The Great British Baking Show
Hug your croquembouches a little tighter tonight, because this episode marks the halfway point of the season. But what a glorious, excessively buttery episode it is: It’s Pastry Week!
The signature bake is 24 breakfast pastries, a dozen each of two different types of dainty Danish. The judges can’t emphasize the importance of butter enough. Butter, butter, butter. Time management, as always, is itself a challenge, as the bakers must allow enough time for their dough to rest and then prove after shaping, all while preparing their fillings. Also, butter.
Benjamina prepares one big batch of dough for both her peanut butter and banana pinwheels and her “Good Morning America” swirls, which feature maple syrup and candied bacon. As a U.S. citizen, I have never felt so seen and understood. Jane makes two separate doughs — not just two separate batches of the same dough — one for her orange pain aux raisin and one for her raspberry, chocolate, and almond Danish. Candice, who is understandably experiencing “pastry-induced” muscle soreness, is the only baker going savory with her croque-monsieur kites. (Yes, “kites” are pastries, but I don’t know what would happen if you attached one to a string and ran around on the beach on a breezy summer day.) Selasi draws from his childhood in Ghana and puts fresh fruit forward in his rhubarb, mango, and ginger pinwheel and pineapple-and-coconut lattice, from which Paul steals some coconut to snack on.
Have I mentioned butter yet? Because … butter. Bakers bang their golden parallelograms of fat with rolling pins to flatten them as much as possible, then it’s into the refrigerator post-bashing. Andrew diligently measures his butter with a ruler — so he can “maintain a reputation as a reputable engineer” — for his “Mum and Dad’s Breakfast Pastries,” inspired by his parents’ personal favorites. Mom gets a pear-and-chocolate pinwheel, and Dad gets spiced-date swirls with maple icing. Can I be in your family, Andrew? I will gladly live in the cupboard under the stairs if daily homemade pastries are in the mix.
Bakers “laminate” their pastries by layering that butter amid the folds of their proved dough, then by sealing the edges so the butter doesn’t sneak out when baking. Benjamina recites a mathematical formula for layers and folds that makes me feel 1) sleepy and 2) like I should have been equipped with a TI-89 for this episode. Jane’s beautiful origami folds are more elaborately braided than most wedding-day updos.
Tom goes healthy with his less-than-appetizing “Mega Breakfast Bonanzas,” granola spirals and wheat foldovers. Val has a “secret weapon” for her pecan-and-maple-syrup pinwheels and apple, sultana, and cinnamon swirls: She uses dental floss to slice neatly through her dough. But despite that feat of mechanical ingenuity, the going gets tough. Val’s pastries require an hour of proving, but she can only spare ten minutes before they need to bake. Benjamina — who had to re-bake her bacon — is cutting it awfully close, too. “Cook faster, please,” she begs her pastries. “I think someone put some butter in the bottom of my oven,” quips Candice as she fans away smoke. For this, Candice is the Star Baker of my heart.
Val’s pastries are underbaked, according to the judges, but Val says she likes them that way. Love you, Val. Tom’s granola treat is inedibly dry; his wheat treat is inedibly raw. Our most recent Star Baker, Benjamina, is off to a rough start this week herself (hashtag curse of the Star Baker). Though her fillings were tasty, her pastries didn’t have enough time to prove, so they yakked out all their delicious butter onto the baking tray.
Rav’s fillings taste great — and his cinnamon swirls with lemon icing look great, too — but he’s short one of his 12 pecan, walnut, and maple plaits. Andrew’s parental pastries are beautiful, as is all of his handiwork, but they’re too thin for Paul and Mary’s liking, making them more like biscuits than pastries. Paul declares Jane’s orange pain aux raisin to be “the ideal pastry,” a proclamation that feels like it should be accompanied by heavenly trumpets. Candice is also at the top of the pack. Her pastry turned out a little dry, but her delicious savory gamble paid off tremendously.
This week’s technical challenge comes via Mary: She wants each baker to produce a perfect Bakewell tart. “The clue is in the title,” Mel says, helpfully. “You’ve got to bake well. Not bake badly.” Got it.
Mary calls the Bakewell tart — which has a thin, crispy pastry base, layered with almond filling, jam, and feathered icing — a “great British classic,” and Paul predicts that everyone in the competition should at least know what it’s supposed to look like. This shouldn’t be a repeat of the Dampfnudel debacle, but only a few of the bakers have made one themselves. Selasi predicts “the aged” will excel in this challenge. And, yes, Jane is well-versed in the Bakewell tart arts, as is Val, who says she bakes one every week. But even Val’s experience can’t help her when she fails to realize that there was a second page to the provided recipe — after completing the instructions on the first page, she’d gone ahead and guessed the rest ( … Val). Andrew narrowly recovers from a major crisis when he forgets to turn his oven on for 15 minutes.
Jane comes in first, followed by an emotional Candice, whose late grandmother loved to serve Bakewell tarts. Rav comes in last after half his crust breaks apart (this is his third week in a row at the very bottom of the technical challenge!), followed by Val, whose tart was marred by a soggy bottom and raw pastry.
The Pastry Week showstopper challenge calls for 48 filled filo-pastry amuses-bouches, half of them savory and half of them sweet. If you have attempted to make filo dough, touch filo dough, or even look at filo dough out of the corner of your eye, then you are well aware that filo dough suuuuucks to work with. Mel calls it “the most delicate pastry there is.” I would call it “kind of an asshole, to be honest.” Anyway, Paul is adamant that the amuses-bouches must be truly bite-sized: an inch-and-a-half, max.
Tom’s “yin and yang” amuses-bouches are filo cups. The savory pastries are filled with strips of sirloin steak and spicy chocolate mousse; the sweet pastries are filled with wine-poached pears, ginger, and toasted almonds. “I thought those were very flat brownies,” Mel says of his cocoa-powder-smothered meat. Candice cleverly uses a pasta machine to thinly roll the dough for her amuses-bouches: sausage, black pudding (of which she has a terrifyingly huge cylinder), and apple rounds; and banoffee (a classic English dessert made of banana, cream, and toffee) and whiskey cups. “It’s good to get your hands in and give your sausages a good squeeze,” she advises.
Super-sweet plantains make for an unlikely but delicious-sounding addition to Benjamina’s spinach samosas, paired with chai pear cups. Selasi’s amuses-bouches are also strong contenders for this week’s Things I Would Most Like to Put in My Mouth Award: parma ham, asparagus, and cheese filo cigars along with coffee-cream filo cups topped with pralines. To achieve aspirational yummy filo crispiness, bakers must stretch their rested dough within an inch of its carby life. Rav uses a rolling pin. Benjamina manhandles her dough like she’s makin’ a pizza pie, fuhgeddaboudit. (Take ten seconds to imagine everyone on this show with a thick New Jersey accent; you’ll thank me.) Val uses a broom handle, thanks to a tip she read on the internet. Jane decides her dough is ready when it’s thin enough that she can read the label on a bottle of booze through it.
But once they’re baked, Jane’s cherry-and-chocolate-truffle-filled cones keep toppling over and she accidentally freezes her cherry jam. Val’s dough, which looks like a terrifying pod person that shed its skin sac, is utterly unworkable.
Benjamina’s pastries poll very well with the judges. Paul is a “little bit disappointed” by Tom’s bitter chocolate meat. (How many times, in human history, do you think someone’s typed the phrase “bitter chocolate meat?”) Selasi’s dry pastries lack butter. Jane’s cones are delightful, but Paul does think they’re bigger than they needed to be. (Make them huge, Jane! Feed the world! I will eat all the leftovers without complaint.)
Val, alas, has only 12 of her Christmas-y mincemeat-and-apple spiced parcels ready to present to Paul and Mary … because the other dozen were left in the oven. Meanwhile, Rav manages to redeem himself from yet another poor performance in the technical with his well-executed prawn filo tartlets and spiced white-chocolate-and-hazelnut samosas.
Candice is crowned Star Baker for her “scrumptious” (per Mary) banoffee wizardry. Sadly, this is the last we’ll see of sweet, warm, and universally beloved Val in the tent. “Whenever I make anything, I stir love into it,” she says in her exit interview. “I knead love into it.”
Every time I bake while dancing to Ed Sheeran, I’ll think of you, Val.