Wow, y’all. Wow, wow, wow. Most of the episodes from this season of The Great British Baking Show have been wonderful to watch. There’s been dropped tarts, crying, and a lot of confusion along the way. But this week, this week right here, evoked levels of joy in me I thought weren’t possible after all these years.
To be more specific, this week’s “Festival Week” episode requires so many disparate skills that it could easily have been a finale. There’s bread-making, there’s deep-frying, there’s cake-grilling, there are pasta machines and intricate designs. And as with all truly great episodes of reality TV: There’s a surprise ending.
The premise of this week’s episode is to highlight dishes that appear at festivals and celebrations around the world. This leaves the field wide open for all kinds of bakes, but, to start, the judges ask the bakers to make 24 yeasted festival buns (that means proving!) that are identical and beautifully decorated.
This being a great British baking show, half of the bakers decide on making hot crossed buns — albeit zhuzhed-up versions. Michael’s Figgy Pudding Hot Cross Buns are designed to celebrate both Jesus’s birth and his death and rebirth by adding a Christmastime figgy pudding to the Easter-time treat. As he explains to Paul and Prue, he’s going all-in on the fruit, using dried sultanas, cranberries, dates, apricots, and — oh, yeah — figs. Paul eyes Michael with concern, pointing out that he’s using a lot of fruit for someone who doesn’t work at an old folk’s home. Michael smiles blankly and assures Paul that it’ll all be fine.
Steph, now a three-time Star Baker, settles on Zest and Spice Hot Cross buns with orange and lemon zest, cranberries, sultanas, and a spiced glaze. It’s simple, yes, but overcomplicating things doesn’t get you Star Baker. Just ask David.
Alice’s Hot Cross Buns, meanwhile, feature lemon, blueberry, and almond, which is most definitely a weird combination, but Alice seems unfazed. Or rather, super fazed. Because she spent the entire week grading hundreds of papers and writing hundreds of reports, proving that overworked educators aren’t solely an American problem. In her confusion, she decides that what these buns really need is a lemon curd glaze. Prue looks on wearily and Pauls says that sounds “interesting,” which in this context means “super weird.”
Henry, Rosie, and David go for festival buns inspired by faraway places. For Henry, that place is Sweden and their beloved kardemummabullar, which simply means cardamom bun. Henry’s will feature chocolate, almonds, and chocolate crème pâte, cardamom glaze, and pearl sugar. Simple, but oh so delicious sounding. David, meanwhile, looks to Bulgaria, where his brother lives and where his partner is from, and its kozunak, which he plans to braid and hit with some lemon, flaked almonds, and malt powder. Rosie, our stoic kween, goes even further abroad, combining Finland’s semlor with namelaka (essentially Japanese cream) and raspberry jam.
As baking gets underway, Michael suspects that he might have under-proved his hot cross buns, but, as usual and probably because he believes Rosie is the one going home this week, he brushes it off and moves on. David, meanwhile, has an issue with his plaits sticking together, but he decides that if can just shove the stuck-together ones in the middle, the judges won’t notice. A sound decision in Week Seven.
Judging begins and Prue and Paul call up David. As usual, his bake so neat as to be borderline OCD. While they find it lacking in fruit and a bit over-baked, the judges applaud David for the kozunak’s nice texture and springiness and he gets away with his stuck-together buns. Over at Michael’s station, Paul immediately notices that his buns are uneven and misshapen. Why? TOO MUCH FREAKIN’ FRUIT. Prue finds them to be a little tough. Still, his flavors are “spot-on” and they’ve got a lovely glaze, the best way to Prue’s heart (after gaudy necklaces).
Steph’s next and as usual she’s frozen with nervous energy and just waiting for Paul and Prue to call her a fraud. But, once again, she kicks ass and earns a Hollywood Handshake for her shiny, well-spiced, perfectly textured hot cross buns. The other bakers clap half-heartedly. Alice, the final hot cross bun-ner, gets pretty much the exact opposite commentary. Her candied lemon is bitter, the lemon curd glaze is unattractive, and they “look homemade,” according to Prue. Great praise if you’re an amateur baker, but a devastating barb on this show. Alice blinks in shock.
After nearly going home last week and sitting near the bottom for the last few weeks, Rosie is looking for some good feedback on her semlor. Paul immediately points out that her buns look flat, but they also look like they could be displayed in a shop window, the baking equivalent of being classified as editorial instead of commercial. He and Prue love the flavors even if the buns are a bit dense at the bottom. Prue compares them to donuts, the ultimate compliment.
Finally, Henry is up and Paul praises the stable color of his bake, though he notices some size irregularities. But he quickly forgets that upon realizing that Henry has made a perfect cardamom bun: Good proving, open crumb structure, and delicious flavoring. He offers Henry a Hollywood Handshake and Henry says, “Shut up!” It’s a big moment for him after weeks of sitting near the top, but never beating out Steph or Alice or Michelle or Michael. He officially graduates from Sophisticated Toddler to Sophisticated Child.
But then comes the Technical — chaos incarnate. For the first time since Bread Week, Paul sets the challenge, asking the bakers to make 12 perfectly identical Sicilian cassatelle, which look like undercooked empanadas filled with a smooth mixture of ricotta cheese, chocolate, and orange, and deep-fried. Privately, Paul reveals what all can go wrong here: The cassatelle can burst if they’re not sealed properly, they’re prone to being under-filled, the pastry has to be nice and thin, and the filling can’t be gritty. Prue shivers in ecstasy.
In the tent, the bakers get to work. They all manage to make good doughs and smooth fillings, but then they hit their first roadblock: using a hand-cranked pasta machine. Rosie recalls that one time she made her own pasta — “It was pretty good,” she says — and immediately points out that the dough needs to be thinned by putting it through the machine a few times, and moving the roller closer together with each turn. Because, after ten seasons, the bakers are still allowed to look at their neighbor’s homework, everyone eventually comes to the same conclusion.
But that doesn’t save Michael or Alice from failing to crimp their cassatelles well. And as their sweet li’l empanadas hit the hot oil, both of them experience bursting, resulting in sweet li’l puffy tacos. As time winds down and the bakers scramble to fry all 12 of their cassatella, Michael begs Sandi to count down slowly. And she does! All the bakers get about 30 more seconds to finish their bakes — timers and rules be damned.
Paul and Prue return to the tent and aren’t immediately horrified with the desserts set before them. Alice lands in sixth place for not properly sealing her cassatelles, which are also under-filled and over-fried. Michael barely beats her with his under-filled and soggy bakes. In a rare fall from grace, Steph takes fourth place for also over-frying her cassatelles and not rolling her pastry thin enough, even though they’re all sealed. Henry lands in third place because even though he had a burst or two, his cassatelles are well-fried, perfectly filled, and feature a thin pastry. Then, for the FIFTH time, David comes in second. “I repel first,” he says, and Rosie wins the Technical Challenge for the first time. She’s okay with it!
Sandi, Noel, and the judges gather to discuss who’s first and who’s worst. Steph, of course, is still the one to beat even after placing fourth, and Henry has finally begun to shine through. Rosie is on the up-and-up, but they’re not quite ready to declare her a threat. (It’s always the quiet ones, y’all.) That leaves sweet, dimpled Michael and Alice, who in a transparent attempt to plant a seed of doubt, has been declared “messy” for the way she keeps her station.
Bad news, because this week’s Showstopper will require the bakers to be not only incredibly neat, but detail-oriented, which Alice can’t possibly do with a messy station! Paul and Prue and the producers ask the bakers to create Kek Lapis Sarawak, a Malaysian celebration cake featuring colorful layers that are cut up and rearranged in eye-catching patterns. This will require the bakers to use food colorings, knives (watch out, Michael!), and broilers to grill each thin cake layer. This is, as Paul and Prue point out, one of the most difficult challenges in show history.
The bakers begin breaking open enough eggs to put anyone off eggs for the next month and get to mixing their colored cake layers. David’s Cake Sculpture will include tamarind, honey, and never-specified “Indonesian spices,” and look like a Singaporean skyscraper. Henry’s Elegant Present Box, which sounds like the name a serial killer would give to a box with a severed head in it, features lemon and lime sponges, raspberry and mint leaves, and raspberry and mint jam. As an ode to her step-grandmother, Steph decides to make an orange and chai cake with piped royal icing, marzipan roses, and orange-liqueur syrup. She explains that she originally wanted to rearrange her cakes as triangles, but found it too difficult and opted for layered squares.
Rosie somehow doesn’t overhear this or else ignores it and says she will be creating triangle shapes with her layered cakes along with sugar glass birds, piped royal icing, and nectarine jam. Michael decides that a Jamaica-themed cake is just what this challenge calls for and gets started on rum and ginger sponges with rum and lime marzipan in the colors of the Jamaican flag. With her head directly on the chopping block, Alice’s apparently messy ass will make a chocolate, orange, and salted caramel cake with isomalt fireworks and chocolate marzipan.
The first casualties of this challenge are two of David’s thin cakes, which he’s forced to scrape into the sink after they burn in the oven. The layers that do come out alright, he notes, are rubbery, but he can’t afford to start over or discard any more layers. Later, the bakers smell something burning and it turns out it’s Rosie’s cake, which she swears was only in the oven for two minutes. Somewhere, Helena’s familiar cackles.
With their cakes baked, the bakers get to work disassembling and reassembling their layers into intricate patterns. Rosie uses a contraption put together by her dad and David sharpens the shit out of a knife to make sure he only has to cut his cakes once. He also laments the fact that his bake will now be small after he burned those layers. Michael soaks every third sponge with rum in a blatant attempt to win Prue’s approval.
Somehow, they’re all able to finish this challenge on time. (Sorry Priya, but you could never.) And then it’s judging time. The judges go in reverse alphabetical order, or at least the segment is edited that way, and start with Steph. They ding her for the gaps in between her blocks of cake, but praise the delicious sponge and marzipan and the sound decoration. After Rosie sets her bake down, the judges point out that her triangle design, while ambitious, didn’t work out very well and her cake looks messy. But they’re blown away by the flavors and especially the nectarine jam, which Paul can’t get enough of.
Michael brings his green, black, and yellow cake up and the judges find themselves unimpressed with the pasty, uncolored layers of cake and marzipan on top and bottom of the decorated cake. Prue says the rum soak was a bad idea (ouch!) and they both find the cake stodgy. Michael heads back to his station and assures the other bakers he’s fine. He’s not.
Henry arrives at the bench and Paul’s first impression is that his lime and lemon sponges look like an egg salad sandwich. Henry quips that this is the look he was going for and in doing so graduates to Sophisticated Teenager. The judges love the texture and flavor of the cake and applaud Henry for his nearly flawless execution.
As soon as David comes to the front, he admits that he lost some layers and now his bake is smaller than it was originally intended to be. Still, his bake is startlingly neat and the flavor is “nice and spicy” though the texture is rubbery as David suspected. Finally, Alice presents her cake and lo and behold: It’s even neater than David’s. As their plan to send Alice home begins to crumble, Prue says the chocolate, orange, and salted caramel cake looks like it might be dry. But it isn’t. And it tastes good. Like, really, really good. It’s, dare we say, faultless. Michael’s last-ditch hope that Alice would fuck up trickles down the drain.
Still, that doesn’t erase the fact that Alice did horribly in the Signature and placed dead last in the Technical. And as Helena’s Technical win and elimination in the same week taught us, no one is safe on GBBS. The winner’s race is equally unclear: Steph killed it in the Signature and the Showstopper, but placed fourth in the Technical, with Henry beating her by just one spot. Apparently that’s all it takes, because Henry is crowned Star Baker in a stunning upset. With his chin held high, he steps into Sophisticated Adulthood.
Having received the only thoroughly negative feedback in the Showstopper, placing fifth in the Technical, and barely pulling off his Figgy Pudding Hot Buns, Michael and his dimples are sent packing. Michael undoubtedly kicked ass along the way and was a real contender for the final three, but it only takes one bad week to upend everything. And he had a really, really bad week. The feel of the tent, and possibly the show, will be very different next week minus Michael’s sometimes over-the-top, but nonetheless endearing energy and positive attitude. His banter was also top-notch.
But banter doesn’t make good pastry, the theme of next week’s five-person quarterfinals. It’s down to Alice, David, Steph, Rosie, and Henry, all of whom have proved at one time or another that they’re finale material. First, however, they must pass through the laminated dough gauntlet, and that particular throughway is littered with the rotting corpses of better bakers. Let’s hope these five know their pâte à choux from their pâte brisée.