Bake It Up a Notch!

Food52 Resident Erin Jeanne McDowell Shares Her Pie Prowess on Netflix

The 'Bake It Up a Notch' host gives us the scoop on 'The Great Big Nailed It Challenge.'

August  4, 2023
Photo by Ty Mecham

Erin Jeanne McDowell arrived in Food52's test kitchen over a decade ago to work as a food stylist, and within weeks, she became our go-to baking expert. Her complete mastery of pie-making and ability to make technical bakes like croissants seem easy was instantly endearing. Her fans grew as she authored three cookbooks and became the host of the Food52 video series, Bake It Up a Notch, which includes over 60 episodes, and just began streaming on Delta flights. Now Erin is about to widen her audience again with her role in the new Netflix show, The Big Nailed It! Baking Challenge.

Filming started right after Erin and her husband moved from the New York area to Kansas City, Mo., but the opportunity was too good to pass up. Unlike many culinary shows, she wasn't there to judge the amateur bakers, but rather, to coach them throughout the season. It allowed her to do what she loves: teach others how to bake with confidence. “It was exactly what I wanted to do because that's really who I am first, a teacher," said Erin. "I really want more people to bake.”

Right after she wrapped her latest season of Bake It Up A Notch (and blew everyone in the office away with the numerous pies she made while filming), I caught up with Erin before the Netflix show premiere. Here, she shares the background scoop on the series, how she first began working with Food52, and why making mistakes is the best way to become a better baker. Keep scrolling to read all about it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nicole Davis: You became a community member of Food52 in 2009, and your original handle was apartmentcooker. Tell me more about what you were doing at the time.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: When I first graduated from pastry school, I had a blog called The Apartment Kitchen. When I was a student, I had access to all of these beautiful kitchens, but now I was moving into my first apartment and only had a bowl and a fork—that was all I had. So it was both about learning to cook in my new kitchen, but I would also profile equipment as I got it. And I was so broke that I was literally scouting out Le Creuset at garage sales. In 2009, shortly after Food52 started, my boss at the time—I was an editorial assistant for a cookbook publishing group—emailed me saying, "You know they're having recipe competitions and if you win, you win things like Le Creuset pots." So, I started entering the community recipe competitions way back in 2009 and I won a couple!

That was a big deal because I did win my coveted Le Creuset pot that I had been wanting for a long time. Then, when I moved down to New York, I sent a blank email to [email protected] and I said, "Hey, I've been a user of the site for a long time" and introduced myself.

One day somebody called in sick in the test kitchen, they needed help, and I was on the list of people who'd said, “Hey, I live here now, would you ever want me to come in the kitchen?”—that's how I started working at Food52 [around 2013]. Then, eventually, the first thing they asked me to write about was pie.

ND: Because they tasted one of yours?

EJM: Well, when I walked in [on that first day after someone had called in sick], I was so nervous because my specialty was pastry. When you're food styling, you obviously have to do both culinary and sweet things, but it's usually more culinary stuff, and I was very good at it, but I just didn't have the same confidence as I did in my baking skills. It was one of the very first Shop shoots ever, and [the test kitchen director] came up to me, kind of flustered, and said “I'm so sorry, we should have warned you, but all we're doing today are cakes and pies.” And I was like, “Oh my God, thank God…I could do this every day with my eyes closed. Give it to me.” So, from that very first day, they realized that I knew my stuff about pie. It took a couple of weeks after that, but one of the editors said, “Can you please write about how to make pie filling?” and it went from there. It was meant to be.

ND: And now fast forward to the Netflix show—did you see that coming?

EJM: Well, I had the opportunity for a few different roles on TV and they just weren't the right fit. I kept being offered to be a judge for some kind of competition show and anyone who knows me knows that's the last thing I want to do—tell somebody that their baking isn't good enough or that they have to go home because they didn't bake something right.

When the creators of this Netflix series came to me, they told me that my role would be as a baking mentor and coach for the competitors on the show. I felt like the sky opened up. It was exactly what I wanted to do because that's really who I am first: a teacher. I really want more people to bake. I want people to fall in love with baking. On this particular show, I'm not responsible for sending anybody home. I just teach them different baking lessons and coach them through their challenges.

People are literally frosting cakes with their hands, so obviously I had to teach them that was not the right way.

It's really amazing because I think a lot of people think of the original Nailed It! [as being] about people who aren't strong bakers coming in and attempting something that professional bakers have made. This show is really about saying, “Hey, you can come on here and not know anything about baking, but in a few weeks, we can train you to the point that you do.”

Just like the original Nailed It! there are a lot of laughs along the way. I don't know if you saw it in the trailer, but people are literally frosting cakes with their hands, so obviously I had to teach them that was not the right way. And Nicole Byer is the host, so it is inherently hilarious. That was the hardest part for me. I was not used to being around somebody who could say something truly so hilarious and then move right on to another line—I was sometimes still laughing. It was a really wonderful journey and it's really a cool story. Watch until the end and people are going to be amazed by what they see. I'm so excited to watch it. I can't wait.

ND: Do you have any watch party plans with your family?

EJM: My family asked if they could host some kind of watch party. The thing is—since I've never been on TV before and I'm truly so nervous—my husband and I have a plan to have a private partial binge-watch party just ourselves the day it comes out. Then I think over the weekend I am going to go see some of my niblings—my nieces and nephews—and I am hoping we'll get to watch them together. I think they're going to be the ones that get the biggest kick out of it for sure.

ND: I crowdsourced questions on our YouTube channel and people wrote all the things that they wanted to learn about you. Here’s the first one: Do you have any favorite fall baking recipes?

EJM: I mean, I obviously love to mark the passing of time with pie! So there are tons of fall pies that I have on Food52. I did a cool thing years back of traditional Thanksgiving pies that were galettes instead. I had a pecan galette and a pumpkin galette, and I think that those are actually really interesting and nice for anyone who is still intimidated by pie because those are a freeform pie.

Another one that is really popular, and has been for years on Food52, is my soft pretzel recipe. For me, that is such a good fall recipe. We did an episode of Bake It Up a Notch on it, and it was fun because I had posted that recipe to Food52 years ago and we finally got to do a video on it and really show people how easy and achievable it was. I think that [recipe is] probably one of the most I've seen people making and tagging me in, saying that they got the recipe on Food52.

ND: What was the most intimidating thing to make when you first started baking?

EJM: It's interesting, a lot of the things that intimidated me the most now, I love to preach about how easy they are for people. I was very intimidated by things like croissants in the beginning. I was very intimidated by macarons. [But now] I'll literally say over and over again, “You can do it. Trust me. I thought this was hard too.”

One of the biggest things to remember is, there's some cannon advice: Read the whole recipe all the way through before you start, maybe even a couple of times. Read it the day before you're going to make it, read it before you go to the grocery store to get stuff, treat it like the instructional manual for the piece of furniture you got from Ikea or something—one look is not going to be sufficient.

Also, remember that we learn a lot from mistakes. One thing that I encourage people to do who love to bake, but get intimidated easily, is to keep a little notebook in the kitchen and actually use it to keep track of their mistakes. It can feel kind of awful in the moment—like, “Oh God, my pumpkin pie just cracked. I don't really want to write that down.”—but the next time you go to make pumpkin pie, you'll remember you baked it too long because it cracked. Sometimes you need to make a little mistake and learn from it.

ND: Who inspired you to bake?

EJM: My mom and my paternal grandmother, Grandma Jeanne. That's why I use my full name whenever I'm writing and introducing myself, Erin Jeanne McDowell, because Jeanne McDowell was the woman who helped me kind of fall in love with pie, and bread, too.

I really credit my grandma in large part for so much of what I do. She passed away before I was ever really published, [which is] one of the reasons why I use my full name in everything—I just want to be giving her a shout-out everywhere I go.

My mom is a truly amazing cook and baker. Growing up she was the kind of mom who made everything from scratch. The house always smelled amazing and there was always homemade stuff in the fridge, or on the counter. People wanted her stuff at the bake sales and she was known in the schoolroom amongst my friends for the things she would pack me for lunch. They had extremely high trade value—I could get two Oreos for a single chip with her salsa on it.

My grandma was also a very good cook and baker, but not in the same way as my mom. My mom, I would say, is a pretty confident cook and baker in a lot of ways, and was always learning new skills and trying new recipes. My grandma was a little bit more scared to try new things and maybe didn't even realize what a good cook she was. But when I started to fall in love with baking as a teenager, it was a lot less intimidating to do it in my grandma's kitchen than it was in my mom's. Grandma didn't really care if I left it messy, it was just a different experience.

I would come over and we would bake pies and loaves of bread together and then eat them together. We'd play cards or Scrabble while they were chilling or baking. We started trying new things and mashing things up, so not only did I fall in love with baking, but I also fell in love with recipe testing and recipe development in her kitchen.

I really credit my grandma in large part for so much of what I do. She passed away before I was ever really published, [which is] one of the reasons why I use my full name in everything—I just want to be giving her a shout-out everywhere I go. I imagine she can feel it wherever she is. I have a hashtag that I always use when I talk about my grandma online, #hopethereswhippedcreamupthere. I just always like to think of her in a room full of pies with all the whipped cream and zero calories. That it's just the happiest place wherever she is. A place where everything's always in season, rhubarb year-round, cherries year-round, just the perfect place.

Read more of Erin's answers to your baking questions on the Food52 YouTube channel.

What is your favorite Erin Jeanne McDowell recipe? Let us know in the comments!

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Nicole Davis

Written by: Nicole Davis

Contributing Editor, Food52

1 Comment

Eddie August 7, 2023
I binge watched the series this weekend. I’m glad Erin waited for the right role because she was perfect for it. She displayed all the characteristics that make Bake It Up A Notch such a pleasure to watch.