The Great British Baking Show
Can you believe it? We’re already at the halfway point of the season! I’d like to issue this special, apologetic shoutout to Great Britain before we dive into the Pie Week cooling on the windowsill: While our Special Relationship takes a hit in London thanks to a certain human-sized small intestine coiled within an ill-fitting suit and Scotch-taped tie who shall remain nameless, it’s also about to be tested right here in the tent.
The signature bake is a Wellington, and indulgent fillings aside, the judges are keen to see a perfectly flaky, evenly baked pastry. As John explains, not only must their bottoms not be soggy, their meat must be cooked and their pastry must be laminated, yet not allowed to rise too much. This is not Easy-Bake Oven material, though that said, I’d love to watch a stunt YouTube video of someone giving it a try. Inside John’s Wellington, venison and haggis will be covered with Parma ham — a lot of bakers opt for similar edible wraps to seal their filling’s moisture in, away from the pastry exterior.
“I’m not amazing at pastry. I’m okay at pastry,” says Cathryn, leading me to believe she will probably win. Her “Full English” Wellington is a “glorified sausage roll,” complete with eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, and black pudding. Ryan and Brendan are going even more unconventional with fish Wellingtons. Ryan submits a Malaysian curry-spiced sea bass, while Brendan opts for salmon in a Scandinavian pastry made with quark, unaged cheese. Mary flashes Sarah-Jane a look of extreme skepticism when she explains that she won’t be chilling the warm seared beef for her traditional Wellington pre-bake, just letting it sit out on the counter. Never let your beef languish on the counter: Be that your figurative, emotional beef, nor your literal, beefy beef.
The judges enjoy the filling in Manisha’s lamb Wellington with rosemary and mint, but her pastry is raw. They love Cathryn’s play on a sausage roll, despite the fact that it came out mysteriously huge — Sue likens it to a “one-meter long meat mallet.” Danny produced this challenge’s only vegetarian bake, and while her chickpea, spinach and mushroom Wellington is well executed (or should I say … Wellington executed — never mind, sorry, I’m sorry, I’m trying to remove it), Paul nevertheless finds it wanting. “There’s not much about it,” he says. “I think it’s missing something.” I don’t want to put words in Paul’s mouth, but I am pretty sure the something he is thinking of is meat. Ryan’s Wellington is cute (or uncanny, or both), shaped to resemble a fish right down to the eyes and scales. The pastry is a little soggy in the center, but it’s otherwise a successful bake. We also need to talk about John, who doubled-down on the venison theme by adorning his Wellington with a pair of delightful pastry antlers.
Then there’s Sarah-Jane. Poor Sarah-Jane. Mary’s dark prophecy came true: The butter seems to have melted, compromising the structural integrity of the Wellington to the point of body horror. Mel calls it “quite coquettish” and inviting. Paul likens it to Alien. If I had to choose one word to describe the effect of the beef having halfway liberated itself from the pastry, I’d go for “larval.” “I would say I don’t think it could have gone much worse, but I think it could have gone worse,” Sarah-Jane laments. “Well, no.”
Next, Mel does a little reporting on the history of freshwater eels as a staple of the working-class diet in London and digs into an old-fashioned eel pie (she pronounces it “quite rivery”). This segment is not without its charms, but this isn’t RuPaul’s Best Friends Race, I mean, Great British Eel Off, so let’s get back to the rough puff.
This week’s technical is a hand-raised pie, made with hot-water crust and stuffed with chicken, bacon, and apricot. The bakers must sculpt their warm pastry around an old-fashioned wooden dolly (imagine a cylinder with a doorknob shape at one end of it). This is not easy! Everyone struggles with various methods — ripping, peeling, knocking — to persuade the molded pastry off the dolly, aware that the filling will seep out through any tears. “Why use a stupid thing like this when you can use tins?” John says, summing up the general opinion. “We’re not in the 1600s now; let’s face it.”
Many of the pies come out of the oven dripping grease and leaving the counters looking nauseatingly slick. (Who’s hungry?!) And in case this challenge wasn’t stressful enough, the competitors must abandon their bakes overnight so the jelly inside can set — they’ll be judged in the morning. Cathryn and John come in first and second, respectively. Danny and Ryan (whose oblong, layerless pie makes my heart hurt) are in seventh and eighth.
The showstopper: an American pie! For Paul, this is the perfect excuse to launch a malicious campaign of slander against the pies of my people, which he dismisses as too sweet, as if that’s not exactly the point of them. “To be honest, most of the American pies I’ve had before, I wouldn’t go back for another one,” he laughs, adding later, “To make a good American pie, you almost have to make it British.” Now, it is not easy to convince me to defend the United States of America in this current Dumpster fire of a moment in our history, but I think Paul may have discovered my secret patriotism Achilles heel. I’m calling Ofcom to let them know that the War of 1812 is back on.
Actually, I very much enjoy this challenge, which reminds me of the transatlantic outsider art that was the bagel showstopper. Danny’s “Trick or Treat” pumpkin pie is apparently actually being made with roasted butternut squash, and even though I am not actually confident I could suss out the difference in a blind taste test (at least not in the distracting presence of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves), I will nevertheless need to spend the next 45 minutes or so on my fainting couch.
Ryan, well aware that he’s in the “danger zone” for elimination, is, well, going through something. He’s frantic, assembling the crust for his Key lime pie on the floor of the tent, knocking things off his station, pouring bowls full of liquid into other, seemingly identical bowls, and muttering to himself that he’s an idiot. Our thoughts and prayers are with you. For the second time this episode, Mary has occasion to serve as our tragically unbelieved pastry Cassandra. While other bakers have reached for setting agents like pectin and gelatin to ensure their pies will be pleasantly firm, Manisha merely shoves her meringue-topped banana scotch pie in the fridge. “…. Right,” Mary says, as ominous as a thunderclap.
The judges enjoy Brendan’s “elegant” chiffon pie, the raspberries, chantilly cream, and blueberries of which are intended to allude to the colors of the American flag. (Excuse me, the Union Jack is also red, white, and blue; is this a trick?) Sarah-Jane’s chocolate and banana cream pie, assembled in a monochrome stars and stripes design, is both delicious and adorable. James’ sweet potato pie tastes just fine, but the judges aren’t convinced its relatively plain appearance is in fact showstopper material. Cathryn’s chocolate and peanut butter pumpkin pie looks lovely. That, unfortunately, is the lone nice thing we can say about it. Paul’s review: “I don’t like that, at all.”
Manisha’s crust breaks in multiple places, and though she tries to plug the holes in the dyke with meringue and caramel, there’s no missing them. Worse, when Paul slices into her pie, the contents are revealed to be an unsolidified mess.
It’s always darkest just before the Key lime dawn. Ryan’s pie is beautiful, with delicately browned meringue, a stylish dusting of lime zest, and hidden chunks of crystallized ginger as a secret weapon. He looks like he might pass out before the judges are finished tasting it. Lo and behold, they give Ryan’s pie some of the highest praise I’ve ever heard a bake receive on this television program: Mary calls it “sheer perfection,” Paul tells him he “nailed” it.
In fact, Ryan’s Key lime pie is so damn good that — despite the fact that he came in last in the technical — he is crowned Star Baker pretty much exclusively on the strength of his truly showstopping showstopper. Sweet Manisha, sadly, is going home, and tears up at the thought that her family might be disappointed in her performance. Aww, I am sure they are very proud of you! In the highly unlikely event that they aren’t, you are welcome to join my family any time. (But just so you know: This butternut squash pie shit isn’t going to fly with us.)