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Tudor Week on the ‘Baking Show’ Means Peacock Cakes, Gear Pies, and Marzipan Mazes

Some of these historically themed desserts work better than others 

Selasi working on his pies
Tom Graham/PBS

We're going BACK IN TIME this week on The Great British Baking Show, with the first-ever Tudor Week. What's Tudor? Well, it's the period in England when it was ruled by the Tudor family, i.e. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. “1485 to 1603, I think it was,” muses Selasi, and then adds in a stage whisper, “I've been reading the notes.”

As it happens, this week is also the week when my boyfriend texted me, entirely without preamble or explanation, the website of the Oxford research project “Everyday Life and Fatal Hazard in 16th-Century England,” which is spending four years combing records of accidental deaths to get insight into Tudor life and work. (It has the evocative URL This season aired last year in England, so it's way too late for me to use the information from this project to make the bakers feel less stressed. But imagine me trying to somehow vibrate this message back in time: guys, it could be so much worse.

For instance, the bakers are stressing over their signatures, savory pies that combine to form a decorative pattern. But they're better off than three-year-old Christiana Jelyan of Wrangle, who fell into a ditch and drowned while making mud-pies in 1551. “Fishing led to disaster on the River Swale in 1520 and dredging for oysters on the Medway at Gillingham in 1566,” reports the Tudor Accidents website. Candice's fish-shaped oyster pies may be leaking all over, but that’s hardly a disaster.

The pig in Selasi's pork and quail egg pies didn't cause him to die of a septic bite, like William Pitte of Stoke Bliss, or accidentally stab himself in the leg, like Jane Typtott. And Andrew may be having some intense feelings about his ambitious creation, a set of gear-shaped pies that he's setting on individual mechanical platforms that can actually be turned. But even if his bake weren't shaping up to look really beautiful — and it is — he'd be better off than Alan Walton, who fell off a portcullis winding gear in 1599 while trying to catch a bird for his daughter.

Jane and Sue
Tom Graham/PBS

In 1569, a girl named Jane Shaxpere, possibly a cousin of William, drowned while picking marigolds; she may or may not have been the model for Ophelia, but she's definitely not the model for Jane's or Selasi's flower-shaped pie collections, which receive only minor nitpicks from which nobody dies. And in 1602, a Sue Perkynne asphyxiated from shoving herbs up her nose. Wait, sorry, I'm reading this wrong. That's 2016, and it only nearly happens, when Sue tries to make Selasi laugh and instead winds up standing there lamely with a snoot full of thyme while an incredibly focused Selasi talks about pigeon meat without looking up. (P.S.: In 1599, John Norton, esq., died from trying to shoot a pigeon through his bedroom window, from his bed.)

Even better news: the technical challenge is jumbles, and I can't find any discussion on the Tudor Accidents site of anybody dying from those! Jumbles are shaped cookies, and Wikipedia says the name comes from the French jumelle, “twin,” but doesn't say why. The bakers have been assigned two shapes, a knot ball and a Celtic knot. “Ye biscuit dough,” as Selasi calls it, seems pretty simple, but the shaping is hard, and there's an extra degree of difficulty because the two shapes bake at different rates.

There's also a lot of math. Everyone's racking their brains trying to divide their dough precisely into fifths, and Andrew's taken on an even trickier task: he's trying to contort his ruler around the fiddly Celtic knot diagram, to figure out how thin to roll out his tube of dough. He reckons it should be 22 times longer than it is thick, but quickly decides that this is way too long; the diagram doesn't scale up.

Then again, maybe he should have stuck with it, because everyone's struggling with the Celtic knot except Candice — who's made enormous knots, double the size of anyone else's, which afford her plenty of room to make the design look clear and defined. Selasi's also having a hard time with his knot balls, which look like pretzels, until he suddenly gets a flash of inspiration — or glances at someone else's bench — and fixes them.

The jumbles should be, as Paul says, “exactly like me: hard on the outside, soft in the middle.” The crispness and color are supposed to be helped along by an egg wash and a sprinkle of sugar, but almost everyone puts the sugar on halfway through, and it kind of just sits on top of the cookie like dandruff. (Also just like Paul??) None of them are too bad, though, even if they are a bit pale and a bunch of them have lost definition in the oven. Candice's mega-jumbles take first place, followed by Andrew, Benjamina, Selasi, and Jane.

Candice working on her peacock cake
Tom Graham/PBS

The showstopper challenge is a marzipan centerpiece, although some competitors are using the authentic Tudor version, called “marchpane.” Marzipan has an egg, so it's more flexible; the people using marchpane are struggling with brittleness, but at least they're not struggling with lack of authenticity. Selasi, in particular, is being authentic as hell. “The six sides represent the six wives of Henry VIII,” he explains of his centerpiece, “and the sword will be sticking in the middle which represents the battle of Bosworth Field.” Everybody, including me, is extremely tickled by how seriously he's studied not only how Tudor desserts were made, but how they were designed. Mary is also tickled by his brandy-soaked cake. “You like a bit of alcohol in your cakes, don't you,” she winks, using “you” to mean “me.” “I don't mind alcohol,” says Selasi judiciously. (Maybe he should! On June 2, 1523, a Cambridge baker named George Dunkyn got so drunk that he fell into a cesspit while trying to take a dump and suffocated.)

Candice is making a peacock cake, which she says is the first thing she thought of when she heard about the Tudor challenge; she then babbles something about Game of Thrones, which doesn't take place in Tudor times or feature any peacocks. I think the inspiration might have come a bit closer to home: Nadiya's legitimately showstopping chocolate showstopper last season, which like Candice's cake also used puffed rice treats for shaping. “Peacocks were a thing in Tudor times,” insists Candice, which... is true, but as a Tudor playwright might have said, the lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Jane’s showstopper
Tom Graham/PBS

Jane is plugging away at her cake, which has a simple shape but a lot of intricate decorations of swans and roses on the top. But Benjamina and Andrew are having a little more trouble. Benjamina is making a garden with a (very simple) hedge maze, but her marzipan has puffed up in the oven, closing up some of the gaps in the maze. And Andrew has at least three failures in his attempt to make caramel lances for his jousting knights — plus, one of the knights' heads falls off. But again, it could be worse: Dorothy Cawthorn of Belton died of being disoriented in a garden, and there wasn't even a maze (she was just addled from fever, and drowned in a ditch trying to get a drink). And Robert Pares wasn't even jousting, just lying on the ground, when he was struck by a javelin thrown from horseback by Thomas Dickyns of Burton Lazars, who was practicing with a target but wasn't very good. Having your head fall off is usually deadly as well.

The lances get finished in the nick of time, though the placement is a little suspect. “The uh, jousting pole really should have gone on the hand,” says Paul, trying to look grave. It has instead gone on the crotch. Mary calls the cake as a whole “clumsy.” Benjamina's formal garden comes out looking a little informal, with a rushed-looking tree and a rather unconvincing maze. Jane's looks like a beautiful jewelry box and tastes great, too. Candice's peacock looks very spectacular, as she knew it would because Nadiya already did it; to her credit, her own innovation of filling the cake with a hidden stash of blueberries goes over really well. Selasi's symbolic cake is a little simple, a little underbaked, a little crumbly, nothing really bad but also not a hit.

Benjamina’s showstopper
Tom Graham/PBS

Candice is chosen as Star Baker even though she's a plagiarist. (I'm mostly joking, but I looked it up, and Twitter was really baying for her blood when this episode first aired! Baying for blood was also dangerous in Tudor times; in 1583 seven people were killed when spectator scaffolding collapsed at a bear-baiting show.) And though Benjamina and Selasi ended the weekend neck and neck, in the end it's Benjamina who goes home. It's a bummer, because I think she's so charming and talented, but I'm also glad Selasi made it through Tudor Week, since he put a lot of thought into it. Selasi's sad too: “She's a proper sister to me, actually, and she's probably the only one who thinks I'm really funny. Everyone else thinks I'm not funny at all.” I don't believe that, but I'm also sorry to see Benjamina go. At least nobody died.

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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