Week eight in the Bake Off tent saw the famous five put friendship aside for a place in the semi-finals. Our two professional bakers, Gerhard Jenne and Charlotte Green, reckon there is a certain Gallic feel about this year’s series.
"It’s perhaps a minor thing, but the Great British Bake Off is turning more and more French. We had Gallic nuns last week, French Meringue this week and it’s going to be Gateau Opera next week… are there no interesting British recipes to challenge the remaining bakers?"
One area where Britain is at the baking forefront in Europe is the vast amount of ‘free-from’ products now available. Demand here is growing constantly and this week the all women team of five remaining bakers had to bake a loaf using a wheat- or gluten-free flour.
Spelt is not suitable for those on a strict gluten-free diet, but it was popular choice and used to make loaves ranging from Chelsea buns to focaccia and a delicious-looking savoury loaf by Kimberley, featuring wild garlic pesto and parma ham. What could possibly go wrong?
Christine opted for a gluten-free flour mix that included tapioca and rice flour and, I suspect, some natural gum to make it stand up. The judges were quite complimentary about the even spread of seeds on top of her loaf. I think they were clutching at straws, as it looked really dull. Maybe Christine should have dug out the recipe for the Doris Grant loaf; a friend of mine has very successfully adapted her wholemeal loaf to featuring spelt and it delivers a lot more oomph and has a great moist texture.
On they went to create the technical challenge, Hazelnut Dacquois, a three-layered hazelnut meringue filled with mocha mousseline (cream), piped with ganache swirls and decorated with praline hazelnuts.
Judging by the meringues being beaten, it was clear that the heights of the layers were going to differ greatly. At one point the camera cut to a bowl of egg whites fully whipped without any of the sugar added to give the meringue some stability. Perhaps it was Christine’s, as the thickness of her meringue was on the crêpes side (another French recipe) and meant she came last in this round. Ruby, who declared she has never possessed an electric cake mixer before, did rather better and won this round. She could be on the cusp of getting a sponsorship deal with a mixer manufacturer quite soon if she carries on like this.
The big challenge this week was a novelty cake, made with a vegetable-based cake and it had to be dairy-free. The programme makers are certainly upping the ante. Most novelty cakes are usually smothered in buttercream or frosting, so they had to be clever with their fillings.
I liked Christine’s approach of making a passion fruit, marshmallow fondant. To me it was more creative than substituting regular butter with a soya-based product. However, it didn’t quite cut it with the two judges. Frances’ chocolate went up in smoke in a moment of microwave zealousness, she was condemned yet again for style over substance; her sponge was clever but dry! Beca played it safe with a wooden board featuring a cheese and some fondant mice. I was surprised the two presenters failed to crack a joke about it not being dairy-free after all. Kimberley baked a cute and solid-looking Magic Toadstool with an excellent bake based on butternut squash. But it was Ruby who stole the star baker’s crown; her garden shed cake looked a bit rickety, but as Mary said, “she had made everything herself”, not relied on props, and it was all edible - a notion I whole-heartedly support.
Christine baked a sweet potato-based sponge as the body for her guitar shaped cake. She lovingly decorated it, but she had made the mistake of saying the sponge’s texture was going to be that of bread pudding. This went down like a lead weight with Mary. Upon tasting it, Paul also announced it was bland without character, so rather than strumming ‘Stairway to Heaven’ it was ‘Highway to Hell’ for Christine and her place in next week’s quarter final.
"When I heard the words “gluten, wheat and dairy free” this week, my heart went out to the bakers, because I have experienced first-hand the difficulties of creating the desired texture using substitute products!"
The first task was not too prescriptive though, merely asking for an ‘unusual’ flour to be used in a bread loaf.
Four of the five opted for spelt, a grain suitable for wheat-allergy suffers, though not gluten-free. Spelt flour produces a delicious nutty-tasting bread, but has a weaker gluten structure than bread flour made from common wheat, which contains the perfect ratio of glutenin and gliadin for stretchiness and structure. The weaker structure in spelt allows the dough to flow, requiring a tin to contain it.
Apparently having failed to learn lessons from earlier rounds, Frances and Kim both filled their doughs before the first proofing, inhibiting the yeast. Ruby made no such omission, but hers emerged from the proofing drawer looking small anyway. Christine made a very wet gluten-free dough and, after baking, removal from the tin proved disastrous. Sue Perkins tried to help her stick the crust back onto the crumb, and incredibly, the judges didn’t notice. She was praised along with Beca, whose focaccia was chewy and delicious.
Another incredibly tricky Technical Challenge, and not one the bakers were likely to have attempted before, was the Hazelnut Dacquoise. Put simply, this meringue and crème mousseline dessert requires a level of precision that has not really been seen among the contestants, at least not consistently, and to be fair, is not usually required of home bakers.
Sure enough, Frances and Beca both produced runny meringue and thin custard, and Christine’s meringue was ‘chewy’ and ‘baked too quickly’. Ruby and Kim, however, managed to produce visible layers and good flavours, which was no mean feat. I think these two may well meet in the final.
The Showstopper Challenge was certainly interesting – a dairy-free, vegetable 3D novelty cake. I love to bake with pumpkin and spices, an influence from my years spent living in the USA. Dairy-free cakes are becoming more common these days, and many people swear by using vegetable or olive oil for a moist and tender crumb. I dislike oil in cakes, but dairy-free spreads can produce a close crumb and a poor rise, so the choice is difficult.
Beca made the extremely poor decision of baking a butternut squash cake that she hadn’t practised, and the judges labelled it bland. Frances used beetroot, and I thought that she should have teamed it with chocolate for sweetness; her actual result was partly dry, partly dense, and too bitter to eat, resulting in more ‘style over substance’ comments. Christine’s guitar cake was also bland-tasting and, I thought, bland-looking, for she had chosen a very strange colour for a guitar.
Kim’s cake was beautifully executed and full of detail, but I thought Ruby’s was a mess – she has no experience of this kind of decoration – and I was surprised that she was named star baker over Kim, especially after the raw bread she served up in the first challenge. Christine went home, although to be honest, it could have been Beca or Frances. Things can only get tougher as we go into the semi-final next week.
You can read Gerhard’s blog here.
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Charlotte’s personal blog can be found here.
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