Duff Goldman Brings A Taste Of Space To His Cakes - Exclusive Interview

Watch out, because the Ace of Cakes is turning into the Ace of Space. You probably know Duff Goldman from his time on Food Network's "Ace of Cakes" or more recent hosting gigs on shows like "Kids Baking Championship" and "Halloween Cookie Challenge," but the affable owner of Charm City Cakes has also had a lifelong appreciation for NASA. For the second year in a row, Goldman is getting to live out his space dreams by baking an out-of-this-world dessert for The Kennedy Space Center Complex's Taste of Space event.

In an exclusive interview with Goldman, we talked about what it was like to pose with the actual rocket he modeled one of his space-themed creations on. Since it's spooky season (and autumn baking season), we also asked him for his sweetest Halloween tips and the fall desserts he's most obsessed with. He shared some autumn pastry knowledge that you're going to want to use in your baking this season — we guarantee it.

Why the space program is so inspiring

Do you have any childhood memories of space food or spaceflight?

Yeah, in the '80s we went to a shuttle launch when we were really small and my brother went to space camp. We're both huge science fiction guys. When I was first asked to do the Taste of Space last year, I jumped at the chance, because I love NASA. I love rockets and space. It's really cool. Getting to go down there and then getting a behind-the-scenes look at what happens only made me 10 times more of a massive fan of the space program that we have here, because you're seeing people who are crafting the future. We went to one of the labs where there are astrobotanists who are developing all of the crops that we're going to grow in space.

[We got to see] what their process was, understanding what the human body needs for survival ... even with the best-preserved foods, we can only hold this stuff for so long before it starts to degrade. If we want to get out there, we have to grow food in space.

That's the only way that this can happen, because we cannot preserve those vital vitamins and minerals and all the things that the body needs. They degrade over time, and you have to grow the food in space, and that blew my mind to think about. Here are people that are doing research for stuff that's going to happen probably after I'm dead. It's so cool, man. Getting to walk in ... You go in and you're standing underneath a space shuttle that's hanging from the ceiling. It's crazy. My enthusiasm for everything I was seeing while I was down there, the organizers responded to it and they were like, "Obviously, Duff loves it here," so they invited us back, which was really nice.

Fun with rockets and favorite fall flavors

What was the inspiration for the cake you made for the event?

Last year, we made a replica of the Artemis rocket and the launch was delayed, so when we got down there with the cake, the rocket was still sitting on the launch pad, and so I said to one of the guys, "What are the chances you could get us out there with the cake and we can take a picture in front of the rocket?" He was like, "Let me see what I can do." They had to call the Pentagon and get permission, and so they did. They called and they were like, "We want to take the cake guy out there and take a picture of his cake in front of the rocket. Can we do it?" They said, "Yeah." We drove out in a van and unloaded the cake, put it right in the middle of the street, right in front of the rocket, and then we got to pose with it. It was amazing.

This year, I'm inspired by fall flavors. It was a long, hot summer and I'm excited to get back into ginger and cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves and all that good stuff. I'm making some white chocolate ginger snap cookies with crystallized ginger on top, and these are some of the best cookies I make. The texture's amazing. They're really soft, and they have big ginger flavor. They're delicious.

Speaking of fall flavors, what are the dishes that you love to make for Thanksgiving?

My mom makes this every year and it's just for me, because I'm the only one that likes it: oyster stuffing. I love it and nobody else does, which I don't understand. It's great.

I grew up on Cape Cod. We grew up on the water in Massachusetts. We ate a lot of seafood. Where we grew up, it's the town next to Plymouth where the pilgrims landed in the first place, and we got some pretty authentic Thanksgivings happening there. We grow cranberry. The town where I grew up was cranberry country. I like cranberry sauce in the can, and I like oyster stuffing.

Creative uses for canned cranberrry sauce

Is the canned cranberry superior to chunky cranberry sauce?

I say yes, and I'll tell you why. There is a ... ritual to opening a can of cranberry sauce. You take the top off, but then you have to poke a hole in the back, because it's the vacuum. You poke a hole, then it comes out, and it's so beautiful. It's that deep, dark pink color, and then when you slice it, it's such a visceral pleasure to cut it. I like making cranberry sauce. I make very good cranberry sauce. I put some orange zest in there, I put a good amount of sugar in there, and a little bit of salt. I make it good, but the stuff in the can, it's just cranberries and sugar, there's nothing weird in there, and I like it. I like the texture of it. I like how smooth it is.

Have you ever used it in a cake or a cookie?

Oh, yeah. We have a cranberry walnut cake at Charm City Cakes. I've used it for thumbprint cookies. You take it and you got to mash it up and get it soft again, and then you can pipe it into the cookie.

I wonder if you could make a Newton with it, like a cranberry Newton. The thing about Fig Newtons is that the filling in Fig Newtons has crushed-up crispy cookies in it, and that is what thickens it up and keeps it from running out. I wonder, if you were going to do it with cranberries, if you would need to crush up cookies and thicken that stuff because I'm not sure ... By itself, it's going to melt.

Duff Goldman's favorite ways to use booze in desserts

I've been following the "Halloween Cookie Challenge," and I saw a spirits-themed episode recently. What is your favorite booze application in food or desserts?

That's a good question. One of the desserts that was such a precursor to everything that I do is a baked Alaska, because there's such showmanship involved. It really is a presentation, and I enjoy the pyrotechnic aspects of what you can do with alcohol in food. You can light things on fire, and that's great. I like things on fire.

As far as flavors go, Grasshoppers are really good for desserts. White Russians are really good for desserts. Kahlua makes everything taste delicious. Kahlua is the pastry chef's little secret. You'll find this a lot with hotel pastry chefs in bigger hotels. Kahlua is something that you put into desserts, generally creamy things, and you don't tell people that it's in there because it's not a lot, but just enough that when you taste it, you're like, "God, this is good. What am I tasting? What is that? This is delicious." Just a little Kahlua. If you're making something savory and you can't figure out why it's not as good as you want it to be, you add bacon and corn and then all of a sudden it's so much better.

You're making a crème brulee, put [Kahlua] in there. You make some buttercream, put it in there. Literally anything — a chocolate pot du crème, put some Kahlua in there, just a little bit. You don't need a lot, and it's not for the alcohol. Whatever the flavor balance that the people who make Kahlua have figured out, it's a well-designed flavor that tastes good to us. It pushes all the right buttons.

The best and worst Halloween candy

What's your favorite Halloween treat?

Reese's, probably. That's a well-crafted candy. The saltiness of the peanut butter is perfect, the chocolate's usually tempered really well so you get a good snap on it, and you have different thicknesses of chocolate too. Around the edges, it's a little thicker, so you get a snap. On the bottom, it's really thin, so when it's in your mouth, you can move it with your tongue. The chocolate is so thin. The flavor of it is great, but they've really delivered texture-wise. It's such a pleasure to eat. I can eat Reese's peanut butter cups like potato chips.

Are you pro or anti-candy corn?

I am pretty anti-candy corn. It's the second to last thing to go. When you have a big bag of Halloween candy, you're eating all the Twizzlers, Snickers, all this stuff. When the Smarties are gone and when the Nerds are gone, the only thing left is going to be candy corn and Hershey's Special Dark. Nobody likes it. You have to sit there and it's like, "Do I feel like eating the crappy chocolate or the crappy sugar thing? These are the two things that I have left." It's so sad. I'm going to eat them, but it signals the end.

Is there any discontinued candy you remember from your youth that you wish was still around?

[Goldenberg's] Peanut Chews. They still exist, but they got bought by [Just Born, Inc.]. I'm not sure if they're as good, but when I was growing up, they were great. Good roasty peanuts inside.

Do you remember [Big Cherries]? It's like a big chocolate thing with a cherry cordial filling inside. Those are really good. If you're really into candy, there's a great book called "Candy Freak," and it's this guy that loves all the old discontinued candies, and he talks a lot about the history of where a lot of these things came from and why candies were designed specific ways because they were trying to ship these things before refrigeration. It's really cool. It's a fascinating history, but it's also a great catalog of a lot of candies that we don't see anymore.

How to make an easy Halloween show-stopper

If somebody's trying to make a flashy dessert this Halloween, do you have any pointers?

I would look into some relatively easy decorations that look really impressive. One of the best ones that people can do is either melt chocolate or melt some sugar, color it, and then get a big stainless steel bowl and fill it with ice, and then pour the chocolate right onto the ice, and it makes these crazy shapes. You pour the hot sugar into the ice and it drips down and it does this whole thing. That's one that people can do at home that's pretty easy and it makes a really good decoration. If you're talking about flavor, don't be afraid of purchasing one of the elements of a dessert that you want to make. For example, really close to me, there's a Persian grocery store and they have the best frozen puff pastry I've ever used.

The stuff you can get at the regular grocery store is fine, but the stuff at the Persian market is beautiful puff pastry. There is no reason for me to make it. All I have to do is make a delicious chocolate mousse or a delicious pumpkin apple compote thing, and then I can make a vol-au-vent with my store-bought beautiful puff pastry, and people are going to be like, "Oh my God, I love getting a dessert from TV's Duff Goldman." It's the same thing with phyllo dough, too. Those Persian grocery stores make really good phyllo dough. Don't think that you're cheating because you're not. I do it. I'm not making puff pastry. I know how to make puff pastry. I make fantastic puff pastry. I know how to make phyllo dough. I make very good phyllo dough. I'm not going to do it because I have a whole house of people that I have to cook for.

Duff's favorite meal of 2023

What is the best meal you've eaten so far this year?

I was in Newfoundland, Canada. There is a festival there called Roots, Rants, and Roars, and it is the easternmost point of North America. It's amazing out there. There are puffins and icebergs. It is the most beautiful country, the most wonderful people, and I go every year to this festival. I've been eight years now. Every year, I make something savory. It's my chance to make food for people and not just cakes.

This year, I wanted to do something that combined Los Angeles, where I live now, and Newfoundland, so I was like, "Why don't I make carnitas, but instead of using pork, I'll use a moose?" Somebody up there shot a moose and I got like 48 pounds of moose meat, and I made legit carnitas — oranges, cloves, Coca-Cola, onions, really did it right. I slow-cooked it in lard for about three hours, and then ... back to our other conversation about the puff pastry, instead of making tortillas — I make really good tortillas, but there's a market here in LA called Vallarta, a Latin American market, and I bought probably 600 tortillas, and I froze them and I brought them to Canada. The people that make the tortillas at Vallarta, they know what they're doing, and they're fantastic.

Favorite meal of 2023 (ctd.)

I brought those tortillas, and then, kind of like a birria taco, I dipped the tortilla in the lard that I cooked the moose in, but then I put it on the griddle and I fried it a little bit. You chop up the moose, and you fry that in a pan till it gets crispy. I got all these tortillas on a flat top that are getting nice and warm and sucking up all the juice, and then I made some pickled onions and a spicy cheese sauce and a few other condiments, and I made moose carnitas tacos. The people that organized the festival, one of the guys sent me a text message later, he's like, "I'm still thinking about those tacos." They were so good. They were so juicy and delicious. They were great.

Did the moose give a little bit of funkiness to the carnitas?

I thought that they would, but honestly, because there was a good amount of Coca-Cola in there ... I put in a lot more than the recipe called for, and it really wasn't as gamey as you'd think it would be. Gamey things, when you make them sweet, they taste better, and I added a healthy amount of cola and it makes it nice and sweet and broken down. Moose can be a little funky. I don't think it's as funky as venison, though. Pork can be a little funky. That's why a pork-based recipe would work so well for moose.

What Duff is looking forward to baking this Thanksgiving

Are you planning any Thanksgiving baking?

Oh, man. Yeah. I got a lot of stuff on the docket. Thanksgiving, it's really nice because it's pretty potluck. My mom will make stuff, my in-laws will make stuff — my mother-in-law usually makes the turkey, and she's great at it. I generally handle pie and cornbread and cookies — anything that's baked, I always make. There is a fantastic recipe from the Food Network and it's their Parker House roll recipe. They are delicious. I baste with a lot more butter than the recipe calls for. It's so good, and you really have to let them proof for a while.

You got to let them get nice and big and fluffy. That's when you get that pillowy, beautiful roll. I have to make those every year or people get mad.

Is that after forming, that you really have to let him sit the second time?

Yeah. You make your dough and then you bulk ferment. You let it ferment, the big chunk of it, then you cut it up into pieces, roll little rolls, and then you put the rolls in a bigger pan and let them expand and get nice and big. Put a lot of butter in the bottom of the pan. Right before they go in the oven, you want to brush them with some butter, and then a few times while they're in there, brush them with a little bit more butter and then ... I'm not a huge, fancy salt guy, it's not something that I really try to push on people, but a little bit of flake salt, that really crispy, flaky salt. Put a few grains on each one. That's all you need, just a little bit. It's such a nice little unexpected twist. Those rolls are fantastic. You can also add a little bit more sugar than the recipe calls for, too.

A surprising ingredient to upgrade pecan pie

Any pies you're planning?

I'll let you in on a secret, and I just discovered this last year, but I found that the real trick to a delicious pecan pie is don't use corn syrup. Use golden syrup.

The texture, the flavor — I ran out of corn syrup, but I had a lot of golden syrup from a demo I did, and I was like, "I can probably use that." I use that instead. As soon as I took a bite, I was instantly transported to when I was a kid, and I remember that is what pecan pie is supposed to taste like. It's not gloopy. It's not cloyingly sweet. Corn syrup has almost a petroleum consistency to it. Corn syrup is great for some stuff, but I find that if you're going to make a pecan pie, golden syrup is the way to go. If you can't find it, you can also take out a third or maybe even a fifth of your corn syrup and add a little maple syrup, but too much is too much. If it's all maple syrup, it's too much, but if you replace a small percentage of your corn syrup, that'll thin it out a little bit and also give it a more interesting flavor.

You can watch Duff Goldman do a live cooking demo and taste his space-themed desserts at the Kennedy Space Center's Taste of Space: Celebrity Chef Edition event in Merritt Island, Florida on November 3.

This interview has been edited for clarity.