It's time to go "cocoa loco!"
Credit: PBS

It’s semifinals week on The Great British Baking Show. With just four bakers remaining, the tension in the tent is as thick as curdled custard. Before they can proceed to the finals, Ian, Flora, Nadiya, and Tamal must take on chocolate. Jealous? You shouldn’t be — it’s the most stressful episode yet. So to quote Sue, “Let’s get the semis on.”

In the interest of health and safety, your drinking-game word for this episode will not be “chocolate.” Let’s go with “rise” and “shine” instead.

We kick off chocolate week with a tart — a chocolate tart, of course. Here’s the brief: The pastry can be any kind the bakers like as long as it’s chocolate-flavored. The filling can be anything they want as long as it’s chocolate-flavored, and they can use any kind of decoration they want, but yeah, it should be chocolate. They have two and a half hours to go “cocoa loco” and according to Paul, there’s “no room for error.”

“Sounds simple, but it’s got to be immaculate,” Mary says. It’s going to be the most terrifying, traumatic chocolate-infused situation ever, I can just tell. Here’s how the four semifinalists tackle it:

Tamal is basing his tart on an American recipe: It’ll have a dense, rich filling with a thin layer of raspberry coulis on top. Time-challenged Tamal is going for the minimalist approach to avoid his usual woes.

Flora is going for a dark-chocolate pastry with a layer of passion-fruit custard, milk-chocolate mousse, and a dark-chocolate ganache. Oh, you thought that was all? Guys, this is Flora. There will also be a truckload of chocolate decorations on top, and some macarons for a final Flora flourish. (Maybe she’ll end up throwing in some tuiles, too; we know how fond she is of those baked wafers.)

Ian is adding bay-leaf-infused caramel sauce to his dark-chocolate tart (it offers sweetness and a floral element, as well as the opportunity to bring along some homegrown herbs). He’s finishing it with a mirror glaze on top.

Nadiya’s chocolate tart will also have a layer of salted caramel but with peanut, too, and then a layer of chocolate mousse flavored with her homemade peanut butter. It will be covered in chocolate ganache and decorated with truffles dusted in peanut powder.

Tamal and Flora are eyeing each other, one wishing they’d done more, the other less. “Flora’s making about six billion different elements to hers,” says Tamal, but Flora’s more concerned about overcooking her custard filling. Meanwhile, Nadiya’s making sure she adds just the right amount of salt to her salted caramel so it doesn’t end up too savory and warrant a salty response from the judges — whereas Ian aims to add enough salt so his tart isn’t overwhelmingly sweet.

It’s tart-tasting time for Mary and Paul. Tamal’s simple finish is overlooked, since he’s made a lovely thin pastry with a good layer of chocolate mixture and managed a good contrast of textures. Paul momentarily debates whether he likes it due to the filling’s richness, but the raspberry coulis wins him over in the end.

Ian’s looks so good, it’s hard to watch Paul cut into it. It’s rich and creamy, but the taste of bay leaf just isn’t coming through, and Paul doesn’t like the caramel on the bottom. He’s disappointed: “You’re king of flavors and I think you missed a trick there.” Ian looks so crestfallen, I feel bad I ever got mad at him for always winning.

Paul has some initial concerns about the thickness of Nadiya’s pastry, but flavor-wise, Mary likes it — and she’s not even a peanut fan. HANDSHAKE ALERT! Paul ends up loving it: After shaking Nadiya’s hand, he offers her a “Spot on.”

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It’s the usual for Flora. The overall decoration looks good and it cuts well, but her passion-fruit base has split, and Paul says her decorative macarons are “not good” and “dry as a bone.” Flora’s left feeling envious of Nadiya’s handshake. Not to fear, Flora, the technical challenge is next.

NEXT: The scariest Technical Challenge yet

On second thought, maybe she should be afraid. The other bakers are banished from the tent, leaving Flora all alone. It’s not quite as sinister as it sounds, though. There’s just a slight twist this week, lovely viewers!

The bakers’ start times for the Technical Challenge will be staggered. They’ll each be called into the tent at different times, and only then will they learn what the challenge is. (P.S. It’s chocolate soufflés — a.k.a. every baker’s worst nightmare.) This may be the most stressful 10-minute segment of a TV show ever. We’re talking Breaking Bad levels of anxious viewing.

The semifinalists have one hour and 15 minutes to make the soufflé. It should be well-risen and level on top, and softer in the middle. It has to be served almost immediately, so (as always) correct timing is crucial and consistency is key for the soufflé to avoid sinking. Mixing will be another nemesis: If they fold the meringue mix into the crème pat too much, it won’t rise; if they fold it in too little, there’ll be flecks of beaten egg whites. How ghastly! Mary knows how hard it is to make, and that’s exactly what she intended. This is the semifinal, people!

In order for the meringue and the crème pat to combine at the correct point, the bakers have to make both elements simultaneously. As you’d expect, it’s a flustered frenzy in the tent, a horror show of crème patisserie, meringue, and overwrought bakers. Here are some snapshots:

  • Flora, trying to take deep breaths, says, “This is the least funny thing I’ve ever done in my life.” She’s never made a soufflé before and the instructions are literally “make a soufflé.” She’s overjoyed to see Ian when he enters the tent to get started.
  • Ian’s so nervous, he’s forgotten how to make a crème pat. Mel reminds him he’s made one on the Baking Show before. “I’m not even looking in the oven,” he says once his soufflé is in, using a dish towel to obstruct his view. “There’s nothing good coming out of that oven this afternoon.”
  • In comes Nadiya to deliver some of the best lines of the season. “I’ve never made one. Why have I never made a soufflé?” she ponders. “Oh yeah, because they’re a pain to make.” Once her soufflé’s out of the oven, she adds, “That was stressful. I’d sooner have another baby.”
  • Enter Tamal, who’s obviously never made a soufflé before either. He’s taking some comfort in the fact he’s starting last, so his being behind everyone else is at least intentional this time.

Mary and Paul sit at the gingham altar with their backs turned as the soufflés are placed in front of them for sampling. Flora’s anxiety takes over, and she kneels on the floor before receiving generally good news: Her soufflé is well-baked and has a very good flavor; it just needed a little more baking.

Ian’s soufflé doesn’t have much rise, which means he over-folded the meringue mix. However, he did manage to incorporate every bit of said meringue, so his consistency is good and his flavor is lovely.

Sadly, this is just not Nadiya’s challenge. A lot of meringue wasn’t fully mixed in, so the soufflé had white flecks throughout, but it tastes fine. “It looked horrible,” Nadiya says from her bench.

Tamal drops his off and throws up his hands in defeat. His height is good, but it’s split on top and there are some of those ghastly white flecks. His texture is beautifully light, but not light enough to lift him to the top spot. He takes second to Flora, who’s won a Technical Challenge for the first time. Nadiya cries when she comes in last, convinced she’s going home, but she vows to bake the best Showstopper she can!

The semifinal Showstopper is a chocolate centerpiece. It must be 3D; the bakers must make their own mold and stencils; it must have a biscuit (cookie) element; and they can use any chocolate they like, as long as white chocolate is featured somewhere. I wish Paul Not Hollywood were still here to make another jungle animal, this time out of chocolate.

NEXT: Which baker will melt away before the final?

Tamal decides to make a bell tower. It’ll have three tiers and two types of biscuits, and he’ll top his tower with chocolate pillars and a bell. He’s using white chocolate to adorn the walls.

Flora is constructing a cocoa carousel. It’ll have hexagonal chocolate-pecan shortbread for the center and a roof of chocolate and puffed rice. The base will be a chocolate cake, and horses made of white-chocolate ganache will gallop around the sides for decoration. She’s made her own mold; Paul thinks it looks more like a dog than a horse.

Nadiya is interpreting the brief in a different way. She’s focusing on a sculptural element with biscuits demoted to a supporting role. She’s making a chocolate peacock(!) with marshmallow, puffed rice, and a crispy biscuit base, decorated with individual tail feathers and white chocolate-coated cinder eggs inside a nest of tempered chocolate. It’ll be covered in an edible blue-glucose molding chocolate.

Ian is diving into a chocolate well. He’s making a handle with a bucket that goes down into a well of white-chocolate water surrounded by a circle of shortbread biscuits. His first attempt took him four days, so he’s hoping to improve on that time.

As always, Tamal is running short on time. Nadiya’s regretting her decision to incorporate “500 feathers,” and Ian’s now forgotten how to make shortbread. (What happened to him on his way to the tent this week?) Flora’s an hour behind where she wanted to be and her piping is paying the price. She enlists Sue to help keep her carousel walls in place. There’s so much tension, it’s almost ruining chocolate for me.

Tamal’s masterpiece is first to be judged. It looks impressive…from a distance. His piping isn’t precise and his overall attention to detail is lacking. But hey, he got a good bake on the shortbread.

Well, well, well. Ian’s is a masterpiece of a centerpiece. He gets full marks for originality and the well is actually functioning. You can literally dunk the bucket into the mixture of white chocolate and cream and pull it up again — well, almost, if the handle didn’t snap in half. (Good one, Paul!) His biscuits are delicious, but overall the judges feel he needed more piping around the outside. Paul doesn’t think Tamal did enough work in the time allotted. But he made a well! Out of chocolate! A functioning well! I don’t get it.

Flora’s next. Paul likes what she’s done, but it’s wonky and there’s no glossy shine to her chocolate. “It’s a very flat finish,” says Mary. They can taste the rising agent too much. Paul saws into it to discover her puffed rice didn’t bind together. Ultimately, it’s very impressive to look at, but it doesn’t taste as good as it looks.

Nadiya’s centerpiece really defines what a Showstopper should be. It’s a thing of beauty, really too pretty to eat. The attention to detail really showcases her skills. “A great piece of art,” according to Paul, who adds, “It’s effective and it tastes good, too.” That’s enough to give Nadiya the title of Star Baker for another week. The pea (nuts and cock — you know Mel and Sue are enjoying these innuendos too much) theme saw her through.

It’s the end of the road for Flora. She’s gutted. “I feel so honored and privileged to have got this far,” she says with a few tears. Ian is crying his eyes out. “Don’t weep, you big softy,” Flora chides. It’s a shame for the lovely lass; she just always went one decorative twirl too far.

Join me next week for the final tented showdown.

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The Great British Baking Show
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