Zac Young Spills Spooky Secrets About Halloween Baking Championship - Exclusive Interview

It's officially spooky season, which means it's time for spooky treats. There are so many ways to get creative this season, from the classic apple pie to desserts wrapped in meat to look like intestines. If you are a Halloween enthusiast and need a break from television's iconic "Halloweentown," then "Halloween Baking Championship" may be your new favorite show. The series features top bakers battling it out to create scary but mouthwatering desserts. With the show now on its 8th season, judge Zac Young is here to tell all.

In an exclusive interview with Mashed, Young revealed his favorite costumes from the show thus far, the baking tactic he can't stand, and his best Halloween party tips. The pastry chef gave details on his chocolate cauldron pudding cups recipe and how to repurpose store-bought cakes for a spooky twist. The Food Network star is just in time, with the holiday season just around the corner, as he even spilled his top tricks (or treats) for Thanksgiving desserts. That pumpkin pie is already calling our name.

Halloween Baking Championship judging and Young's favorite costume

Fans are halfway through "Halloween Baking Championship." What has your relationship been like with judges Carla Hall and Stephanie Boswell?

We call "Halloween Baking Championship" summer camp. Carla, John, and I — it's our favorite time of year to be together. Carla and I have been friends for 10 years, and Stephanie slid right into our dynamic, and John Henson, too. The four of us are a quartet. Not only do we sit there [and] spend all day on set together, [but] Carla, Steph, and I do our hair and makeup together as opposed to in our separate rooms. It's so much more fun to do it together. And then, as if shooting all day isn't enough, we get dinner afterwards. Depending on the day, it could be a very light dinner. It's really the best few weeks of the year.

In many ways, it feels like community theater. Let's put on a show. That's the heart of the judges, and the costumes, and the makeup. If we had a huge budget and months, I don't think it would be as fun. Part of it is the development of the costumes, and the hair and makeup, which is really happening on the fly.

What has been your favorite Halloween costume thus far?

I loved Bob Ross. It's a collaborative approach to costume ideas, and the producers actually came up with Bob Ross. Growing up, clearly, I watched Bob Ross. I watched Julia Child. It was all PBS because that was the station that came in. It was really fun, and then Lucy, my makeup artist, took it to the next level. I looked in the mirror after she was done. I had the blue shirt on, and I was like, "Oh my gosh." I did a side-by-side on my phone of Bob Ross and me, and it was actually mind-blowing.

How contestants surprise Young on Halloween Baking Championship

How long does it normally take for [the judges] to get ready?

Anywhere from three to four hours.

So you guys are together a lot, then.

We are, yeah. While the bakers are baking, we're getting ready. But actually, time flies, it goes so quickly. On the other baking shows, while the bakers are baking, you don't really have anything to do. I'm sitting in my dressing room eating chips, normally. On "Halloween Baking Championship," we go right from round one into hair and makeup. Round two, we have that three, four hours to get ready, and then keep going. The days can be long, but they go really fast.

Is there a time on the show where a contestant totally surprised you?

I feel like season over season ... This is my sixth season. Just when you think you've seen everything — how many bat brownies can I see? — the bakers come out with new ideas, new items, new styles of decorating. Every season, I see something that I haven't seen before. This season of bakers, too, they are so incredibly strong. They each have their own identity and personality, which I love, and I love the way they all approach the challenges from their own perspective.

Do you tend to enjoy more gory kinds of stuff when it comes to cake? Or do you prefer the classic Halloween, with pumpkins, ghosts, witches, that kind of thing?

It comes down to perspective and creativity. I like to see something that I haven't seen before. I think gore, if done well, is great, but gore can also be messy. It's an easy cover-all of "Let's just spatter some blood on it. Let's cover our mistakes with blood." But I love when contestants have come in and given us anime characters, graphic novel illustrations, or crazy chocolate work ... in two-and-a-half, three hours. It's very impressive.

The one thing Young can't stand on Halloween Baking Championship

How would you describe your judging style as a whole?

I'm really glad that Stephanie is there because I feel like I was the Simon Cowell for a lot of seasons. Now, I feel like I can be the Paula Abdul, which is really who I am. As a judge, I know what it's like to be on the other side of that table. I've competed. I competed long before I started judging. Not only am I a working pastry chef, [but] I've also been there. I've been under that pressure in a strange kitchen, the nerves, et cetera. I can sympathize with their experience and talk them through that experience [of] how to navigate this kind of competitive baking, which is completely different. Normally, pastry chefs, we're used to our own kitchens. We know our ovens. We have all the tools and all the ingredients that we need, and we have all the time that we need.

I also know all the cheats and tricks, and I have no problem calling them out on them.

Can you give me one example of some advice that you've given a contestant?

Coating chocolate. I think everyone knows how I feel about coating chocolate, which is great at home. It's very fun to play with. It's a great way to make characters, to make cake pops, et cetera. But in the baking kitchen, [for] these pastry chefs, it's just as fast to temper some chocolate versus melting coating chocolate.

That's one of my nitpicky things that I bring up every season. But it's also like, hey, you can microwave temper regular chocolate. It's not going to be as perfect as if you tempered it properly, but for our purposes, it's much more tasty and much more representative of what you want to put forward as a pastry chef.

Young shares a funny behind-the-scenes story and Halloween party tips

Were there any behind-the-scenes mishaps that probably didn't make it onto the show that you could share?

[For] my topiary costume, the hedge maze topiary costume, I was in a giant plant pot and had the leaves wrapping up me and covering my face. I didn't think about it, no one thought about it, [but] I have to walk out and then sit down. No one thought about that until I walked out and then looked at my chair and realized, "I can't sit down." So they ended up cutting out a little bit of the back of the plant pot. I was able to lean on a stool for the entire judging, which took probably two-and-a-half hours.

Say you're throwing a Halloween party. Considering you're a pastry chef, what treats would you make?

Don't forget the savory. When you think of Halloween, you think about candy. And I love the drugstore favorites. That was all of our childhood. I have absolutely no problem leaving that for dessert, and doing fun things with the savory food. So, pizza roll intestines. There's a lot you can do with a charcuterie board. You literally have meat. I personally think it's fun to play on the savory side of Halloween. 

And dump out the candy. Give the people what they're looking for. They want the Twix. They want the Reese's. You can get ... At the craft store, there are skeletons everywhere, so why not wrap that in meat?

Young reveals his chocolate cauldron pudding recipe

I saw that you created a chocolate cauldron pudding cups recipe. Could you talk me through how to make that?

[It's a] fun technique using balloons. You see it on the baking competitions, where you dip a balloon in chocolate. That forms the well of the cauldron. I actually use Tootsie Rolls. If you mash up Tootsie Rolls, you get this modeling chocolate. It becomes like clay, almost, so you can mold things, like the rim of the cauldron, little handles. That's actually a super-easy way to play with the sugar dough. Then fill it with your favorite pudding. There's no shame in store-bought products, whether it's box cake mix or box pudding mix, because you can also add flavor to it. A little bit of salt, a little bit of orange zest, a little bit of spice goes a long way. [It] saves you a ton of time. So fill your little chocolate cups with whatever pudding. If you want to make it, great. If not, jazz up some store-bought pudding.

There's so many great decorative candies, whether they're the little sugar ball, colored sugar balls, or the little malt chocolate balls. If you go to a party store or a craft store, there're now aisles for baking, and you can get every color, and you can get sparkles. It's pretty amazing because that was all stuff that you either had to order online or go to a special cake store to get, and now it's everywhere. It's even in supermarkets.

There's so much you can do. And that sounds like a simple recipe.

It is. It's fun. The hard part is making the little chocolate shells.

And you put it in the fridge, right?

Yeah. You can also buy mini plastic cauldrons and fill them with pudding. Doesn't have to be completely edible.

How Young really feels about candy corn and store-bought cakes

I know you also have an idea to repurpose store-bought cakes into cobweb cakes. How would you recommend doing that?

If you're going to be decorating the cake, why not buy a good chocolate cake from a bakery or a supermarket? I feel like the chocolate cakes are normally better than the vanilla cakes. The chocolate kind of masks. I love store-bought chocolate cake.

You can take that. You can take off any decoration that is on there that you don't like [and] get to the base of it. Then you can melt marshmallows gently, either on the stovetop in a double boiler or a little bit of a gentle microwave so they don't explode, and you basically make a sticky marshmallow melt. You can pull it apart with your hands and wrap it around that cake. I chill the cake first. Chill it in the fridge so when you pull the marshmallow around it, it'll stay.

Have you had the Costco chocolate cake before?

If you're going to go anywhere, [this is] unsponsored, but go to Costco.

The mini All-American cakes are ... My family's obsessed with them. We only get them every once in a while.

They are the best, yes. I agree.

In the spirit of Halloween, I have a serious question. Are you a fan of candy corn?

I feel [about] candy corn like I feel about Peeps. You have to have a handful of them at the beginning of the Halloween season, and then I'm good for a year. Actually, I don't feel that way about Peeps. I'll eat Peeps year-round. But I feel like candy corn is a necessary evil. You gotta have a handful and be like, "Yes, I did it. I'm good."

Where Young got the idea for the viral 'piecaken'

I'm going to switch over to Thanksgiving. I saw that you were the mastermind behind the "piecaken." Could you tell me what inspired that idea?

It actually started as a joke [or] competition with a savory chef because we wanted to do the turducken of dessert, so take all of the Thanksgiving favorite pies and roll them into one. And then the Internet does [its thing]. Everyone was like, "I want it," and it became a thing. So it was unexpected. 

Again, Thanksgiving and Halloween [are] my two favorite holidays. There's something so nostalgic about pumpkin pie, apple pie, pecan pie, all of those grandma's recipes, family, home, warm spices that I feel are so universally loved. Put them all in one place. The other problem I have on Thanksgiving is, there's not a plate big enough when I go to the dessert table. I want it all. [With] the piecaken, you literally get the entire table in one slice.

Do you have any tips on how to take your Thanksgiving pie to the next level? Maybe an apple pie, since that's a classic one.

Think about the crust. Don't throw away the crust. There's a lot of flavor that can be added to the crust. It's a blank canvas. When you think about an apple pie, [think about] something as simple as a little lemon zest or orange zest, which brings out some of the brightness of the apples, [or] an herb like thyme or rosemary, or even a little bit of sharp cheddar cheese grated in there. That's one of my favorites. Think of the crust as a flavor element and not just a vessel.

Young reveals the underrated fall spice he loves

Speaking of some spice, pumpkin spice is a huge deal this season. Is there any underrated fall baking spice that you think deserves more attention?

Black pepper. I feel like black pepper adds a little bit of spice, a little bit more heat, and a little nuance to those warmer spices. It's like the edgier cousin of the fall spices. Keeping it really finely ground within a spice mix is important. You don't want to get a coarse piece of black pepper. It rounds out the warmth of those classic baking spices.

So ground black pepper [rather than] peppercorns?


What do you normally add [black pepper] to in your Thanksgiving dishes? Everything?

A little bit of it in a pumpkin pie, [rather than] cloves. I feel like cloves can get a little aggressive on Thanksgiving, so I normally put a little bit of black pepper in the pumpkin pie — not enough that you're coughing or like, "This is hot." It just gives a different dimension to the warmth. A little bit, finely ground. It's a little something.

Food Network's "Halloween Baking Championship" airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET. Check out Zac Young's Instagram page for his latest projects.

This interview has been edited for clarity.