The Great British Baking Show
Welcome to the first-ever Tudor Week. According to my deep, deep reservoirs of historical knowledge, Tudor culinary highlights included meat pies of mysterious origin, ale, Henry VIII’s presumably not-inconsiderable body odor and … gruel? No, that’s more Dickens. Anyway, these 16th-century-style goodies should be interesting, if not conventionally delicious.
Only five bakers remain in this season’s quarterfinal. Or, as Candice puts it: “We’re like the Spice Girls before Geri left.” To start the week, the bakers must produce a display of shaped pies, savory or sweet. Hot-water crust pastry — made with lard, glorious lard — was a Tudor staple. The judges advise that the bakers’ pastries must be made thick enough to contain all the juicy goodness placed within them, and that the filling itself must be firm enough to hold together under a knife.
Jane’s 16 “Tudor Rose” pies, based on a recipe she makes at Christmas, will be filled with spiced sausage-meat, cranberries, bacon, and chicken breast. Andrew takes some liberties with the assignment, turning in Da Vinci–inspired, gear-shaped pies, stuffed with potato, chicken, pork sausage, and dried apricots. (Hey, Leonardo was alive during the Tudor period — just not in England.) Benjamina, too, has forsaken Brittania’s rocky shores for the wishful thinking of a “Mexican Adventure,” a sun-shaped arrangement of spicy-chipotle pork and black-bean pies.
The pressure is on for Selasi, who’s well aware that he’s the only remaining contestant who has yet to win Star Baker. His “Bouquet of Flowers” will combine game pies with guineafowl — a Tudor classic that reminds him of Ghanaian street food — rabbit, venison, and pigeon; and leaf-shaped pies with pork and quail egg. As usual, Candice is feeling ambitious, attempting two different fillings and two different pastries. For her “Cheesy Cheeky Fish Pies,” she’ll use parsley suet crust for oxcheek and oyster pies ( … hello!), and a hot-water crust for macaroni-cheese pies ( … hello to you, also!). She’ll make an oddly specific yet vague “between 18 and 22 pies,” to be arranged in the shape of the titular cheesy, cheeky fish.
It requires a degree of time management bordering on witchcraft to bake all these pies in a single oven. Jane has to reuse her handful of husband-made molds (it felt excessive to ask him to make 16, she explains) over and over and over. Sue comments on the “intense aromas” of Selasi’s wild pigeon with sprigs of greens stuffed up her nose, which he doesn’t notice for most of their conversation.
Meanwhile, Benjamina is running way late and she can already tell some of her pies won’t be finished. Selasi, who pokes “steam holes” in his pastry with what appears to be a pen, is anxious that his game pies will still be raw when he presents them. He tries to bribe Mel with pie for more baking time: “I’m seriously tempted,” she says. Half of Benjamina’s pies come out under, at least one is broken, and others are perilously leaking. No one is safe, it seems: Paul ominously squeezes one of Jane’s pies and walks away without a word.
Quoth Sue: “As Thomas Cromwell was fond of saying, ‘Bakers, your pie challenge is over. Please move your pies to the end of your benches.’ And yet no one remembers that quote. No one remembers it.” Inside Jane’s Tudor rose pies, the filling is gorgeously layered. Mary praises them as “exceedingly good” in both flavor and appearance. To Paul, Benjamina’s pies look “rushed” — some of the pastry is borderline raw — though the flavor is undeniably “stunning.” Candice’s fish is pretty cute, but the hot-water crust is a little too pale and a little too soft. The flavors are all quite nice, but the macaroni pie is a little disconcerting — the texture of the pastry too closely matches that of the al dente pasta inside.
Selasi’s bouquet of flowers doesn’t really strike me as a bouquet of flowers, but I love Selasi and would be prepared to let him get away with it if he told me these pies were supposed to resemble a portrait of the Queen. The pies themselves came out better than he worried they would, with lovely color and good flavor, even if the walls are a little thick. Andrew’s tall and towering pie-stravaganza is quite a sight. Ever the engineer, he’s built a custom display on which his tasty, well-baked pies rotate when attached cogs are turned. I have never felt so simultaneously hungry and inspired to explore a career in STEM.
The technical challenge calls for 12 “jumbles,” a simple, Tudor-era cookie. (Fine, a simple, Tudor-era biscuit.) Six of those jumbles must be knot balls and the other six must be Celtic knots. “Follow the pattern carefully,” Paul warns, noting that jumbles will test the bakers’ dexterity with dough. To me, they look a little like the generic butter cookies in the blue tin that everyone’s grandmother held onto and refilled, disappointingly, with sewing supplies, but I digress. There are two particularly tricky hurdles here: They’ll need not one, but two distinct pieces of dough to make the knot, and the relatively dense ball cookies will take significantly longer to bake.
Bakers are equipped with realistic Tudor ingredients like caraway seeds and aniseed, as well as a mortar and pestle to grind them with, although blasphemers Andrew and Jane end up employing decidedly un-Tudor-y hand-mixers to save time. The recipe somewhat insanely demands that bakers allot two-fifths of their dough for the knots and the other three-fifths for the balls, and Andrew more than rises to the challenge, calculating based on the pattern printed on the recipe that one piece of dough should be “22 times longer than it is thick.” Long division is my favorite part of baking.
The bakers just about lose their minds trying to fold the dough into the delicate shapes called for, while trying not to handle it so much that the texture is ruined. Poor Benjamina’s knots look not unlike the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Only a few bakers correctly interpret the recipe’s ambiguous call for egg wash and sugar, and add those on pre-bake to help turn the cookies from an anemic pale to a light golden brown in the oven. Candice comes in first in the technical, followed by Andrew. In last place is Jane, followed by Benjamina. Apparently, Jumbles are ruthless enough to fell even the tent’s most consistent bakers.
For their showstoppers, bakers must bake a cake made of marchpane — the Tudor version of marzipan, which is more brittle and lacks the eggs of the modern almond-based confection — entirely from scratch and entirely edible.
Benjamina’s “Tudor Garden” will have a spiced-apple cake base, decorated with green marzipan grass and a tree made from puffed rice, ganache, and melted marshmallows — plus, a maze. “Not a complicated maze,” she quickly backtracks. Jane’s “Swans” cake is a walnut genoise sponge covered with marzipan designs of swans and roses, based on a dauntingly elaborate schematic of her own design. Andrew opts for Tudor flavors — honey, currants, ginger — for his marchpane decorated with knights on horseback, ready to joust.
Selasi and Candice are both incorporating marzipan and traditional marchpane into their showstoppers. Selasi bakes a simnel cake, a fruitcake with a layer of marzipan inside. He’ll incorporate brandy-soaked fruits, edible gold leaf, and glacé cherries, as well as six marzipan walls, a marzipan sword, and a marzipan crown — representing both Henry VIII’s six wives and the Battle of Bosworth Field. Okay, nerd.
Like Tracy Jordan, Candice is proud as a peacock, baby. The body of her marzipan bird will be constructed of four multi-colored, orange-flavored sponges, with a surprise cluster of blueberries in the center, and covered in blue-and-green marbled marzipan. The bird’s head and neck will be sculpted from puffed rice, chocolate, and marshmallows. (“Cereal treats” are to Cake Boss as “Puffed rice and marshmallows” is to The Great British Bake-Off. Apparently every baking show is too afraid of the international litigious might of Kellogg’s to let the words “Rice Krispie Treats” escape their lips.) But the single most impressive part of Candice’s bake is the peacock’s tail, made with three flavors of marchpane — lemon, rosewater, and mint — and sprinkled in edible glitter.
Once the sponges are out of oven, it’s time to go marzipanning for gold. (Is that anything? … No?) It’s early still, but Benjamina’s supposed maze is looking more like an overweight snake than a hedge. Andrew makes use of a mold he cast himself from a toy horse, because really, did you expect anything less from Andrew? The bakers “grill” some of their marzipan pieces, a word choice that is utterly baffling to me until I realize it means “broil” in transatlantic fancy-talk. “My marzipan centerpiece is going to be so bling,” says Selasi, moments before it begins crumbling in his hands. Andrew has to remake his caramel at least twice.
Although Paul takes exception to some of her meltier grilled pieces, Jane’s swan design is awfully pretty and the finicky sponge holds up beautifully against the weight of all the marzipan and decoration. As Mary kindly puts it, Andrew’s work looks “a little bit on the clumsy side.” And when the jousting lances are positioned, they look significantly closer to the seemingly legless knights’ crotches than their hands.
I’m so sorry to tell you that Benjamina’s maze looks like Play-Doh, in a shade of light green that I associate with baby poop. The marzipan enveloping the cake is good, but the apple-heavy cake itself is unpleasantly doughy. Candice’s cake is genuinely spectacular, especially the peacock’s amazing technicolor tail. The blueberry surprise in the center of the cake induces a genuine “ooh” of delight from the judges, who I’m not sure could dig this cake more. Selasi’s crown and sword came out well, but the inside of the cake, easily visible between the walls, is unappealingly messy.
Peacock princess Candice is crowned Star Baker. Warm and playful Benjamina, who in my estimation is the single most talented baker in the tent, is going home. Ugh. “To get this far in itself is an achievement, so I’m really proud,” she says, getting increasingly choked up. Now I’m crying. Why am I crying? Why is baking so emotional?