The Great British Baking Show
As we continue our peaceful meander through the verdant English countryside, there is barely anyone left in this silly tent. I have awaited Pastry Week for quite a while, eager to hear Mary Berry’s arch warnings to avoid the travesty of soggy bottoms. My prayers have been answered.
This week’s signature challenge is a simple frangipane tart. For those of you who don’t spend your downtime elbow-deep in baking blogs for fun, frangipane is a filling flavored with almonds. You mix butter, sugar, eggs, and ground almonds, forming a very simple base upon which your dreams can rest. Easy enough, though the short-crust pastry is the true source of many people’s anxiety, as a soggy bottom ruins everything. If you’ve ever made a pie crust, you’ve made a short-crust pastry. And if that pie crust ever came out of the oven tasting, well, soggy and weird and raw in the middle, you’ve encountered a soggy bottom. The Male Judge and Mary Berry despise soggy bottoms.
Armed with this knowledge, all of the bakers offer their best. Other Paul, Nadiya, Tamale, and “Ianyeth” Paltrow will make tarts with poached pears. Ianyeth Paltrow one-ups himself and makes the frangipane filling with quail eggs that he brought from home, because of course he keeps quails at home. Nadiya flavors her tart with rong tea and bay leaf, the former of which causes the judges to make a variety of bad jokes about “LOL, is it ‘rong’ or is it right?” Rong tea, by the by, is a Bangladeshi spiced tea that seems like chai without the milk. I bet it’s delicious. Mat has never not used coconut in anything he’s made in this competition, so naturally, he makes a piña colada tart. The Male Judge deems it “interesting.” That’s basically an insult, just so you know!
Great news: At this point in the competition, everyone really does seem to know what they’re doing. They’re all rolling out their crusts and blind baking and doing everything else with confidence. Except for Alvin. Oh, Alvin. His tart crust isn’t doing what he wants it to do. You can tell that it’s freaking him out. Due to said crust issues, Alvin’s tart is in the oven while everyone else is dribbling glaze on theirs.
Less great news: We have a few soggy bottoms on our hands. The Male Judge and Mary trot about the tent, scraping the bottom of each person’s tart with a knife, sort of like a dentist does with that pokey tool he uses while lecturing you about floss. Nadiya’s tart has a soggy bottom. Mat’s dumb piña-colada tart is both bland and soggy of bottom. Ianyeth Paltrow’s tart doesn’t have a soggy bottom, but, as per the Male Judge, there is no glaze and the base is not crispy. Alvin’s tart is a teensy bit wonky, due to his timing issues. For him, failure is not an option, and, I gotta say, watching him tiger-mom himself breaks my heart. Tamal’s tart looks rustic, but stands up to the the test. As per Sue, Tamal is a messy top, but a tidy bottom.
The technical challenge is a Male Judge recipe that these kids have never heard of: a flaouna. It’s a cheese-filled pastry with yeast in the dough, and it features two ingredients that I had to Google: mastic (a plant resin that purportedly smells very strong) and mahlepi (a Greek spice made from the ground pits of a St. Lucie cherry). Also, this thing has three different types of cheese in it and the instructions are inscrutable. Seems easy!
Everyone frantically grates cheese, then really gets in there with the mortar and pestle for the mastic. The trickiest bit about this challenge is the yeast in the dough, which really throws them off. Everyone kneads their dough a few times for funsies, then just throws it in the oven on a wing and a prayer. When they come out, I’m sorry to say none of them look all that great, but away they go to the gingham altar for judgment.
The Male Judge is so pleased with himself. The more pleased with himself he is, the lower his shirt seems to descend. Next week, I’d be surprised if it isn’t unbuttoned to his navel. Anyway, what’s amazing is that Mary has no clue what a flaouna is, save for the scant details she probably got from an off-camera producer, so she lets the Male Judge take the reins. Mat’s flaouna is okay. Nadiya’s is too thick. Other Paul’s don’t look quite right. The Male Judge calls Alvin’s flaouna a “pizza.” Rude. Alvin looks heartbroken, but he isn’t dead last in the technical. That honor goes to Tamal, and Mat manages to wiggle his way into the top.
Brief sidebar: What do you think the bakers do in between episodes? Do they hang out every night? Do they get drinks? Did they bring more than one pair of clothes for filming? I would 100 percent watch a behind-the-scenes show. It would be like RuPaul’s Untucked!, but instead of drag queens smoking Parliaments by the fire exit of a weird soundstage, it’s Flora and Nadiya and Alvin sitting in a room, fretting quietly to themselves.
For the showstopper, the contestants must make two different kinds of vol-au-vents, 24 of each, like they’re catering a fancy key party in 1974. After hearing the contestants say “vol-au-vent” many times in a span of a few minutes, the word started to lose all meaning, but now I know that a vol-au-vent is basically a round puff pastry that is filled with whatever your little heart desires.
And so, lamination! If you paid attention during Biscuits week, you will remember lamination. Everyone is whacking large chunks of butter, folding the flattened butter into dough, and repeating. Ianyeth Paltrow does a great job at this portion. Alvin, consumed with self-doubt, has a hard time, and it’s making me sad.
Here’s what everyone makes:
- Ianyeth Paltrow does a three-mushroom filling and a scallop-and-squid-ink one. Like Babbo, but in a vintage puff pastry.
- Other Paul goes for a risotto-and-prawn filling, then a raspberry coulis and crème pat for his second. I like risotto and I like prawns, but I don’t know if I like risotto, prawns, and puff pastry together.
- Flora takes a risk and makes a chocolate puff pastry filled with chocolate ganache, then a savory one with Parma ham and asparagus. Mary is very concerned about the chocolate in the ganache, but I think both sound delicious. I would eat them with pleasure.
- Mat whips up a smoked-trout-and-horseradish filling and a full-English-breakfast filling, complete with a quail egg on top. Everyone loves quail eggs! Is the U.K. just full of quails? Are they like squirrels here?
- Nadiya’s sound phenomenal: a Bengali korma filling with yet another quail egg, and a curious clementine-and-cod combination that sounds gross but is most likely fantastic. I would eat these immediately.
- Tamal is inspired by sandwiches, bless him. He makes a pulled-pork filling with rosemary and fennel, then another with chicken and coriander. Yes, please.
- Alvin makes a chicken à la King filling, because of America and colonialism. He also does smoked salmon and crème fraîche, because those just go together well.
In the tent, confidence abounds for some, while others struggle. Nadiya and Mat have butter issues and their dough is full of lumps. “This isn’t ideal,” Ianyeth says, straining to be heard over the torrential rain that batters the tent. None of this is ideal, Ianyeth. Making 48 puff pastries that haven’t been served since your Aunt Shirley’s Tupperware party in 1974 is definitely not ideal. Not even in a tent in the British countryside. This is nobody’s idea of a good time.
Making vol-au-vent is fiddly work that requires time-management skills. That is a tough job under pressure. While Nadiya frantically rolls out her dough, she makes the face one makes while cleaning hair from a bathroom drain or plunging a toilet: both disgusted and anxious. Her dough is wonky, her pastries go in the oven last, and she tries not to lose her mind.
Final touches! Mat’s are adorable. Nadiya’s are the wrong shape and also melting. Everyone crams stuffing into the pastry in great handfuls, like stuffing a teeny Thanksgiving turkey. The challenge ends. Everyone stares inscrutably at their efforts, as the judges make their way around the tent.
Mat’s are amazing! Other Paul’s look a bit anemic and list slightly to the left. Also, they’re mushy in the middle — not quite a soggy bottom, but still not cooked. Flora’s look nice, if a bit dense. Tamal’s are messy, full stop. But they’re a good bake! Ian’s are squat, cute, and a teensy bit goth. Naturally, the Male Judge hates them. Nadiya ran out of time to fill hers properly, so she presents the vol-au-vent as a particularly fancy chip, with the filling on the side as a dipping sauce. Mary, a woman who abhors spice, declares the korma “scrumptious.” Nadiya is crying!
Alvin continues to break my heart. The way his face crumples at the slightest bit of criticism is the way we all feel when we present work that isn’t our best. If Alvin starts crying, I will quit this program forever.
I think we all knew it from the beginning, but Alvin leaves the tent today. Good-bye, Alvin. Star Baker goes to Mat, who managed to eke by without an excessive use of coconut. Congrats to you, Mat! Next week promises an intriguing double shot of pâtisserie and Victorian baked goods. Here’s hoping for blancmange!