'If you play safe, it will be boring'

By Ruth Kinane
July 29, 2016 at 05:54 PM EDT
PBS
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In a tent in the heart of the British countryside, eight amateur bakers must learn to cope without basic ingredients. It’s “Alternative Ingredients” week, a.k.a. baking for those with allergies. Think cake with no sugar, bread without gluten, and ice cream without diary. Think a whole lot of confused faces among the bakers. With that in mind, “gluten” is your drinking-game word for the opening hour. And let’s jump right in.

The Signature Bake for the first episode is a cake without sugar: In two and a half hours, the contestants must bake a cake that’s still sweet and light using other sweetening agents — which means fruit, honey, or some flavor of syrup for most in the tent. Ian and Tamal opt for honey; Mat goes for dates and honey; Paul, Alvin, and Ugne pick agave nectar; Nadiya is using basil seeds to make a blueberry jam (don’t ask, just nod); and finally, Flora’s cooking up an apple compote.

In a surprising twist (and perhaps a first for the baking show), everyone seems reasonably pleased when they take their cakes out of the oven. They’re all adding cream-cheese icing to ramp up the sweetness, apart from Alvin, who’s glazing his cake with agave syrup (it’s a pretty pineapple upside-down cake, so it’s a smart move not to cover it up). And his simple approach sees him through: He receives a “superb” from Mr. Hollywood and a “cracking cake” from Mary. Yay, Alvin! “I wish it could be like that all the time,” he laments. Ugne, on the other hand, has stretched herself too thin by adding the extra challenge of making herself gluten-free; the texture of her cake just doesn’t hold together. “Splodge” seems the most fitting word to describe it.

At least she’s been practicing gluten-free baking, though, since this week’s Technical Challenge is to bake gluten-free bread. And not just any bread. The challenge is to make 12 identical gluten-free pita breads in two hours. Of course, no one has made pita bread before, let alone the gluten-free kind. Alvin thinks he’s tasted it once, but later seems confused as to the difference between naan and pita breads. Tamal takes one look at the instructions and yelps, “What the hell?” Ugne has never made gluten-free bread before in her life, but she did just make a gluten-free cake. How different can it be?

The challenge is designed to test them on their base knowledge of gluten-free flours. Bread connoisseur Paul Hollywood is looking for a consistency that’s more sticky dough than wet dough. It should have a nice tinge of brown to it once baked, and since there’s no gluten, it will break fairly easily. No one really achieves this. The bakers present their slabs of gray, dense bread for the judges to taste. For the first time ever, I’m glad I’m not a judge on this show.

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Alvin comes in last, but at least he now knows what pita bread is. Nadiya takes first place for the first time in a Technical Challenge. Ian is nervous while Ugne is hopeful. Let’s see how long that feeling lasts as we move onto the Showstopper challenge.

After last week’s 3-D bread sculpture, this week’s ice-cream roll doesn’t seem so crazy. The bakers must make dairy-free ice cream, covered in homemade jam and wrapped in a light golden sponge. Paul expects to see magic in the tent: “’That’ll do baking’ is not good enough,” he warns.

NEXT: Things take a tropical turn

Most of the tent dwellers are using coconut milk and flavors of a tropical inclination. Alvin is using a traditional Philippine ingredient, Buko Pandan (Paul says it smells like sunblock) that turns your tongue the color of Ectoplasm from Ghostbusters. It seems worrisome. Meanwhile, Paul’s “Dessert Island Getaway,” made with joconde sponge, mango, lime, and coconut — complete with a fondant bikini-clad sunbather — seems like a surefire hit. This is the man who made a lion out of bread last week, so it’s safe to be confident in his fondant-bikini-making abilities. Ian’s also making a desert-island-themed roll and thinks he has the edge, thanks to a rubber ducky he plans to use as a decoration — because ducks frequent tropical beaches?

Rolling a frozen lump of ice cream into a piece of sponge without breaking said piece of sponge seems like a mammoth challenge, and Alvin is struggling. Paul-Not-Hollywood steps in to help him. They cut away at the lurid-green ice cream together until it fits. Then there’s a frantic dash to decorate the rolls without the ice cream melting — Ugne even has to adorn hers while it’s in the freezer. She put jam inside her ice cream (always keen to switch things up) and it seems to be causing a literal meltdown. Six of the bakers are inlaying designs to leave a pattern on the sponge. It’s incredibly technical and intricate work — precisely what we’ve come to expect from a Showstopper challenge.

Come judgment time, Nadiya’s idea to add strawberry-and-lime mousse running through her chocolate ice cream pays off. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Ugne. Once again, her dessert seems to have collapsed. Putting the jam inside her peanut-butter ice cream rather than on the outside was a mistake. The judges, while sympathetic, aren’t pleased with the aesthetic. “It looks like you dropped it from 10 foot,” says Paul, even though he compliments the flavors of her cake.

In the end, however, flavor’s not enough to save Ugne. “Sometimes she goes a little bit wild,” offers Paul by way of explanation for sending her home. It’s time for the adventurous bodybuilder to hang up her apron and leave the tent for good.

Nadiya clinches Star Baker, and those tears that have been threatening to brim over for weeks finally flow happily as she considers how proud her husband and kids will be. Will she keep her newly claimed lead when it comes to pastry week? We can find out right now because — lucky us — it’s another double bill.

It’s pastry week, so your drinking-game words for the next hour are “flaky” and (everyone’s favorite) “soggy bottom.”

First up is the Signature Challenge, which is a frangipane tart. The bakers have two tented hours to produce this almond-flavored cream encased in shortcrust pastry.

“To make a good short pastry you need to just bring it together, but not overwork it, then it becomes too rubbery because you build up the gluten,” Paul Hollywood warns ahead of the challenge. “You want it to break and almost melt in the mouth, but strong enough to hold the frangipane.” But the real test here? In the infamous words of one Mrs. Mary Berry: “Not to get a soggy bottom.”

There are a lot of nerves now that there are only seven bakers left. With nerves comes the need to take risks and stand out. Nadiya is bringing bay leaf, rong tea, and pear to her frangipane mix. Even she admits it’s a gamble, since not one of these ingredients has a strong flavor. Mat’s making a piña-colada-flavored frangipane tart by adding mango, coconut, and rum to the mix, but plans to save some rum to drink if things don’t go to plan. Judge Paul greets Alvin’s addition of unpoached plums skeptically, while Ian is pleased because one of his guineafowls has started laying eggs and he’s brought some to use in his tart. Despite not having used this type of egg to bake in many years, his tart will obviously turn out to be a success – this is Ian, after all.

It’s sticky work. Some tent members blind-bake their pastry to avoid the feared soggy bottom. Alvin is having time-management problems and decides to use less filling so they’ll cook faster. His eyes look a little red. Mat’s crust has shrunk. Tamal’s stressing about the design while Flora is prioritizing her aesthetic over the actual bake — she’s even making extra cookies as decorations.

NEXT: Alvin begins to crumble

With just minutes to go, Alvin is still fiddling with his oven controls, so it’s unsurprising when Mary and Paul dig in and find the filling still raw. He apologizes profusely. Nadiya’s tart looks lovely due to some very even pear slicing, but she has the dreaded soggy bottom. Mat’s looks “effective,” but the rum flavor doesn’t really come through. Maybe he drank it all instead?

The pastry Technical Challenge is Flaounes. It’s a cheese-filled pastry made in Cyprus and eaten to celebrate the end of Lent. The bakers have just two hours to make 12 identical pastries with a thin crust and high dome shape.

Glancing at the instructions, pretty much everyone mumbles the words “What is this?” Even Mary tells Paul she’s never heard of them and declares this “the toughest challenge yet.” To which Paul responds, “Great, isn’t it?” (I doubt the bakers agree, though.)

The ingredients — one of which seems to smell pretty terrible — are perplexing. “That’s like some industrial-strength cleaner,” says Nadiya after taking a whiff. Bet you’re salivating at the thought of Flaounes now.

No one knows whether the dough needs to be kneaded. It dawns on Flora that it’s pastry (not bread) week, so maybe there’s no need to knead? Two hours of general confusion later, Paul takes one look at the bakers’ attempts at the cheesy Cypriot parcels and laughs — a good sign, I’m sure you’ll agree. Mat’s are deemed promising as he’s managed to fold the pastry correctly, and that’s enough to land him first position in this challenge. Poor Alvin is told his pastries look more like pizzas or a deconstructed Flaounes, but it’s Tamal who finds himself at the bottom of the pile.

Acing the Showstopper is now Alvin’s only hope to stay in the tent for one more week. The bakers have three hours and 45 minutes to make 24 vol-au-vents. They must make two different types of these small hollow cases of puff pastry, 12 of each. PSA: Do not watch this next section while hungry. Vol-au-vents might be the most scrumptious-looking treat on the show so far.

The main challenge here is making sure the pastry is just right. The many layers of dough must be paper-thin. To achieve this result, the dough is wrapped around a block of cold butter, rolled out and folded up like a letter. The process is then repeated multiple times. The more folds, the better the puff.

For their fillings, most of the bakers go for one sweet and one savory option. Ambitious Flora decides to make chocolate pastry. Ian’s adding squid ink to his, something his wife warned him not to do. Clever Mat listened to his wife, who suggested smoked trout and horseradish for one of his fillings. The other is a take on the full English breakfast and will contain sausage and bacon topped with a quail egg. Tamal’s taking inspiration from something close to his heart, too: A sandwich he once enjoyed. It’s not just any sandwich, however; it’s one of the top two sandwiches of his entire life. It’s pulled pork fried with fennel and rosemary. (Anyone else dying to know what the no. 1 sandwich he ever tasted is?)

There are pastry problems aplenty as the time ticks away. Nadiya and Mat are encountering lumps of butter in their dough. “It’s a bit like a cellulite-y thigh,” says Mel, which must be the worst description of an edible item ever. Mat declares he doesn’t have time to start over, but Nadiya decides it’s worth a shot.

In the end, it turns out it wasn’t. She has 48 vol-au-vents to fill in five minutes and it’s just not possible. She decides just to give the judges the filling on the side, or “deconstructed vol-au-vents,” as she calls them. Hey, it’s technically still everything they asked for. Luckily for Nadiya, her mix of clementine and cod is flavorsome enough to save her. Choosing to stick with his first batch of pastry, lumps and all, works for Mat. His “gorgeous” fillings blow the judges away and those runny yolks are even enough to land him Star Baker for the week.

Despite this mid-bake nugget of wisdom from Alvin, “It’s the little things, that if you focus on it, you’ll be rewarded in the end,” his puff pastries are not up to par. They’re raw on the bottom. Cue more apologies from Alvin and hugs from the other bakers when he’s told he’s heading home. He says his goodbyes, but is happy to say his time in the tent has taught him to be resilient and has made him a different and better man.

Ladies and gentlemen, behold the power of baking.

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