A Piece of Cake

Maria Short recently competed with bakers from around the nation on season six of Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship.

Her time on Holiday Baking Championship may have been brief, but local baker Maria Short of Short N Sweet Bakery Market Café still has a number of treats in store for customers.

Big Island resident Maria Short admits to making her fair share of fumbles during her stint on season six of Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship.

“I struggled with the plastic wrap, getting the flour canister open and turning on the oven,” she recalls. “There were so many bloopers, I even had the cameraman laughing.”

Short, who has operated Short N Sweet Bakery Market Café in Hilo for a decade (after five years in Hawi), was on the first two episodes of the festive show, which aired late last year.

In the past, Short has applied to be on shows like Sweet and Sugar Rush, but this time, the producers for Holiday Baking Championship reached out to her directly.

While on the show, the owner of Short N Sweet Bakery Market Café made everything from her cranberry shortbread cake and coffee cake to kransenkake and pies.

“I had to really think about it,” says Short, who was the oldest participant in the group. “I mulled it over for about a week, talked to friends and family and decided to go for it. It’s a long process, with multiple Skype interviews with different casting staff and producers. It culminates in an audition bake where I had to bake two holiday items in two hours.”

Short was in the first two episodes of the challenge, during which she baked up her cranberry shortbread cake that’s available at Short N Sweet during the holidays, as well as her coffee cake (made in Hilo using macadamia nuts).

“What I’m known for in Hawai‘i, especially on the Big Island, is cakes,” explains Short. “And it became really clear to me on that first episode that they wanted more from my baking side than my cake side. That was a big switch for me and required me to think more like a pastry chef and less like a cake decorator.”

For the first time in her baking career, Short also had to make a kransekake, a traditional Scandinavian holiday dessert, on episode one. But the item that was her last for the show was a challenge that required her to bake three pies and decorate them differently. Short was ready with her plan to use plums, but a fellow contestant got to switch her ingredient with Short and she ended up with ginger instead.

Maria Short whips up some batter on the set of Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship.

“Ginger was really hard,” she says. “But I decided to make one of our most popular bakery pies that you can get through special order only: the salted caramel mac nut pie, and I added ginger. It didn’t work out, and I ran out of time to finish decorating.

“Being filmed so intensively was very difficult,” Short admits. “There are so many cameras watching your every move, and you’re wearing a microphone as well, so everything you say — even what you say to yourself — is being recorded. It’s very unnerving at first. But you get used to it, and I tried to focus on having fun so that I could relax and do my best.”

She adds that she was disappointed to go home, of course, but the experience was unforgettable.

“The other bakers were crazy talented … all in different ways,” says Short. “My forte is cakes, and I feel bad that I didn’t get to show any of that skill, but I was really grateful to do the show. I have a new-found respect for people who do TV. It’s grueling. It’s a lot of hours and a lot of stress.”

When asked if she would do another show like this, Short says she’d consider it only if filming took a week or less.

Short puts the finishing touches on a two-tier “naked” wedding cake. KATIE YOUNG YAMANAKA PHOTO

“It was really rough being away from the bakery for that amount of time.”

Short says she has always liked the pure magic of being able to take ordinary ingredients and turn them into beautiful, delicious works of art, and had this strong desire to create from a very young age.

“I had an aunt who was a cake decorator, and I stumbled upon her Wilton yearbooks,” says Short, who was just 4 at the time. “They were catalogs of all the new baking designs for the year. I was so intrigued. Then, in third grade, my teacher was leaving, and she said we could take a book from her bookshelf. I took a thin paperback book, Cookie of the Month, that had recipes. That’s when I started to bake.

“One of the first things I made was the sugar cookie recipe, and they were so hard my sister threw them against the refrigerator and they wouldn’t break.”

Short says she was a latch-key kid, and the eldest of three, so she did a lot of baking for her siblings.

“It’s always been baking for me,” she says. “I fell in love with it in the era before Food Network and before celebrity chefs.”

Her parents thought it should be a hobby, not a career, but friends and family who tasted her baking would tell her that she should be doing it for a living.

“But I kept putting it off,” she says.

Just before turning 30, Short would dive into culinary school. Her husband and business partner, Dien, grew up in south Kona, and Short knew they would eventually move back to the Big Island one day.

“Our first and only visit was three weeks long and we went all over the island,” she recalls. “During that visit we went to Hawi and discovered a cute little bakery that had just opened and we thought to ourselves, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a place like this?'”

Short says they returned from vacation and within six months sold their house and moved the whole family to the Big Island, where she took a position as a pastry chef at Kūki‘o Golf and Beach Club. Two years later, she would open her first bakery location in the same spot that she and Dien had dreamed of when they came for vacation.

Patrons of her decade-old Hilo business love everything from the café salads and sandwiches to delectable desserts that test your willpower from the display case.

“I love the key lime pie and Nutella mousse cake, and the classic panini is my go-to for lunch,” says Short N Sweet regular Jennie Kaneshiro. “I really like the welcoming vibe of the café and seeing what seasonal goodies they have.”

Short N Sweet has always been both a bakery and café.

“We have a full café menu that includes paninis with our homemade focaccia, salads, homemade bagels, a Sunday brunch, and a grab-n-go menu that includes pizza slices, macaroni and cheese, and chicken pot pie — all made from scratch,” says Short.

The items that have the largest following include liliko‘i cheesecake or liliko‘i bars, and apple banana bread. Creme brulee cupcakes have quite a following, too, as well as the banana roulade, Nutella mousse cake and cinnamon rolls.

They are all her own delicious creations, so Short has a hard time choosing her favorite item.

“That’s like choosing my favorite child!” she says. “Of course, we’re known for our custom specialty cakes and wedding cakes, but there’s also our sweetbread, marshmallows, more than three dozen pastries, cookies and desserts such as macarons and liliko‘i bars.”

Over the years, the bakery has received a fair amount of attention and has been featured on multiple Japanese television shows and Animal Planet’s Amanda to the Rescue. Other career highlights for Short include being featured in Brides magazine’s “America’s Most Beautiful Cakes” in 2010 and on the Travel Channel’s Delicious Destinations.

Running a business is not always smooth sailing, of course, but Short says she prefers to think of trying times as training for better days.

Short and Dien recently started a new company, Kīpuka Mills, that grinds roasted macadamia nut flour and Okinawan sweet potato flour from their under-utilized agricultural byproducts.

“We’re also producing the first macadamia nut paste, an alternative to almond paste or marzipan we’re calling macapan. Our mac nut tea cake in the bakery is made with macapan,” Short adds. “We actually started Kīpuka Mills about seven years ago when a friend of the family started making mac nut oil and had all this byproduct that he just ended up composting.

“I knew immediately I could use the byproduct to make something. We are official as of this month, so now we are currently making macapan, mac nut flour and mac nut butter, in addition to Okinawan sweet potato flour that we use in our baked donuts.”

Ultimately, Short says she wants to be able to take other agricultural byproducts and utilize them to their fullest extent, including ‘ulu and taro.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg for us,” she says. “As a pastry chef, to be able to offer a brand-new product to chefs to work with is what’s really exciting to me. And I love being able to do this here in Hilo. I don’t think I’d want do this business anywhere else. The community spirit of Hilo is so rare; it’s a very special place and I am privileged to be a part of it.”