The timing couldn’t have been worse when Jaleesa Mason received an invitation to compete in Food Network’s “Spring Baking Championship.”
She had just given birth to their daughter Olive and was still on maternity leave from her pastry shop. How could she just drop everything 11 weeks after giving birth and go to Tennessee to film an 11 bakers reality contest?
“It was crazy,” Mason tells NJ Advance Media. “That was the main reason I didn’t want to do this show.”
But when she told her husband about the offer, he reacted differently:
Almost a year later, she’s glad she took his advice. Mason wowed the judges with her artful spring wedding cake in the contest finale, which aired Monday night, not only winning the Spring Baking Champion title but also $25,000 (net of taxes).
And she left with something else: the knowledge that persistence can pay off, especially when you think you’re at the end.
“The biggest thing it said to me was, ‘You can’t give up,'” says Mason, 28.
The Bloomfield pastry chef is Jay at Mo & Jay Pastry, the French bakery in Little Falls that she co-owns with her husband Mohamad Al-Kassem. She also makes custom cakes as Sweet Memories by Jaleesa.
Of course, the baking competition wasn’t all sprinkles and sugar. There were times when retiring from the competition seemed like the most practical course of action, says Mason. As in the second episode of the show when it hit a breaking point.
She was still breastfeeding and pumping every few hours, but had skipped dinner the night before and hadn’t eaten enough that day to keep her energy up through hour-long baking challenges. On top of that, the baking didn’t rise.
During a Mardi Gras-themed challenge on the episode that aired in March, Mason’s madeleines didn’t rise properly and she had to rush to make them again. As if that wasn’t enough, her second batch stuck to the mold after baking and freezing. Later, while preparing a vanilla cake with bourbon soak and praline buttercream, she had a panic attack.
Mason had to stop everything and get checked out by the show’s paramedic. But she didn’t go away. She got up and started again. Her fellow bakers rallied to support her and applaud the comeback. The judges applauded her persistence. One of them, Nancy Fuller, said Mason’s nut filling was the best she’d ever eaten.
“It says ‘Praline’ on it seven days a week,” she said, reaffirming Mason’s decision to stay in the game.
Personal victory wasn’t just about cake.
At first, Mason didn’t like the fact that her panic attack was being caught on camera. She later heard from viewers thanking her for showing her vulnerability.
At Mo & Jay Pastry, the Spring Baking Championship has proven to be a tasty, interactive exercise on food TV, especially for customers. Mason whipped up her recipes from competitive challenges the week after each show.
The results were more than decadent.
Hibiscus cake with spiced sorrel jam and orange zest hibiscus buttercream. Coconut rum, piña colada-inspired cupcakes. Mascarpone and amaretto cheesecake with an almond crust and red wine jelly. Honey black sesame cake, black sesame crunch and Swiss white chocolate meringue buttercream.
Meanwhile, Mason had to hide the fact that she had been winning for months — not only from the public, but from her husband as well. Yes, even while living together and working.
“I can’t buy all the champagne because then he’ll know,” she said before the finale aired.
Mohamad wore a #TeamJaleesa shirt at the bakery.
“I have a terrible poker face, so I hope he hasn’t figured it out yet,” she said.
Mason began filming the 10-week series in July. The show opened in February with Food Network’s “Girl Meets Farm” host Molly Yeh and the network’s fellow chefs, Kardea Brown (“Delicious Miss Brown”), Nancy Fuller (“Farmhouse Rules”) and Duff Goldman (“Ace of Cakes , Cake Masters, Duff Till Dawn) as judges.
The Jersey baker’s journey to Food Network fame began in Spanish Harlem, where she grew up. In high school, she transitioned from aspiring surgeon to pastry chef dreams. Mason did an internship at a hospital and found that medicine just wasn’t her thing. She loved to bake, but the art of professional pastry seemed too out of reach—she figured she’d need connections to get anywhere in the business.
At the insistence of her relatives, she decided to apply to a culinary school. While enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, she studied abroad in France, where the aspiring sugar artist took a course in sugar work. Little did she know that the course would be taught in French, but she was able to assert herself by closely observing the lecturer. On her second trip to France, she made lobster tail pastries, hunted for herbs, and met MOFs, or recipients of the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, a lauded award for French pastry chefs.
In 2014, six months before graduating and just before her 21st birthday, Mason met Mohamad, a French-trained chef. They both worked for the French bakery chain Maison Kayser in their New Jersey office – he was executive sous chef, she a pastry chef.
The couple started a business in 2016 selling wholesale gourmet madeleines from their home in Hackensack. But they spotted a demand for eclairs, so their French repertoire expanded. Soon they were also supplying macaroons, tarts and financiers.
After Mason and Al-Kassem opened Mo & Jay Pastry, a recruitment company working for Food Network contacted Mason via Instagram.
“When they sent me a direct message, I thought it was spam,” she says.
Then they called… and kept calling.
Locals have supported Mason’s run to the Spring Baking Championship. A council member visited the bakery to let them know that the city was hosting a final watch party Monday at the Little Falls Civic Center in honor of Mason.
She beamed when she learned that she would be baking a three-tier “heirloom” wedding cake in the final round. The confection should feature an embroidered design with lots of piping – one of their specialties.
“My strength is wedding cakes,” she says.
Mason plans to invest the $25,000 she won in bakery machines.
“Our goal is to get a second location for a cake shop so we have a lot more space to produce,” says Mason of the cake shop. Later they would like to expand to a second shop.
Mo & Jay has been a family affair since Mason and Al-Kassem opened the doors in November 2020.
“Up until a month ago we didn’t have childcare,” she says. “My kids were literally born and raised in this bakery.”
Their son Charlie, 4, is the resident taste tester. For his birthday in January, his mom made sure he got a custom megalodon shark cake modeled after the Monster Jam truck.
He is often his parents’ biggest critic.
“He’s hilarious,” says Mason.
The bakers use Charlie to find out what flavors kids like best.
“Our eclairs are our best sellers,” says Mason.
And talk about taste. Their 12 options range from fruit to chocolate to nuts. Pistachio is a bestseller. Such is the bakery’s Nutella-filled cookie.
Mason largely avoids the use of food coloring by sticking to natural ingredients, like when she used real hibiscus to make her hibiscus cake a deep purple on the show. The jury praised the results.
“This. Was. Outrageous,” Fuller said of the cake.
“I want to eat the whole thing,” Brown said.
Mason’s children were on her mind when she considered leaving the competition in the penultimate episode.
She was sure she’d be sent home for her mistakes anyway, like an underbaked cheesecake (the oven was too hot so she had to pull it out or the top would burn). But she remembered what happened when she had the panic attack – how she would have missed so much if she had stopped in the second episode.
“I wanted my kids to see that, too,” she says, and sticks to it. “I was thinking of her.”
Now she thinks more about the future.
“I also want to get back into teaching,” she says — sharing her skills at frosting cakes and working with gum paste.
Mason had never competed in baking competitions, let alone on television, prior to the Food Network series. The experience broadened and refreshed her skills.
“A lot of those flavors on the show I’ve never done before,” she says.
Making a Japanese cheesecake was daunting because she had never tried it. She also had to temper chocolate for the first time since cooking school.
Going through those trials only strengthened her resolve, says Mason:
“If you don’t make an effort, you don’t grow.”
How to see: “Spring Baking Championship‘ can be seen below watch.foodnetwork.com, Discovery Plus or the Food Network Go app.
Mo & Jay Pastry is at 44 Main St. in Little Falls (open Tuesday through Sunday), (347) 949-0881; moandjaypastry.com.
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Amy Kuperinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed by @AmyKup on twitter.