The Los Angeles soundstage studio was surreal. Dozens of production members were manning the systems of sound and light-swirling cameras, adjusting angles, staging contestants. In Liz Rackoff's first attempt to open a tin of sugar on Food Network's Cupcake Wars, her shaky hands sent the lid flying across the stage.
"My nerves were going and the clock was ticking," she said. "Right from the get-go."
The show, titled "Cupcake of the Year," aired Sunday evening (yesterday), and will re-air on Tuesday at 6 p.m. on the Food Network.
About a year and a half prior to her first moments of stage fright, Rackoff was contacted by Food Network about her Vail Valley-based company, Batter Cupcakes.
As founder and head baker of her company, Rackoff had never watched Cupcake Wars, admitting that she was too busy making wedding batches and attending farmers' markets to sit and watch any episodes.
"I had heard about it but I was always busy running this one-woman show," she said. "I didn't really have time to watch other people make cupcakes."
Rackoff's cupcakes have certainly added some sweetness to the area. Founded in 2007, Batter Cupcakes specializes in high-altitude baking, offering what she described as "homemade products with elevated ingredients."
After a lengthy submission process, Rackoff was selected to compete in season four of Cupcake Wars, a show that been referred to as the "Iron Chef" of the cupcake world. Batter Cupcakes was the first company from Colorado to be selected for the show, giving Rackoff the opportunity to showcase her talents on national television.
"There's thousands of people who try out for this show every season," Rackoff said. "I really couldn't believe it, and it's such an honor to be chosen."
Although the L.A. set was not as quaint as Rackoff's small hired kitchen in Minturn - which she fondly refers to as the "cupcake factory" - she was still willing to bake outside the muffin-tin a little in the show's first 45-minute round.
"I really wanted to impress the judges, and I think people have been eliminated for playing it safe," Rackoff said. "I wanted to stand out."
With her Lychee Chocolate Tofu Cupcake, Rackcoff set no safety net.
The four competing cupcake companies on each episode must each choose at least three ingredients from the "inspiration table," come up with a recipe, prepare the batter and bake the cupcakes, allow them to cool, fill them and frost them, all within 45 minutes.
Rackoff chose chili paste, sesame oil, ginger and lychee for her "inspired" ingredients, and decided to keep the recipe unique with using tofu as a replacement for the standard additions of butter, eggs and oil.
"I was thinking will all of these unusual ingredients, why not complement that with a tofu cupcake?" Rackoff said. "Tofu makes cupcakes more moist than normal, and I thought it would be a great balance between sweet and savory."
The show's judges didn't seem to agree. The feedback for the tofu delight was three negatives to one positive, and Rackoff was eliminated after the first round.
"It was really sad. To lose in the first round is kind of devastating," she said. "I didn't really get to show the judges or the world what I am capable of, but I did give it my all and I didn't hold back anything."
She did hold back her award-winning and best-selling red velvet cupcake, however, which Rackoff assumed would be too obvious and safe for the episode, which was ironically themed with colors of red and gold to highlight the Chinese New Year - the Year of the Dragon.
"My first thought was red velvet, but nobody made it," she said. "Everybody knew better."
Most locals in Vail should know better than to avoid Rackoff's favorite: Red velvet. Batter Cupcakes are sold locally at Yeti's Grind in Vail and at Eat! Drink! in Edwards.
Rackoff also sells her cupcakes during summer months at the local farmers' markets, the Beaver Creek Rodeo, and at special events like the Taste of Vail and Gourmet on Gore. She makes cupcakes in countless dozens for weddings, baby showers, birthdays and corporate events, and stays active in donations and fundraising efforts for the community.
"I like to stay involved with the community here and give back to them," Rackoff said. "They have supported me and I would have never ended up on Cupcake Wars if the community didn't support me and allow me to build-up my business."
Rackoff said anticipation for watching the show did not evoke nerves, but excitement. She said that competing was the hardest part, and the rest is just the frosting on top.
"I know the recipe was adventurous and challenging, and the show demonstrates how Batter Cupcakes really can use elevated ingredients and even adhere to certain dietary restrictions," Rackoff said. "I think this show has given me the confidence to take this business to the next level with new ventures, new recipes, new products, and even in creating new treats beyond cupcakes."
Visit Batter Cupcakes at battercupcakes.com.