The timing couldn’t have been worse when Jaleesa Mason was invited to compete in Food Network’s “Spring Baking Championship.”
She had just given birth to her daughter, Olive, and was still on maternity leave from her bakery. How could she drop everything, 11 weeks after giving birth, and go to Tennessee to film a reality competition with 11 bakers?
“It was crazy,” Mason told 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 had a different response:
Almost a year later, she’s glad she took his advice. Mason wowed the judges with her ornate spring wedding cake in the contest finale, which aired Monday night, and won not only the title of Spring Baking Champion, but also $25,000 (minus tax) .
And she left with something else: the knowledge that persistence can pay off, especially when you think you’re depressed.
“The most important thing he said to me was, ‘You can’t give up,'” says Mason, 28.
Bloomfield’s pastry chef is Jay in Mo & Jay Pastry, the French bakery in Little Falls that she co-owns with her husband, Mohamad Al-Kassem. She also makes personalized cakes like Sweet Memories by Jaleesa.
To be sure, the baking contest wasn’t all sprinkles and sugar. There were times when quitting the competition early seemed like the most practical course of action, Mason says. Like in the second episode of the series, when she reached 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 sustain her energy through hours of cooking challenges. On top of everything else, the cooking was not working.
During a Mardi Gras-themed challenge in the episode, which aired in March, Mason’s madeleines didn’t rise properly and she had to scramble to make them again. If that wasn’t enough, his second batch stuck to the mold after baking and freezing. Later, while baking vanilla cake with bourbon and praline buttercream, she had a panic attack.
Mason had to stop everything and get checked out by the show’s doctor. But she didn’t walk away. She got up and started again. Her fellow bakers rallied in support, applauding the comeback. The judges applauded his tenacity. One, Nancy Fuller, said Mason’s nut filling was the best she had ever tasted.
“It says ‘praline’ seven days a week,” she said, confirming Mason’s decision to stay in the game.
Personal victory was not just a matter of cake.
Mason didn’t like at first that his panic attack was captured by cameras. Later, she heard from viewers who thanked her for showing vulnerability.
At Mo & Jay Pastry, the “Spring Baking Championship” has proven to be a tasty and interactive exercise in food television, especially for customers. Mason concocted his recipes from the competition challenges the week after each show.
The results were more than decadent.
Hibiscus cake made with spicy sorrel jam and hibiscus buttercream with orange zest. Coconut rum, piña colada cupcakes. Amaretto mascarpone cheesecake with almond crust and red wine jelly. Black sesame cake with honey and black sesame seed crunch and white chocolate Swiss meringue buttercream.
In the meantime, Mason had to conceal the fact that she had won for months, not only from the public, but also from her husband. Yes, even living together and running the business.
“I can’t go 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 premiered in February with Food Network’s “Girl Meets Farm” host Molly Yeh and fellow network stars 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 road to Food Network fame began in Spanish Harlem, where she grew up. In high school, she went from an aspiring surgeon to baking dreams. Mason interned at a hospital and realized that medicine just wasn’t his thing. She loved to cook, but the art of professional baking seemed too out of reach—she thought she would need connections to get anywhere in the business.
At the request of her relatives, she decides to apply for the cooking 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. She didn’t know that the class would be taught in French, but she managed to understand by watching the instructor closely. On her second trip to France, she made lobster tail batter, fetched herbs and met MOFs, or recipients of the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, a much-vaunted honor for French pastry chefs.
In 2014, six months before graduating and just before he turned 21, Mason met Mohamad, a classically trained chef in France. They both worked for the French bakery chain Maison Kayser at his New Jersey commissary — he was an executive sous chef, she was a pastry chef.
The couple started a business in 2016 wholesale gourmet madeleines from their flat in Hackensack. But they discovered a demand for the éclairs, so their French repertoire expanded. Soon they will also provide macaroons, pies and financiers.
After Mason and Al-Kassem opened Mo & Jay Pastry, a staffing firm working for Food Network reached out to Mason via Instagram.
“When they DMed me, I thought it was spam,” she says.
Then they called…and kept calling.
The locals supported Mason’s run for the “Spring Baking Championship”. A member of council drove up to the bakery to tell them the city was having a final watch party Monday at the Little Falls Civic Center in Mason’s honor.
She beamed when she learned she would be making a three-tier “legacy” wedding cake in the final round. The tailoring had to feature an embroidered design with lots of piping – one of his specialties.
“My forte is wedding cakes,” she says.
Mason plans to invest the $25,000 she earned in baking equipment.
“Our goal is to get a second location for a commissary so we have a lot more space to produce,” Mason says of the bakery. Further down the line, they would like to expand to a second storefront.
Mo & Jay has been a family affair since Mason and Al-Kassem opened the doors in November 2020.
“We didn’t have daycare until a month ago,” she says. “My children were literally born and raised in this bakery.”
Their son, Charlie, 4, is the resident taster. For his birthday in January, his mom made sure he got a custom Megalodon shark cake inspired by the Monster Jam truck.
He is often his parents’ biggest critic.
“He’s hilarious,” Mason said.
Bakers roll out Charlie to figure out which flavors kids will like best.
“Our eclairs are our biggest sellers,” Mason says.
And talk about flavor. Their 12 options range from fruits to chocolate and nuts. The pistachio is a bestseller. The same goes for the Nutella stuffed cookie from the bakery.
Mason largely avoids using food coloring by sticking to natural ingredients, like when she used actual hibiscus to make her dark purple hibiscus cake on the show. The judges praised the results.
“That. was. outrageous,” Fuller said of the cake.
“I want to eat it all,” Brown said.
Mason’s children were on her mind when she contemplated quitting the competition in the penultimate episode.
She was sure she would be sent home anyway for her mistakes, like an underbaked cheesecake (the oven was too hot, so she had to take it out or the top would burn). But she remembered what happened when she had the panic attack – how she would have missed it so much if she had stopped it in the second episode.
“I wanted my kids to see that too,” she says of sticking to it. “I was thinking of them.”
Now she thinks more about the future.
“I also want to get back into teaching,” she says, sharing her skills in frosting cakes and working with gum paste.
Mason had never been in anything baking-related, let alone televised, before the Food Network series. The experience stretched and refreshed his skills.
“A lot of these flavors on the show, I’ve never done before,” she said.
Making a Japanese cheesecake was intimidating because she had never tried it. She also had to temper chocolate for the first time since cooking school.
Going through these hardships only strengthened her resolve, Mason says:
“If you don’t push yourself, you don’t grow.”
How to watch: Food Network’s “Spring Baking Championship”» can be seen at watch.foodnetwork.com, Discovery More 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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