Everything's coming up roses for The Great British Baking Show's first-ever Botanical Week! Well, not everything — someone's still got to go home. But at least some of the bakers and judges are in a festive mood: Jane, Selasi, and Mary Berry are all wearing floral prints in recognition of this week's commitment to fruits, flowers, and herbs. As Tom puts it, “anything that grows, goes.”
That's the theory behind Botanical Week, at least, but of course the actual challenges are much more specific. The signature bake is, in fact, pretty narrow in scope: Mary and Paul are asking for a citrus meringue pie. You can use any kind of citrus — orange, grapefruit, Buddha's hand (I wish someone would). But as Tom discovers, the definition of “citrus” won't stretch very far.
Incidentally, I meant to mention this a few weeks ago when Kate put gooseberries in something or other, but it's more at home here in Botanical Week: Do y'all know about the technical definition of a “berry”? Here's the short-short: Practically nothing you think of as a “berry” is one (gooseberries are an exception), and the things that do qualify as berries are totally bananas. Like literally, bananas are berries. So are watermelons, eggplants, and (take note, Tom) pumpkins. Look it up on Wikipedia, it's wild.
Anyway, citrus fruits are a kind of berry called a “hesperidium,” and the bakers are busy putting them into a pie. We've got three lime meringue pies, one lime and ginger and two lime and coconut; two orange meringue pies, Rav's mandarin and tequila and Tom's blood orange and pumpkin; and, surprisingly, two grapefruit meringue pies. The surprise of not being the only competitor using grapefruit seems to set Benjamina and Selasi up for a rivalry that hovers between the flirtatious and the fraternal. They keep an eye on each other as they roll out pastry, and giggle. He pretends to upend a mixing bowl over her head. It's great.
Benjamina eventually triumphs in the battle of grapefruit vs. grapefruit; the judges think she got it just right, whereas Selasi's curd is too dry (though his pie looks beautiful, IMO). It's not as close of a contest between the two lime and coconut pies: Jane hits every note perfectly, but Candice's meringue is both way too wet and way too... green. Mel suggests that blowtorching the top might help. It does not help.
Neither of the orange-based pies fares too well. The pastry for Rav's “mandarin margarita” pie looks good, but the judges are having a hard time finding it under all the runny, drippy meringue. And Tom's pie mixes pumpkin with the blood orange, despite the fact that this challenge was clearly about hesperidia and not just any old berries. The pumpkin makes it too sweet, leaving not enough tartness to stand up to the sugary meringue.
Tom's ridiculously in his element in the technical challenge, though. It's an herb fougasse, which doesn't throw any of the bakers as much as it threw me — and definitely doesn't faze Tom. THE MAN BRINGS FOUGASSE TO THE MOVIES. I know I have called Tom a nerd in this space before, and I obviously stand by that, but he's this close to being such a nerd that it wraps around to cool.
For all my fellow idiots, fougasse is a French (and specifically Provençale) version of focaccia — you can see how they both come from the same root. It's supposed to be crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and shaped like a leaf: two slashes down the middle, and six slashes on each side, mimicking the leaf's veins. True to the spirit of the technical challenge, the bakers manage to stumble on most of these points.
The first hurdle is figuring out what “two consecutive cuts down the middle” means. “From an engineering background, 'consecutive' means one after the other,” Andrew engineersplains, but that doesn't actually answer the question. Whether “consecutive” means two cuts one above the other, or two cuts next to each other, depends on how you “read” a piece of bread: top to bottom, or left to right? Two cuts one above the other, like a very basic dashed line, is the right answer. Bread, it seems, is not read like books. Jane, Rav, Candice, and Selasi have all guessed wrong, winding up with a fougasse that looks more like a butterfly than a leaf.
There's also some disagreement among the bakers as to whether the bread should be steamed. When you bake French bread, apparently, you put water in the bottom of the oven, which helps the bread rise well and improves the crust, according to my cursory googling. But when you make focaccia, you don't do that, or anyway Benjamina says she wouldn't. So is this French focaccia more focaccia, or more French? The entire technical challenge could ride on the answer.
In fact, though, it doesn't. Tom steamed his bread, and comes in first; Selasi and Andrew did too, and they're at the bottom, both with underdone fougasses. “Dammit, maybe I shouldn't have steamed,” Andrew says. Eh, or maybe it didn't matter. Maybe none of you could have out-baked the man who eats fougasse like popcorn.
The showstopper this week is a three-tiered floral cake, and although Mel and Sue say that means you could have floral flavors or floral decorations, you have to know that's British for “and you'll do both if you know what's good for you. Botanical Week, mofos!” Ditto with “you can do the same flavor on all your tiers” — yeah, you can, but man, this is the showstopper. Show some orchids.
Rav and Jane are both being timid: Rav's only doing a single flavor in all three tiers, and Jane's doing a single flavor and it's not even a floral flavor. She's hoping that the gum paste flowers and floral-patterned chocolate collars she's making for her cake will make up for it. Meanwhile, Candice is Candice-ing out, doing a whole extra tier. That's four tiers with different flavors and decorations: one each for spring, summer, winter, and fall. Oh, and spring is gluten-free, because why not make life difficult?
In between the play-it-safers and... well, Candice, there's everyone else. Tom and Benjamina are both doing a chamomile flavor, but Tom's really making it a Thing; he's got different tea flavors for each of his layers, leading Paul to wonder if all of his flavors will be too delicate to come through. Andrew's making a simply-decorated cake with elderflower buttercream and three different fruit flavors. Selasi's three flavors are botanical but not floral (carrot, strawberry, and lemon), but he's piping roses all around the outside and adding some real flowers as well.
Time is tight in this challenge, and a lot of the bakers get psyched out. Rav can't stop comparing his piping to his competitors' and getting discouraged as a result. Jane has to start her cake over because it's browning too quickly, leaving her short on time to make her chocolate collars; she has to start putting them on her cake while they're still too wet, with disastrous results. Andrew has lost all ability to tell whether things taste enough like elderflower. It's no surprise that cool-headed Selasi produces one of the only thoroughgoing successes: it looks beautiful and every layer is perfectly baked. Almost everyone else struggles with decoration, texture, flavor, or baking time on at least one of their tiers, and both Rav's cake and Jane's are pronounced “a mess.”
But then there's Tom, the Fougasse Man, coming through with three perfect tea flavors and a simple but dramatic piped finish. Mary pronounces his sponges “brilliant,” and Paul is impressed that every one of his flavors is hitting just the right note. Despite his berry mixup in the signature, Tom is Star Baker this week.
Rav and Andrew are pronounced to be in trouble, but I think we all know who's in more trouble. Rav did better than Andrew in the technical, but his signature and showstopper were flat-out bad, and he just seemed in over his head this week. Ah, Rav, Rav, we will miss you. Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago.
Jess Zimmerman is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Guardian, Hazlitt, the New Republic, and others.
Editor: Greg Morabito
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