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‘Great British Baking Show’ Recap: Footloose and Sugar-Free

Comedian Alison Leiby recaps episodes five and six of the oddly relaxing reality TV bake-off

All photos courtesy Love Productions

Welcome back to the pleasant double header also known as new Friday-night episodes of The Great British Baking Show. Ian has been on a winning streak for the last few episodes, so the field is gunning for him. And by "gunning for him," I mean politely telling the camera, "Well, it would be nice to get to win one, but we'll see!"

Episode five's theme is alternative ingredients. That doesn't mean crystals or anything, just recipes where a crucial item is replaced by something less common. We could call this the "Annoying Restaurant Order" episode, because it's all about being gluten-free, sugar-free, and stress-free-free when baking.

For the Signature Bake, the contestants are charged with baking a cake: They're permitted to use honey, fruit, or agave as a substitute, but no straight sugar is allowed. In. A. Cake. What's even the point? That's like buying sunglasses that don't have lenses.

We could call this the "Annoying Restaurant Order" episode, because it’s all about being gluten- and sugar-free.

Paul Hollywood explains that the key to making a cake taste good without sugar is using robust, flavorful fruits to sweeten it, like citruses, and to avoid blander ones like apples and pears. And then he proposed to me and said he wanted to whisk me away to his house in the English countryside so we could sit around and talk about how much we like bread for the rest of our lives. Wait, no, only the first part happened. That other thing was just in my mind.

Despite Paul's note, Ian is making a honey and pear batter for his cake. All of the bakers seem thrown for a bit of a loop with this theme in general, some using fruit to sweeten their desserts, others opting for agave nectar.

[Meanwhile, in America: At least one contestant would be a vegan, gluten-free, plant-based, no sodium chef who every challenge serves a pile of sticks and pretends it tastes good.]

Ugne decides to strap on some ankle weights and not just make a sugar-free dessert, but also a gluten-free one by using quinoa flour for her checkerboard chocolate and vanilla cake. Tamal sweetens his cake with a syrup infusion that's "50 percent grapefruit juice, 50 percent blood orange juice. And honey. I guess it's not 50 percent of the others then. Ah, maths."

His syrup is a hit, as the judges love his honey and grapefruit polenta cake, along with Alvin's classic pineapple upside down cake. Ian struggled for the first time in the competition, along with best friend in a romantic comedy Flora, whose cake was a bit too damp thanks to her decision to use apples.

On to the Technical Challenge, where the hosts explain the bakers must make 12 identical gluten-free pitas. My stupid American ears initially heard "pitters" and not "pitas" so I spent 30 minutes with the episode paused trying to look up "pitters" and all I found was a hair salon on the Upper East Side. Anyway, it's pita.

No one knows really how this will work. Each baker got an unlabeled packet of brown powder. Turns out it's cilium, which acts as a gluten substitute. Alvin tells the hosts that he has eaten pita bread once, then spends most of the challenge debating what shape to make it, mostly confusing it with naan. Mat looks in the oven and describes his breads as "gray and dense," you know, how you always want your bread to look.

[Meanwhile, in America: Some nightmare would use this challenge as an opportunity to casually drop just how well-traveled they are and how many countries they've been to and eaten in.]

It's a tough challenge, with Alvin and Tamal at the bottom, and excitingly, Nadiya in first place. I've been hoping she would win a challenge someday, especially since she is often on the bottom in the technicals.

Now it's time for the Showstopper (which is also what I say when I do my signature sex move, which is fall asleep). For this one, the contestants must make a dairy-free ice cream roll. An ice cream roll is simply ice cream and jam wrapped in sponge cake, but Paul notes that a bake being "good enough" won't cut it in this challenge. He won't be giving the bakers any leeway just because they are using alternative ingredients.

This may as well be called the coconut milk challenge, because that's what basically everyone is using as a dairy substitute. Lots of tropical flavors, like Alvin's buko pandan, Ian's mango and ginger, and Paul's pineapple jam. Nadiya and Tamal tease each other from their stations while making the ice cream, Tamal trying to see how she's making hers.

[Meanwhile, in America: Their playful banter would be masking, or at least interpreted as, a full-blown romantic relationship complete with a tearful break-up when one of them is inevitably eliminated.]

Gif courtesy

Paul's tropical roll is topped not only with bright colors and palm trees, but also a fondant bikini babe who's top heavy and barely covered, making it by far the riskiest thing that has ever happened on this show. But Paul's bathing beauty isn't the only good thing about his roll, the judges also love the taste of the ice cream.

Ugne's peanut butter and jelly roll has excellent flavors, but unfortunately looks like a flat melty mess. Between her struggle in the Signature Bake and her messy roll this week, Ugne is sadly eliminated. Her reaction was a polite "it's fine."

[Meanwhile, in America: We'd get three minutes of tears and heaving.]

In brighter news, Star Baker for the week is Nadiya! She tells the camera that her family "is going to be so proud of me. And I'm never proud of myself, but I'm proud of myself now." She's crying. I'm crying. Everyone is crying.

And into the next episode we go...

I would say we rush into episode six, but there is literally never rushing on this show. No running around, no harried grab at a pantry of ingredients, no throwing pans around a grill. Just courteous, focused baking. This episode is all about pastry. I always think that I'm a lot like pastry — pretty flaky and mostly butter on the inside.

The Signature Bake is a frangipane tart, which has a shortcrust pastry crust and an open top with custard and fruit. Frangipane is an almond-flavored pastry cream, though Nadiya describes it as "liquid cake batter," which honestly sounds much more satisfying. Ian, never one to keep things simple, keeps guinea fowl at home and brought in the eggs one recently laid to make his pastry. Half of the contestants are blind-baking their crust (aka, par-baking it before adding the filling) so it doesn't get soggy with the pastry cream. Half are not out of fear of over-baking the tarts.

[Meanwhile, in America: The producers would take "blind-baking" too far and make the competitors prepare the tart while blindfolded.]

Ian has another misstep with his tart: Since he didn't blind-bake it, the bottom crust is soggy and the top doesn't have a nice glaze like the others. Nadiya has the same problem. Master decorator Paul has a beautiful and well-baked Christmas version and Tamal's, while a little messy, is delicious.

The Technical Challenge is "close to Paul's heart, nestled just underneath the chest hair." I was very bummed to realize the challenge is not me and, is in fact, to make flaounes. These are a cheese-filled, sesame-seed-topped pastry from Cyprus. And, like me, no one has ever heard of them.

The filling uses mastic, which has a very strong pine aroma that most of the bakers compare to an industrial cleaning product. Paul's recipe also calls for yeast, which is rare in pastry and means the dough will feel a little more like bread than the average buttery version. With minimal instructions, putting the flaounes together is mostly guesswork, like assembling Ikea furniture.

Paul surveys the table of cheesy pastries, looks at the group, and scoffs. Clearly, there are not a lot of success stories on those trays. Tamal is at the bottom of the barrel, along with Alvin. The two of them seem to round out the worst of the technical challenges every time. Flora takes second place and Mat has his first win.

With minimal in­structions, putting the flaunas together is mostly guesswork, like assembling Ikea furniture.

[Meanwhile, in America: Paul would be angry and aggressive about how poorly everyone made their flaunas, throwing around a lot of, "What were you thinking?"s and "You need to go back to basics."]

For this week's Showstopper Challenge, the bakers are charged with making two types of vol-au-vent, which are better known as canapés. The hosts call this a "classic from the '70s," but I see and eat dozens of them at every wedding cocktail hour I go to. Also, let's park at weddings for a moment. The whole night should be the cocktail hour. That's unquestionably the best part, and no one wants to eat a steak in a fancy dress. Passed appetizers for everyone!

The bakers must make 24 of each version, so a total of 48 canapés. My question with this and most cooking shows is, What happens to the ones that aren't eaten? Are there hundreds of pastry appetizers just going to waste? Do they need someone on the crew to just eat the loss, so to speak? If so, I would like to apply for that position.

One key to successful pastry is keeping the butter cold while folding it into the dough. Ian has perfect edges on his folded dough, but is taking a risk with one of his fillings. The mushroom and truffle is a no brainer, but for his second version he's doing squid ink and scallops. His wife called earlier to say she tasted some filling he left at home and didn't like it, but he's doing it anyway.

The rain is pouring down as the bakers slave over their pastry dough. Flora is boldly making a chocolate puff pastry for a sweet interpretation, and then a regular pastry for her asparagus and Parma ham version. Mat is doing a breakfast vol-au-vent and a smoked trout and horseradish one. That's the one I'd be most excited to taste, mostly because horseradish feels like a wildly underused flavor in general. If I were running for president of eating (that's a position, right?) my platform would be "Less Sriracha, More Horseradish."

[Meanwhile, in America: He'd be using Sriracha.]

Tamal, meanwhile, explains his pastry inspiration thusly: "This is inspired by a sandwich I had a few years ago. One of the top two sandwiches of my life." I want him to win this. I need him to win this. Not enough of our lives are being dictated by impressive sandwiches. Tamal gets it. The sandwich-inspired version is pulled pork with fennel and rosemary, and he's also doing a chicken coriander canapé.

Everyone is scrambling at the last minute, and Nadiya's puff pastry didn't seem to work quite right, so she serves hers in a deconstructed manner that's more chip-and-dip than canapé. Despite the struggle, the judges do love her cod and clementine combination and her pastry had nice flaky layers. Ian should have listened to his wife, because the judges agree that the squid ink and scallop filling just doesn't work. Alvin's chicken a la king filling is delicious, but his pastry is very undercooked.

After sampling everything and sifting through the layers of pastry, Mat is star baker this week. What a week for Mat. Sadly, after several failures, Alvin is eliminated. We're now down to a competitive six bakers left. Everyone is just happy to be around.

[Meanwhile, in America: This would be the point where things get cutthroat, where the tension is high, the dramatic music underscores every moment, and everyone starts swearing in the kitchen.]

Alison Leiby is a writer and comedian.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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