For about three years, chef Bryan Buffington has been using his culinary creativity by entering cooking contests, hoping to be chosen for the winning recipe.
Finally, he got his wish.
Buffington is now one of four national finalists in the Ocean Spray Ultimate Cranberry Recipe Contest with his original Cranberry Trail Mix Tortoni.
"Cranberries can really add a really robust flavor to your dish. They aren't too sweet and they aren't too tart. (It) actually sets everything off really well with balance," said Buffington, a chef at Lanier Village Estates in North Hall. "I've always been entering in the competitions probably for the past three years, and I've probably sent in eight more right after this one and I got a call back from them."
The finals for the contest - where Buffington will prepare his cranberry dish live - will be judged in New York on Oct. 6 by Food Network chef Tyler Florence.
For the contest, Buffington wanted to choose a recipe that not many people would associate with cranberries, which inspired the Cranberry Trail Mix Tortoni.
"A tortoni is an Italian dessert where they have a frozen custard, and normally they do it atop a biscuit of some sort and then I made a variation of it," Buffington said. "I've used cranberries in different rices and stuffing for different proteins, but as far as doing as a dessert, not really."
Buffington added that cranberries are not hard to work with but do take time, heat and temperature.
"You have to sweat them down with sugar, get them glazed, so all the juices get extracted and then sort of sweeten it up with sugar," said Buffington, a Murrayville resident. "Or you can chop them up into really fine pieces. But you still have to do something that is going to bring those juices out so it is not so bitter."
To bring out the sweetness of the cranberries, Buffington used juices and sauces to showcase the fruit.
Buffington's finalist-winning recipe uses two types of cranberry products - specified as Ocean Spray products, per recipe requirements - plus pineapple juice. Cranberry Trail Mix Tortoni uses Ocean Spray trail mix, plus cranberry and pineapple juices.
"I went ahead and took the Ocean Spray Tropical Fruit and Nut trail mix and I ground it up into a crust like you would a graham cracker crust," he said. " I made a meringue out of the egg whites I had left over from my custard that I made and I made the meringue; I folded in the trail mix and baked that off so you get all the flavors of the nuts inside the meringue.
"Then I made a cranberry reduction as well as a pineapple glaze out of fresh pineapples and cinnamon and put it all together. What I did for the reduction, all I used was cranberry juice cocktail and just reduce it down with a little sugar."
The meringue is baked separately and then topped with the custard.
"I put my sauces around it and then take a scoop of my custard I made and set it right on top of it, a little bit of fresh mint and it is done," Buffington said.