The Great British Baking Show
Welcome to Biscuit Week, the quarterfinals! This episode gets off to an intimidating start: Our five remaining contestants are asked to bake a staggering 48 crackers or crisp breads. That’s a lot of crackers. That’s an unreasonable number of crackers. That’s a there’s-no-way-an-enterprising-producer-isn’t-quietly-reselling-the-excess-to-Bake Off-superfans-in-a-car-park-somewhere-nearby number of crackers.
This signature challenge is, as Sue puts it, “a grueling test of consistency,” requiring excellent time management skills and attention to detail. The crackers must be wafer-thin but evenly baked (no burnt edges, please), and most importantly, when split in two, they must snap to Paul’s satisfaction. To keep themselves on task, the bakers have each preassembled pages and pages of notes, their serial-cracker manifestos.
James is using yeasted polenta dough as the base for his smoky cayenne, cumin, and chili crackers. The judges take this golden opportunity to pronounce chipotle as chipot-lee, a great nickname for a guy you know named Lee who happens to work at Chipotle. Danny’s spiced-almond drinks crackers are a mix of biscuit dough, yogurt, the North African spice blend ras el hanout, and — controversially — dehydrated Parmesan (fresh cheese, she says, makes the crackers too moist). Before putting his “Asian spice” crackers in the oven, John stabs them all over with a fork, which he says is to prevent them from puffing up as they bake, but which I choose to interpret as a badly needed outlet for stress-induced cracker aggression.
As if getting these four dozen crackers evenly baked and satisfyingly snappable wasn’t crazy-making enough, they must also be precisely the same shape. Brendan, of course, has a ruler, tape measure, and pizza cutter at the ready for his sesame, pumpkin, flaxseed, and aniseed crackers, like he’s the baking edition of Inspector Gadget.
By the way, they’re producing all four dozen of these crackers with a single oven, and most bakers choose to rotate them out on a single shelf, for maximum consistency. Cathryn, busy chatting with Mel, totally forgets about her ploughman’s lunch–inspired cheese and pickle crackers lingering in the oven. They come out much too dark, and worse, two fall off the baking sheet to their untimely deaths. “Honestly, I’ve completely lost it,” she laments. “This is car-crash crackers.”
With the exception of Cathryn’s botched bake (at least the flavor was good!), everyone’s else’s crackers stand up to the judges’ scrutiny successfully, even when Paul digs through James’s pile by hand in search of irregular specimens to ship off to the Island of Misfit Crackers. Brendan’s “really scrummy” crackers are jeweler-cut diamonds with a good snap and seeds so evenly dusted I’m surprised he didn’t tweezer them on individually.
The technical is itself a doozy: Six marshmallow chocolate tea cakes form Paul’s own recipe. The tea cakes consist of a homemade digestive biscuit topped with a fluffy marshmallow, all encased in a chocolate dome. It’s a blisteringly hot day in the tent, making working with melt-happy chocolate even more difficult than it would be normally. Mary gently suggests that her fellow-judge be “really, really kind.” Paul laughs. Suffice to say that it is not the laugh of a man who is feeling really, really kind.
Warm chocolate isn’t supposed to go right into the fridge; it’s supposed to cool to room temperature first. But as James explains, “We don’t have a room temperature here. We have … hot.” Cathryn nobly resists giving up and refrigerating her tea cakes-in-progress longer than her competitors do. This proves to be a fatal mistake. “Oh my giddy aunt,” she keeps saying, like this is an extremely gentle version of The Good Place (which I guess it kind of is?), as she tries to free the un-set chocolate from the mold. Chunks of the dome get torn off, revealing the white underbelly of marshmallow beneath. James comes in first; Cathryn, who is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, comes in last.
The showstopper is a non-house gingerbread structure. Please note the all-important descriptor non-house in the previous sentence. “If you make me a house, I will smash it down and blow your doors in,” Paul says. Fair enough.
With only four hours allotted, bakers must plan out which of their variably sized gingerbread components they’ll need to use first, making sure those are the earliest into the oven. John’s partner, a graphic designer, has printed out elaborate architectural schematics to aid in the assembly of his 100-plus-piece Roman Colosseum, which towers over some peanut praline gravel. Cathryn pipes chocolate window after chocolate window to stick onto her chocolate and orange gingerbread Buckingham Palace. James’ gingerbread barn will be constructed with gingerbread biscuit roof planks and gingerbread cake cladding. (If Fixer Upper were still on TV, I’d petition for gingerbread shiplap.) Also, it’s James’s 21st birthday — happy birthday, James!
Brendan is hard at work on a fantasy gingerbread birdhouse. “You know your life has taken a strange twist and turn when you find yourself asking questions about, What’s a good edible material that would make a good thatched roof on a gingerbread house?” Brendan observes. His solution: whatever the breakfast eaters of the U.K. call mini-wheats!
Almost every baker panics at least some point mid-bake, rethinking their initially ambitious plans. Cathryn hopes the queen won’t mind a quick renovation to the palace. James’s barn is looking a lot more “derelict” than anticipated. Meanwhile, Brendan puts the finishing touches on a pair of fondant bluebirds, delicately painting mascara on the female bird and a coxcomb on her mate.
“It’s a bit much for me, to be honest,” Paul says of Brendan’s Disney-fied creation, to which I respond, “How dare you?” (That said, I am prepared to admit the bluebirds are a little creepy, facially.) Paul prefers John’s “spectacular” Colosseum, even if the gravel surrounding it is less than exciting. Danny’s pomegranate molasses-based, two-foot-tall Big Ben is both imposing and tasty, but the overall appearance is on the messy side. Cathryn’s Buckingham Palace is unmistakably Buckingham Palace, albeit a disorientingly crooked Buckingham Palace.
James’ semi-finished barn looks haunted — by the ghost of a cow or of a bale of hay, I’m not sure. Nevertheless, it’s incredible in both its underlying complex structure and in its flavor. Mary suggests that his is probably the only one of these gingerbread non-houses they’d actually enjoy eating in its entirety.
Alas, the wryly hilarious and talented Cathryn is going home. James is named Star Baker, which is how I’ve decided I’d like to spend my next birthday, too, please. See you in the semifinals!