In a competition to create a holiday gingerbread structure with personal significance in just a few hours, what’s a Jew to do? Well, build something that appears on the side of our takeout containers on December 25, of course. The result was three towering tiers of a cookie pagoda, intricately iced with more detail than artifacts at the Smithsonian.
That task was just another day for the locally raised, nationally famous baker Lauren Katz, whose said sweet masterpiece helped her win ABC’s Great Holiday Baking Show this past winter. Katz crafted this masterpiece to “pay homage to the time-tested American-Jewish tradition of Chinese food on Christmas,” she said with an elfin glimmer in her eyes. “It was guarded by piped spritz cookie lions and had full cookie landscaping and koi ponds on either side.” It’s clear than the winning ingredients were sugar, spice and lots of chutzpah.
There’s plenty behind these gorgeous confections that Katz brings to the table. Raised in Northern Virginia, she and her family were active members of the local Jewish community. Keeping kosher at home, she looked forward to certain shopping trips—specifically, to the bakery. The rows of treats called out from behind the glass counter, and as a child, her favorite was a Purim original: poppy seed hamantashen. (Just a few weeks ago she taught families how to make them at the JCC of Northern Virginia.) These days, she goes for something a bit flashier (like that aforementioned cookie pagoda).
Growing up, Katz maintained an active role in Jewish life. She worked at a local JCC summer camp, led Birthright trips, spent many hours on tutoring other students for their bar/bat mitzvah and was a Jewish Campus Service Corps at the George Mason University Hillel.
What kept her going during all this work? Baking, of course. “It’s meals that bring us together, no matter what part of the community we come from,” she shares. And everyone’s favorite part is dessert. “Being Jewish is a huge part of my identity, and one of the main connections I have to our culture is through food.”
Especially after becoming an art teacher and then a mom, Katz expanded her love of crafting in the kitchen. But what’s most impressive is that she’s completely self-taught. This amateur’s only training was a degree in fine arts (painting and printmaking) from Virginia Commonwealth University. Since it’s not quite recommended to consume an acrylic-laden canvas, we’re all pretty lucky that Katz has taken this skill and applied it to something we can both see and taste.
Having spent lots of time cooking and baking for her family and friends, she started to enter competitive contests. She’s won more than 20 of them in the past few years, and not just for making holiday houses on national TV. She’s strutted her edible stuff on such diverse venues as The Gilroy Garlic Festival Cook-Off (second place for her “Glazed Garlic-Buttermilk Fried Chicken and Savory Waffled Grits”) and a spread in Woman’s Day magazine for a winning salted butterscotch-banana bundt cake.
In the end, though, what’s important for her is using her skill and passion for her children and her community. “I love baking challah, hamantashen, babka, blintzes, bialys, kugel, honey cake, rugelach and plenty more. I love hosting holiday meals at my house. In fact, my favorite meal of the year is the break-fast I host with friends at my home.”
“Keeping up our culinary traditions is of the utmost importance to me, and at the same time, I’m thrilled to be doing something that I truly love, and getting recognized for excellence (as an amateur) in such a competitive field!” For Katz, it’s a sweet dream come true.
Top photo: Lauren Katz with her cookie pagoda on ABC’s Great Holiday Baking Show.