Welcome back to The Great British Baking Show, where it’s Biscuit Week and the bakers will confront mankind’s greatest enemy: gravity.
Gravity shouldn’t be a major concern for the signature challenge: making 24 iced biscuits. And yet there it is, touching everyone with misfortune. Louise drops uncooked dough all over her oven rack. Val drops baked cookies all over the floor. And one of Louise’s sheep biscuits falls over just on the final beat of the dramatic music. (How did it know??) Well, okay, I guess in this challenge gravity is mainly making things hard for Louise and Val. This will be significant later.
Biscuit Week is also Introspection Week — starting in the signature, when we find out the bakers’ hobbies outside the kitchen, many of which are reflected in their cookies. We learn, for instance, that Michael is a soccer player but is basing his biscuits on his other student hobby, beer. Rav is a world traveler, so he makes biscuits with Indian flavoring (coconut and lime, inspired by a trip to Goa) but iced with Union Jack bunting. Selasi crafts little red motorcycles, because he is extremely cool, and also rides a motorcycle. The best hobbies are Andrew’s (musical theater group) and Candice’s (pug ownership), but neither of them choose to reflect those hobbies in their baking today, which is too bad because pug-shaped cookies would be tremendous.
I had always thought that “biscuit” was just British for “cookie,” and as you can see I’ve been using them interchangeably so that the word “biscuit” doesn’t become meaningless. But it’s clear from the judging that a “proper biscuit” — or at least a proper iced biscuit — is a much narrower category than a mere cookie. Louise is chastised for the softness of her sheep, which should be crisp; in the U.S. crispy cookies vs. chewy cookies is a legitimate debate, but for biscuits, it seems, not all options are on the table.
Perhaps it comes down to the baking tip Tom offers: Biscuit dough should be rolled out to the thickness of a pound coin for optimal crunch when baked. Maybe not having access to pound coins over here meant we just threw all caution to the wind. Anyway, Tom’s tip obviously works, because his “chai frappelattechino biscuits” earn the coveted Paul Hollywood handshake. (I notice, though, that after two boozy bakes last episode, Tom snuck stimulants into this one. Do we need to have a talk, Tom? Before you move on to heroin pie?)
Candice is once again overambitious in this challenge; she makes sandwich cookies, which means she has to bake 48 of them instead of 24. She doesn’t pull it off. Jane is also too ambitious, but winds up doing a half-assed icing job that is so consistently half-assed that her biscuits still look pretty good. The judges think Andrew’s shortbread tastes stale, but they like Kate’s lavender bergamot biscuits, even though Mary wrinkled up her nose at the idea. (It really does sound more like a soap flavor than a cookie.)
Gravity also operates in a sneaky way in the technical challenge, Viennese whirls. Despite what you might think from the eponymous Fingers, Viennese pastry is amazing, and I want to eat these immediately — and maybe could, since the bakers don’t seem too flummoxed, so I gather this is a pretty familiar type of sweet. Selasi has even baked them before, though he notes that he’s probably jinxing himself by saying so. Personally, I get a kick out of the technicals where the bakers can’t even spell or pronounce the challenge, let alone having any idea how it looks — kouign-amann, anyone? But I also like all these kind, determined motorcycle-riders and musical-singers and beer-drinkers and pug-snugglers, and I don’t want to see them cry.
Which isn’t to say that they don’t have a difficult time with this relatively simple bake. Like I said, gravity — and its accomplice, temperature — is playing silly buggers with the cookies’ characteristic whirl shape. The dough needs to be chilled to avoid flattening out in the oven, but first you have to get it very warm and soft to pipe it well; Selasi and Michael actually squeeze theirs back out of the piping bags for some emergency reheating, and Mel offers Rav, who’s also struggling, “a pair of warm hands, either on your bag or on you.” He’s not looking at her face when she realizes what she just said, so he very politely pauses and then says “Er. Bag please.” (Sue is out this week, and Mel is extremely up in everyone’s grill — sometimes literally. During the signature, she scoops flour out of Michael’s ear.)
Kate, Benjamina, and Andrew are praised for the definition on their whirls, but Candice’s and Val’s are underbaked, Rav’s are too small, and Michael’s and especially Selasi’s have basically collapsed. Jinxes are real.
Introspection Week continues in the showstopper challenge, where the bakers must create a “gingerbread story” that has something to do with their lives. This ranges from the mundane — Selasi does his childhood church, Jane builds a model of the town where she was born — to the illuminating. Candice is making a gingerbread pub because “I was raised in a pub.” Tom is paying homage to the time he almost died on a mountain, probably because of too much alcohol and/or coffee. And Michael is illustrating a childhood trip to Lapland, where he made gingerbread and saw a real reindeer and met Santa. “Do you still believe in Santa Claus?” Mel asks him. “Of course,” he says. I believe him.
These sculptural challenges are my favorite kind; it’s all very nice to make a pretty cake, but “model a scene from your life in gingerbread” is the “Project Runway unconventional materials challenge” of showstoppers. They’re also one area where engineer Andrew really has a distinct advantage. When Paul jokingly asks him for a schematic, he produces one, and confesses gravely that he had to reduce the number of structural elements to 37.
All 37 come together nicely, as does Tom’s mountain, which he calculated should stand up as a perfect pyramid. He may be gingerbragging about his mountain-climbing exploits, but he worked out the angles of a pyramid AND at one point says “fear is the mind-killer.” Tom’s a nerd. A hard-drinkin’ nerd.
But gravity is gunning hard for some of the other bakers. The Ferris wheel from Rav’s Christmas fairground keeps tipping over. The roof of Michael’s Lapland scene keeps sliding off. One of the trees from Kate’s charmingly children’s-bookish Brownie troop scene slides slowly and dramatically down, as if preparing for an overwrought monologue. The Statue of Liberty from Val’s New York, which stands alongside a gingerbread Empire State Building into which she has painstakingly poked an accurate number of windows for some damn reason, cracks in half. And Louise’s country church, the church that’s based on the one she’s about to get married in, the church she’s fitted out with a bride and groom and pastor, collapses completely. Introspection Week can get perilously close to Symbolism Week sometimes.
The church disaster, plus her earlier poor showing, does Louise in, and she’s sent home to her hopefully-not-too-spooked fiance. (I wanted to reassure you all that the real-life wedding went fine, but unfortunately googling “louise bake-off wedding,” “louise from bake-off was her wedding okay,” and “louise bake-off her wedding was it cursed or not!!” was unsuccessful. So, uh, her real-life wedding went fine.)
And Star Baker this week goes to Candice, who took on another unnecessarily complicated challenge and this time pulled it off with aplomb. Her gingerbread pub is set to become a Great British Baking Show legend: the outside is neatly piped in faux-Tudor style, and when you lift off the roof, the inside features a sticky ginger-cake carpet, a green jelly pool table, bartender and customer figures, and even a gummi beer bottle. The pool table looks utterly disgusting but the level of ambition and talent is undeniable. It’s good enough to sweep away a middle-of-the-pack technical and iced biscuits that Paul called “hideous.” And despite a few initial topples when putting the building together, the whole thing stays up, bravely resisting the pull of gravity. She must be walking on air.