It’s history in the making this week on The Great British Baking Show: It’s the first-ever Batter Week! Also, Candice's lipstick color actually suits her!
Of course, the bakers have used batter before, for Cake Week, but there’s so much more to batter than cakes. All you have to do with cake batter is put it in a pan, after all, but batter can be drizzled, fried, piped, puffed up, and otherwise made to do the bakers’ bidding — or, frequently, not.
The signature bake challenge is a Yorkshire pudding (which is not what Americans would think of as pudding, but more a sort of popover). For this one, the bakers will have to bake their batter in fat at extremely high temperatures, so that it puffs up into an airy pastry that can hold a savory filling.
Yorkshire puddings are a serious part of British heritage. “We’ve all got a different family recipe for Yorkshire puddings,” says Mel in the voiceover, which seems like it must be an exaggeration, but Andrew mentions “debate in the Yorkshire pudding community,” and Yorkshire-based Val is worried that if she messes up her signature bake, they won’t let her come home. This is serious, patriotic business.
Jane’s even more concerned, because family recipes aren’t going to save her: She’s tried all the recipes and “I can’t make Yorkshires to save my life.” Tom is more confident; he’s ambitious enough that he’s swapped out the flour for chickpea flour in his curry puddings, and added nigella seeds.
“It’s in the lap of the gods now,” says Val as the bakers drop batter into muffin tins of hot fat and wait for it to rise. This is exactly what Mary said at the top of the episode — “once it’s in the oven, it’s in the lap of the gods” — which made me wonder whether this was somehow a Yorkshire pudding-specific idiom. It’s not, but my Googling turned up a Queen song of that name, so I have to conclude that the whole cast and crew were just listening to Queen before they started taping. The gods aren’t smiling on Jane, Tom, Val, or Candice, though; they all wind up with sad flat puddings (“Yorkshire biscuits,” says Candice), and decide to throw out their first batch.
In 2008, the Royal Society of Chemists officially determined that anything purporting to be a Yorkshire pudding must be at least four inches tall to qualify. Those boffins would be pleased with Selasi — “they’re humongous,” he says of his first batch, with awe — but very underwhelmed by Tom. While the other bakers who flubbed the first batch do better thereafter, Tom’s chickpea flour “puddings” keep coming out flat as potato chips. “What you’ve actually got here are 24 blinis,” says Paul. Candice’s and Jane’s are also too flat, even after starting over, though Paul shouts out loud about how good Jane’s taste.
Others fare better: On the topic of historic firsts, Rav makes Paul rethink his stance on tofu. Selasi earns the Hollywood handshake, and Val is assured that she can return to Yorkshire with her head held high.
This week, the technical challenge isn’t exactly difficult to bake, just difficult to execute. Even a child can make a pancake — even I can make a pancake! Probably! — but the bakers are tasked with making heart-shaped lacy pancakes, like little edible doilies. This means fixing up a batter that’s thin enough to drizzle but thick enough not to run, with just enough sugar to brown nicely but not so much that it burns while you’re trying to pipe your lacy pattern. It also requires you to know what a lacy pattern is. “I’ve not even got any lace pants,” says a flustered Candice, meaning underwear.
A couple of bakers chicken out and just do a cross-hatch pattern (fishnet isn’t lace, but then again, this isn’t The Great British Sewing Bee, so maybe they don’t know — that’s a real show, by the way, if you need something else to watch when this season is over). Andrew is one of them — until he does a practice pancake and hates how it looks. The bakers are only allowed one test pancake and must present the next 12 they make, which means that he’s winging it from here on out.
It turns out this was the right call. Andrew gets praise for his design, though some of his pancakes are a little overcooked. Practically everyone’s are, though; the challenge of drawing the design in batter right into the pan while the pancakes are cooking means that most people’s pancakes dried out or even got crispy, and almost nobody managed to cook them consistently. Benjamina, who both drew out her design beforehand and practiced it with batter on parchment paper before cooking in the pan, takes the gold.
And now it’s time for the Batter Week showstopper, which is... churros? It’s hard to imagine a “showstopper” dessert made from something you can buy on the L train platform, but I’m willing to be surprised. Perhaps it seems more fancy if you’re British. Mel, Sue, Paul, and Mary certainly insist on pronouncing “churros” as though it’s some kind of majestic extinct creature: “During the Precambrian era, the churros was king of the plains.” (I know what the Precambrian era is; do not @ me.)
“True to form, Tom’s taking the experimental approach with his churros,” says the voiceover, which had me yelling at the TV: Tom, haven’t you learned anything? One of the terrific things about Baking Show is that bakers get to practice most of their recipes at home for the week leading up to the taping, which allows them to tweak things that aren’t working — but they don’t really get to make adjustments between the two days of challenges. Even if Tom was chastened by how badly his “experimental” instincts bit him in the ass on the signature challenge, it’s probably too late to rethink now. Rav, however, has had three whole weeks to learn from Michael’s cake experience and steer away from matcha powder. He didn’t, so on his own head be it.
Almost everyone’s getting pretty fancy with their churros — Val and Jane are filling them, Andrew is piping his into flower shapes and Kate into abstract bunny heads, and Selasi is shaping his batter around small muffin tins to make little bowls. But Tom and Rav are making them the traditional way, piping the batter directly into the deep fryer, which risks looking a little... “informal,” as Mary put it last week. If you’re going to make street food showstopping, you probably need to make every part of the process as bourgeois as possible.
Kate is struggling with her bunnies — the batter was too thin, and she’s running short on time. So Selasi, who’s finished, helps her get them arranged on the plate. He probably should have gotten a hand himself, though. “They’re burned, Selasi,” says Paul sternly, to which Selasi responds with calculated innocence, “Are they?” Jane’s unstudied response to praise is equally charming: When Paul says he likes her pistachio churros, she fairly flutters with delight. “Thank you!” she pipes. “I’ve never had a churro!”
Many of the bakers turned out churros that were either too doughy (Val) or too crisp (Andrew, Tom, Selasi, and Kate, whose bunnies are way too oily and overcooked). Rav and Tom get dinged for their flavor choices, which are too savory: Rav's matcha flavor is “not good,” and as for Tom’s fennel, Mary says diplomatically, “shall we say, if you’re fond of fennel, it’s… fine.” But Benjamina’s tropical churros are perfect in texture, color, flavor, and presentation — she’s made them into an easy-to-handle teardrop shape and arranged them on a cheese board with chunks of passionfruit. She’s Star Baker this week, and after a #1 technical finish and an unambiguous success in a surprisingly tricky showstopper, it’s well-earned.
Kate’s going home, even though Paul acknowledges she’s certainly not the weakest baker in the group. This, sadly, is far from a Baking Show first: Sometimes a pretty good baker just has, as Kate herself says, “a shocking week.” It’s all in the lap of the gods.
Jess Zimmerman is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Guardian, Hazlitt, the New Republic, and others.
Editor: Erin DeJesus
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