Winning Food Network’s ‘Summer Baking Championship’ Sweetens Pastry Chef Zoe Pekich’s Life

Zoe Pekich has always had a sweet tooth.

Growing up in Canonsburg, the town where Sarris Candies was founded, was a huge inspiration for her love of dessert.

Things just got sweeter for the pastry chef at downtown Pittsburgh’s Ritual House since winning the Food Network’s Summer Baking Championship in June.

“I feel like winning the baking championship definitely broadened my horizons,” Pekic said. “I feel like anything is possible.”

Masood Hossaini | Tribune-Review

Pastry chef Zoe Pekich places a tray of cookies in the oven at Ritual House in downtown Pittsburgh.

The most challenging part was deciding on a dessert with limited preparation time.

“Baking is a science,” she said. “It takes time.”

She made a savory chocolate cake with mango chocolate buttercream frosting.

“I wanted to use my favorite chocolate cake recipe, but I knew I had to come up with a recipe that would provide a ‘Wow’ moment,” she said.


Masood Hossaini | Tribune-Review

Desserts — strawberry pretzel salad and sweets — at Ritualna Kashta.

Providing that “Wow” moment is what she strives for every day at Ritual House, she said. The restaurant offers daily desserts. Two of the most popular are the Seven Layer Cake and the Not Grandma’s Pretzel Strawberry Salad. Peckich used a mold to shape the dessert to look like two huge strawberries.

Peckich has the freedom to add seasonal choices, such as pumpkin cookies and apple pie prints. She said that if the diner returns to the restaurant for dessert, then she has done her job.

“This is my dream job and Pittsburgh is the city of champions, so I was happy to win the baking championship,” she said.

She had to keep her winnings a secret for months as the show was filmed in February. The restaurant was packed when the episode aired in June.

Ritual House co-owner Herky Pollock said Peckich embodies the essence of providing a complete dining experience.

“She works not only to delight our guests with impeccable tasting desserts, but also to excite their every sense,” Pollock said. “She’s a rock star.”

Pekic said her win has earned her more followers on social media and more people are asking her for baking tips. She said it’s important to keep learning.

One of her goals is to do more to promote women in this field.

“There are so many wonderful female chefs,” she said.

She credits her mother, Kristen Pekich, who owns La Pomponnée Beauty Artisans in Mount Lebanon and McMurray, as her No. 1 supporter.

Zoe Pekich’s stepfather, Deron Donalson, and her older brother, Max, also always believed in her culinary dreams, she said. Her brother is one of the reasons she wants to serve as a celebrity judge to choose the best cookie and milkshake at the Mid-Atlantic Mothers’ Milk Bank Milkshake & Cookies event Nov. 9 at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh on the North Side.

Max Pekich spent nine months in the neonatal intensive care unit at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Oakland.

“This event definitely excites me,” Pekic said.

Proceeds from the event support the milk bank’s efforts to distribute safe and ethically produced milk to more than 50 hospitals and many outpatients, including all high-level neonatal intensive care units in the region.


Masood Hossaini | Tribune-Review

Pastry Chef Zoe Peckich at Ritual House in downtown Pittsburgh.

Pekic said participating in events like Milkshake & Cookies and winning the baking championship helped her get back into the city and make a name for herself. She lived in Charlotte, North Carolina for seven years where she attended Johnson & Wales University.

She obtained degrees in food and beverage as well as baking and pastry, all supported by her childhood and visits to Saris at least once a week. As a child, she often asked for candy instead of toys, she said. She and her brother love Sarris ice cream covered in chocolate hard cap, a liquid topping that can be heated in a microwave and placed on top of the ice cream, where it hardens into a rich chocolate shell. It’s her favorite thing in the world, she said.

“Life is short,” Pekic said. “Eat the dessert first. Enjoy the moment.”

While she continues to enjoy her Food Network championship moment, she also wants to celebrate other dessert makers in town. She said that as a way to further her career, she plans to connect with bakeries in the city and collaborate with them through social media as a way to expose them.

“I want to show what talent there is in these bakeries,” she said. “I’d like to interview some of the owners so we can bring their products and stories to the fore.”

JoAnn Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review contributor. You can contact JoAnne by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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