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MasterChef Junior Episode 3: Mom's The Word

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To thoroughly enjoy the wonder that is MasterChef Junior, please welcome Alison Leiby, who will be here every week to take us through the season.

Each week before MasterChef Junior I make a promise to myself that I won't cry, and each week I break that promise. If you had told me a year ago that I'd be crying during a cooking show I'd be like, "Oh yeah, of course, at the end of every Barefoot Contessa I cry when I realize I drank all of my wine during the episode and now have to go to the liquor store." But if you had said it was a cooking show about kids I'd be like, "No way."

The kids arrive in the kitchen to see the judges standing behind a mystery box. Gordon Ramsay asks the tiny cooks to guess what is in the box. Oona guesses a pig head. It's a shocking guess, but not far off considering the producers let them think they might have to kill their own chickens in the season premiere.

Graham Elliot tells them, "It's something kids all over the country love to eat," before unveiling a box of cupcakes. He could have also said, "It's something that single women on Sex and the City bus tours love to eat," but either works, really.

They each grab different cupcakes, some are red velvet, some are chocolate, some are vanilla. As they enjoy them, Gordon explains that they will need to make a dozen cupcakes in 75 minutes, and they'll be making them in teams of two based on matching up their cupcake flavors. The teams are:

Mitchell and Abby

Sam and Adaiah

Logan and Sean

Josh and Oona

Levi and Samuel

The pairs get to their stations to find a second mystery box waiting for them. Instead of another food item or cooking tool, this box contains ties to connect the teammates for a three-legged cupcake challenge. They'll complete their dishes literally joined at the hip (and ankle).

Watching these tiny contestants work together is at once nerve-wracking and adorable. Mitchell helps Abby lift up her mixer, then lifts up his, though honestly I think that one mixer outweighs the two of them together. For the most part the teams are matched pretty well size-wise. It would be hilariously awkward to watch 13 year old Samuel and his vest collection try and drag around kooky-aunt-in-training Abby, who couldn't be four feet tall even on her tip-toes.

The teams settle on making two different cupcake flavors in the dozen so that each cook can claim one of them as his own. Graham stops by Logan and Sean's station and asks them about this strategy of doing two different cupcakes. Logan (who I should remind you at this point is the son of a politician) says, "Of course, it's the best compromise in the world!"

A harried, stressful energy takes over the kitchen in the final minutes of the challenges as the kids rush to ice, decorate, and box up their creations. Instead of tasting every cupcake, the judges pick three teams they observed during prep that they believe to be the best. First up is Adaiah and Sam, who made an orange honey blossom with cream cheese frosting and a vanilla with raspberry. Both look like they could easily be from the Instagram feed of a 24 year old white girl, which is the highest compliment I think you can give a cupcake.

Next is Abby's peanut butter cup creation and Mitchell's Mexican hot chocolate one. These both look like cupcakes that an actual 8 and 10 year old would make: messy, chocolatey, and something you'd want to eat with a lot of napkins. While the judges aren't wowed by the presentation, they love the flavors.

Last up is Logan and Sean, who clearly used the most culinary technique of the group. Sean made a lemon-basil cupcake that the judges love, and Logan made a raspberry filled cupcake with passionfruit icing and a caramel sugar garnish. These are easily the kinds of cupcakes that a bakery in New York or LA could get away with charging $8 a pop and there would still be lines out the door come bridal shower season.

After careful consideration, Gordon announces that Logan and Sean are the winning team. Sean has been racking up the wins so far the season, and he may be the one to beat. Also, they were wearing color-coordinated outfits, so if that doesn't mean they should win, I don't know what does.

The two go with the judges into the pantry to find out their advantage before the next challenge. Gordon begins by saying that your mom's food is always the best food. It may not be fine dining, but it's the best because mom makes it. That's totally true. The greatest meal I can think of is my mom's grilled-cheese on rye and the better part of a family size bag of Ruffles potato chips in front of a VHS taping of that afternoon's Days of Our Lives. I don't know if many restaurants know this, but food tastes better when Marlena is possessed by the devil and John Black is in a coma.

Gordon's mother comes out with a tray of his three favorite dishes as a child: shepherd's pie, chicken curry, and a fish finger sandwich. Sean and Logan get to pick what item the rest of the contestants will have to re-create as an elevated dish. They won't be participating though, they'll be watching from the balcony while they have tea and snacks, just like any red-blooded American boy wants to do.

Gordon returns to the kitchen and he and his mother reveal that the remaining 8 cooks will be making updated versions of shepherd's pie. They have a brief moment to Skype with their own moms to get advice on their dishes. It's great they get to call their moms for help because I still call mine for everything, like how long should I roast a chicken or how do I get red wine out of sheets.

The kids are off and running with their dishes, but early in the challenge Sam is in tears after adding too much cream to his mash and needing to start over. We then get a shot of him crying while peeling potatoes and it's like looking into a mirror (if I were a pre-teen boy with blonde bangs, that is). I mean, who doesn't cry while cooking every once in a while?

Samuel explains to Joe Bastianich that he's going to make a deconstructed shepherd's pie. Of course he is. Sure, Samuel has a lot of skills and the palate for his high-concept dishes, but I just want to tell him to cool it with the envelope pushing for like, one second. It's kind of like when a couple has a dog and they show you how they taught him to open doors and put away his own toys, but you're thinking, "Does he ever sit there and just be a good dog while you scratch his head?"

Oona is first up to serve the judges and she isn't her normal, confident, overly mature self. She's nervous and second-guessing her dish as she sets it down in front of Gordon. The presentation isn't terrific, and he also finds that the mince beneath the potatoes is a little greasy. I'd expect the girl who said, "I always wanted to make chicken liver pate," to handle this without getting emotional, but she starts crying, and then I start crying, and now everyone is crying.

The judges and Gordon's mother comfort her saying that things won't be perfect every time. There are going to be ups and downs with cooking and some of this dish worked, other parts didn't, and she's going to be okay.

Abby presents her dish and says, "Mrs. Ramsay, I've made..." as if she was explaining a diorama to her second grade teacher. The judges like her mince of beef, lamb, chorizo and the pumpkin and sweet potato puree with truffle butter.

Samuel's deconstructed shepherd's pie with Moroccan flavored meat and parsnip mash is the first dish of his to really wow the judges. They are also impressed with Adaiah's shepherd's pie napoleon with pear-pea and spicy pepper sauces. Mitchell struggled to get the meat in his dish moist, and Sam, while bouncing back from his earlier issues, had the same problem.

Gordon announces that the top two dishes of the night were Levi and Adaiah. He then says that if he calls your name to come forward because two contestants are going home tonight.

This is the worst part of the show because I really don't want any of these kids to get eliminated. They are all so sincere and so sweet and supportive and try so hard and DEAR GOD DO NOT SEND OONA HOME.

Ultimately, Sam and Mitchell are each sent home and Oona stays for another week. It's really hard to think about these kids feeling like they failed or somehow aren't good enough considering they have made food that probably could sell in a restaurant for more than I have in my savings account. The judges do such a wonderful job at the end of each episode encouraging the eliminated kids to keep cooking, and that sometimes our best moments come from our toughest setbacks.

Can someone get me a rate quote on what it would cost to have Gordon, Joe, and Graham come to my apartment and give me that speech at the end of every day? Seems worth my money.

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