weld said.
Walsh, 57, rode a wave of anti-President Barack Obama sentiment to a 300-vote victory over a Democratic incumbent in the 2010 election. He made a name for himself in Washington as a cable news fixture who was highly disparaging of Obama.
Walsh was criticized for saying that the Democratic Party’s “game” is to make Latinos dependent on government just like “they got African Americans dependent upon government.” At another point, he said radical Muslims are in the U.S. “trying to kill Americans every week,” including in Chicago’s suburbs.
He lost his 2012 reelection bid by more than 20,000 votes to Democrat Tammy Duckworth, who was elected to the U.S. Senate four years later.
Walsh told Obama to “watch out” on Twitter in July 2016 after five police officers were killed in Dallas. Just days before Trump’s 2016 win over Hillary Clinton, Walsh tweeted: “On November 8th, I’m voting for Trump. On November 9th, if Trump loses, I’m grabbing my musket. You in?” Walsh later said on Twitter that he was referring to “acts of civil disobedience.”
On Sunday, Walsh said he apologized for past divisive comments.
“I helped create Trump. There’s no doubt about that, the personal, ugly politics. I regret that. And I’m sorry for that,” he said.
Davies reported from Indianapolis. AP National Political Writer Steve Peoples in New York contributed to this report.